Today was the first day of Brisbane's Big Sound Summit, a music industry conference and showcase for upcoming musicians. The summit is being held at the Judith Wright Centre in Fortitude Valley and is being attended by musicians, record label execs, music media, music managers, agents and producers.
While the summit is on for the next three days, I will be blogging my experiences and what I've learned in an attempt to share with you some invaluable and - if not - at least entertaining tidbits.
Firstly, I'll set the scene. I arrived at 9am and collected my fancy satchel. From the start, I was mightily impressed on one count: this is the first conference I've ever attended where they've had the correct spelling of my surname on my name tag. No need for dodgy Sharpie pen alterations.
When I returned before 10am for the welcome address, the place was packed. The introvert in me was already cringeing. Everyone seemed to know each other and the only person who spoke to me was looking for directions to a room I didn't know existed. I see Wally de Backer (Gotye) stroll past with the guys from The Basics, and he gives me a massive smile which brightens my outlook somewhat. I feel like joining them on the balcony away from the throng, but am astutely aware that would make me seem like a strange stalker girl instead of what I am: shy.
Sitting inside the performance space, I try to ignore the glare from the overhead lights and the amount of people I overhear saying, "What's my band like? Well, we play kind of indie folk fusion stuff". You can tell the musicians from the rest of us: the former have good hair and the rest of us look like we need five more espressos before our eyes are able to open.
A quick thanks gets thrown in here to the Brunswick St 7/11 for being the only place in the Valley which would provide me with yoghurt - sans muesli - for brekky. Thanks, 7/11. You're NOT just for stoners with the munchies after all.
The summit kicks off with a bang when MC Steven can't find his speaking notes, which Q Music President Professor Julian Knowles soon points out he is standing on. Professor Knowles does the acknowledgements and thanks to government and corporate sponsors. He also points out the suitability of the Valley for such an event, which I thoroughly agree on. Where else in Brisbane could you have a conference right beside so many live music venues? The Valley is, after all, the heart of Brisbane's live music scene.
Keynote Interview : Van Dyke Parks
Bring on the keynote interview: The Courier-Mail's Noel Mengel interviews music industry legend Van Dyke Parks. Mr Parks emits so many gems of wisdom during the course of this discussion - and during his involvement in other panels - that it was difficult for me to capture them all. But this is the gist.
When Mr Parks was a young boy, growing up in a family where most of his brothers were musicians, and the family would perform in the lounge room all the time, "music was what life was all about".
"I knew once I'd been involved in music, nothing else would satisfy me."
For a while there, Mr Parks studied atonal music, an experience which left him cold. It cost too much to learn about it, it was cold, and depressing.
"You couldn't hum it. When you left the room, you had nothing."
So he moved toward the '60s folk scene and became greatly influenced by the poetry being read in coffee houses. It was in Greenwich Village that he met Bob Dylan, with whom he had an argument about whether or not folk music should go electric. He took great pleasure in telling Dylan he was wrong.
His first job in Hollywood was as the arranger for Disney's The Jungle Book movie. He met Walt Disney and was one of the first people to visit Disneyland through this association.
Of working with The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, Mr Parks said he introduced the cello to the song Good Vibrations, showing that instrumentation in the '60s could be more than just an emphasis on guitars.
He worked in A&R for Warner Music during the "golden age of analogue". He discussed today the technical qualities of analog and the wonderful sonic environments it creates, and believes that's something missing in modern music which uses technology to create sounds.
"I'm speaking of the monastic age of people working alone in a studio with a synthesiser. These subtleties of atmosphere must be created, instead of just existing in the instrument."
For advice on the music business, Mr Parks is a great one to turn to as he's done everything: musician, arranger, producer, A&R. He said that part of what makes a great musician is that "you have to reserve the right to be wrong if you want anything to get done". He discussed the uncertainty of art and creativity and how much he loves the intangible qualities surrounding the process of creation. "Talking about music is like dancing about architecture", he said.
Mr Parks worked at Warner when Hendrix was there and believes he was complicit in corporatising the counter culture of the '60s. He was, in fact, the man who obtained the funding for the filming of Woodstock. He now finds it ironic he found a way to define the counter culture which he didn't have time to join.
Of his own music portfolio, he doesn't see too much navel gazing in his songs, and admits a predilection for calypso music's hypnotic effect and the "whip da lion" rhythm (did I get that right?). He recommended that musicians write what they know about and to employ novelty and individuality in their music.
"Music can be really successful yet not franchisable - I like that", he said.
"Music can console me, it can piss me off, it can reduce me to nothing, as long as it's absolutely sincere."
In the '60s, Mr Parks said that music growth was second only to the growth in the drug industry and feels bad for the unenviable songwriter these days who has nowhere to go to and no ready access to music labels. "I salute their lack of patronage", he said.
His advice for musicians? "Dance as if no-one was looking."
It's all about the music : what is a 'hit' and what makes one?
Facilitator: Simon Cahill (Bandroom Records / One Love, AUS)
Panel participants: Mark Needham (Producer, USA), Steve Pavlovic (Modular Recordings, AUS), Van Dyke Parks (Artist, USA), Dan Bessant (Channel V / Max / V2, AUS), and Catherine Haridy (Catherine Haridy Management, AUS)
The consensus of many panel members was that a hit is when the right song comes along at the right time. Steve described when someone who worked for him raved about a song he'd heard the Presets recording, which he claimed was "pure fire". When Steve heard it, he couldn't see how it would even get played on radio. The song, My People, is now a massive hit. He said a band can be successful if "the consciousness of the world is ready to accept them", referring to sociological aspects being in alignment with the mood of the work. On how to pick a hit, Steve said "if it makes me feel something I'm at pains to express, that ticks a box with me".
How do you measure success? Mr Parks responded wittily "By never having to work a day in my life!". Dan mentioned that with younger audiences, the emphasis on chart topping music is a major way of identifying success, whereas with older audiences, not so much. He advises musicians being true to themselves is key.
The panel discussed that, although songs can be manufactured and marketed into the charts, these songs rarely endure over time and definitely don't translate into a 30 year music career. Steve said if you have enough money behind you to bang people over the head with a song and monopolise the media, great. This markets into a mass consciousness. Catherine mentioned that repetition in lyrics captures people in a trance and, if a song that is catchy is marketed and pushed, people will buy it because it gets in their heads.
Mr Parks said "smart / dumb" was the term Brian Wilson used for music that satisfies on every level: catchy enough to be popular but with enough creative authenticity to be loved by critics.
Steve said that, while many people are talented, it's application of a work ethic that takes talent to new levels. "People have to work hard to exploit what they're naturally good at", he said. Catherine said the experimental process of Australian band Eskimo Joe is a perfect example. Whenever they get time off from touring, they get together in a practice room in Fremantle with a hat in the centre of the room. All their friends which they invite around get to write song titles on slips of paper. They pick out two slips of paper and have to create a song using those two songs as the influencers. This results in some interesting and unique creations.
Much discussion was had about the relationship between A&R and musicians. Catherine said the job of an A&R person is to provide consistent feedback to musicians. Whether the artist takes that feedback on board or not is another matter. "You need to convince them that you have something legitimate to say before they will listen", she said.
Then came my horror moment for the day: a panel assessment of two top hit songs. Immediately, I hear Guy Sebastian's Like it like that blaring at top volume, and I wish I'd worn earplugs.
Mr Parks assessment: It sounds like Bo Diddley! It sounds retro but is new, which is appealing. You think you've heard it before. The lyrics are easy to learn, easy to embrace. The five chord is nice ear candy - 'smart / dumb'.
Dan: It's non-offensive.
Steve: I find it completely offensive. His voice carries no emotion whatsoever. At first I think it sounds like a song which belongs to an Austin Powers film, but then I realise the song BBC is much better.
Dan: He has that Idol celebrity factor. I hated the hook when I first heard it, but now I can't forget it.
Catherine: It shouldn't matter what genre a song is in, a well-constructed song is a well-constructed song. We should be able to appreciate pop for what it is.
Steve: Give me Britney any day over Guy.
Second song assessed: Walking on a Dream by Empire of the Sun.
Mr Parks: An example of "music is the highest math". Economy of music in this song is well done.
Q and A: Which song do you wish you'd written?
Dan: (he visibly cringed saying this, knowing how we would react to it) How you remind me by Nickelback, because it didn't have a typical start / verse / chorus and there was nothing else like it around at the time.
Simon: Losing my edge by LCD Sound System and Mama Mia by ABBA.
Mark: Highway to Hell and Lola.
Catherine: Dreams by Fleetwood Mac.
Mr Parks: Get out of my life woman
Export Case Study : Modular
Director of one of Australia's most successful music export businesses, Modular, Steve Pavlovic, discusses the meteoric rise of his business and its part in launching the international careers of artists like The Presets, Cut Copy, Wolfmother, and Ladyhawke.
Facilitator: Dan Buhagiar (Triple J, AUS)
Steve had been promoting concerts for around 10 years, so had lots of useful existing relationships when he started Modular. Initially licensed albums to other labels but decided Modular could do the direct distribution and marketing. Modular created a party circuit throughout Europe which provided an avenue for its bands and DJs to play in clubs.
Steve said he's not interested in just releasing CDs anymore and said deluxe packages where you're offering the fans something different are important. Monetising the music by introducing merchandise is an integral part of the music industry these days.
He said there's less incentive for bands to do extensive tours these days when it's shown that 80 per cent of music sales - in the US for example - come from key cities: LA, Washington DC, Seattle, and San Francisco. Bands prefer to tour those cities because they know those punters will be more likely to buy the music.
These days, said Steve, it's important to release music simultaneously throughout the world, as due to the internet, people have ready access to download music illegally if they can't get it when their online friends in another country get it. However, as every affiliate wants the band to tour their territory when the music is released there, they have to come up with marketing strategies to build hype to increase ticket sales for when the band can tour that region.
(Steve was busting to go to the loo, so the panel had to end abruptly there...)
Sync : The New Pot of Gold?
As record sales head down the list of income streams in the music industry, synchronisation in film, television, games and advertising is quickly becoming a prime earner for the industry. So what is changing and what new opportunities exist?
Facilitator: Rob Scott (Sandcastle Music, AUS)
Panel: Scott Cresto (Chrysalis Music Publishing, USA), Tim Riley (Activision - Guitar Hero, USA), Andrea von Foerster (Firestarter Music, USA), Clive Hodson (Shock Music Publishing, AUS), Isabel Pappani (Undercover Tracks, USA)
This was a fascinating panel discussion, but as this blog is getting on in length, I'll keep it to some points that I found particularly interesting.
Research who you're pitching to, if you are a musician and you're pitching your music to be used in a TV show. Everyone on the panel agreed there's nothing worse than getting electronic music for Guitar Hero or death metal for a girly teen show. It wastes their time and makes them less likely to open your emails in future.
I'd never even heard of a sync agent before this panel session. Apparently, some musicians these days are tending to work through sync agents, who take a percentage of their earnings for placing their songs in film, TV and games versus signing a lengthy deal with a publishing house which have tendencies to take performance royalties etc. However, the panel did agree publishing houses can offer multiple services to people who are serious musicians, whereas sync agents are better for people just wanting to earn a bit of money with their music on the side. Publishing houses should take no more than 30 per cent of earnings; the panel recommended always checking the royalty details in contracts and to ensure all contracts are shown to a lawyer before musicians sign. They recommended exclusivity in representation of a musician's music i.e. ad agencies and film companies find nothing more irritating than getting eight emails from eight different companies all pitching the same song by the same artist for the same show.
As the advertising world tends to have bigger budgets for music, sync agents are more likely to pitch known bands for ads and indie bands for film and TV, which have smaller music budgets. Big ads go for the recognisable factor so will pick famous songs. Andrea said that there are heaps of websites which you can search to determine the style of music a show might be looking for, so you can better target your pitching, for example:
Each person had different preferences for receiving music for consideration of placement. While Tim doesn't mind emails addressed to the music department containing bands' MySpace links, Andrea said she doesn't have the time to wait for the MySpace music player to load and prefers downloadable links that preferably don't expire for a month (as that's how long it takes for her to wade through all her emails!). She said never send MP3s through unless you've been asked to, as it's presumptious. Clive, on the other hand, said he prefers an email with an MP3 attached. They all recommended musicians not get offended if their music isn't picked for placement. Isabel mentioned one band who sent a song for consideration which wasn't chosen; two years later, the agency she'd pitched to phoned up and said they'd like to use it. Some agencies hold on to pitched music and remember it for potential future use.
Many TV shows now include the music from the show on their websites, with links to iTunes so people can buy the songs. This is another great way for musicians to make money if their song has featured on a show.
ALWAYS remember to place a sticker on your CD including your contact information when you send music for consideration. They said this is one of the most common mistakes bands make: sending CDs with no way to identify who wrote the music!
Record Labels : The Model of the Past or the Future
With increasing pressure from the evaporation of their traditional main income stream, the concept of a record label is increasingly under scrutiny. How important is a record label in 2009 to the success of an artist...?
Facilitator: Lars Brandle (Billboard Magazine, AUS)
Panel: Jens Geisemeyer (G-Pop Records, DEU), Mark Richardson (Forum 5, AUS), Alison Wenham (Association of Independent Music, UK), Mark Chung (Freibank Music Publishing, DEU), Tobin Watkinson (MySpace / Interscope Records, USA)
I must admit that sitting directly in front of Mark Chung who, if you didn't know, used to be part of the band Einstürzende Neubauten, had me a little gobsmacked. Apart from that, this was the best panel of the day. The discussion was gutsy, great facilitator, and everyone on the panel was extremely open.
Mark R said that for all bands, the hardest thing to do is sell the first 10,000 units of music and how to create awareness of their brand. This is where record labels can help. In this environment, labels look at albums as only one form of monetising music; merchandise, special deluxe packages etc all follow on from album sales.
Alison highlighted the need for musicians to keep track of their intellectual property rights, to ensure musicians can track their rights, have the right ownership date on their compositions, have registered their music with all the IP collection agencies. She said one of the major jobs of labels is the time-consuming role of ensuring the money made from IP gets back to the artists.
Does giving away the music - such as Radiohead did so famously, or as many bands do in order to obtain email addresses for marketing purposes - de-value it? Mark R said people are more discerning than they're given credit for, and if they're into music they get from a musician for free, they are likely to buy the next album, the back catalogue, merchandise, or see the band perform on tour. Alison added that if giving away a song is part of your marketing strategy, good. However, if an artist is throwing their music out into the public sphere for free to get attention, it looks desperate. Mark R agreed, saying as a strategy, it must work for the artist.
Alison added the example of band Marillion, which she calls a "legacy band". They have such a large and obsessive fan base that, when they want to record an album, they ask their fans to donate $12 each etc to fund the production. In exchange, the fans who contribute the money get their names on the inside cover of the album. If fans want them to tour, they ask how many would be willing to pay to see them and tour the areas where the most response has come from. In this way, a band manages to record and tour without needing financial assistance of a label.
Is the CD / album model gone i.e. LP? Mark R said no, that he believes people prefer a body of work over single iTune single purchases. However, Mark C disagreed, saying the time of the album has passed and that they are mainly produced now to get media interest. "Not many members of the music media would review four songs on iTunes".
Tobin added there are so many more ways for artists to make money from their music such as selling fan experiences with the band. When he said this, I immediately considered the latest marketing ploy by ex-NIN drummer Josh Freese. Josh offered a multitude of package deals for his new album, including dinner out with him, a floatation tank experience with him, Josh giving you a massage, etc. I can also think of on again / off again Limp Bizkit guitarist Wes Borland's Black Light Burns project, where he offered options such as the CD, the CD with t-shirt, CD with t-shirt and some prints of his amazing artwork (yes, he's a painter too), or digital downloads in varying qualities.
Mark C said there are four things a record label can offer artists that they need:
- investment / finance
- expertise, networks, relationships with the market, media, consumers, and providing data management
- recognition: still a lot of clout behind the recognition that being signed to a label carries which will get you in the media, get touring companies interested in you, and
Alison said that sometimes, when artists try to run their own business, they get swallowed up by the time-consuming admin elements and their music ends up suffering.
Will we see more consolidation among the major labels? Alison said to imagine those old maps of the solar system you'd get in magazines as a kid. Twenty years ago, there were lots of sizeable blogs and approximately 60 per cent of the labels were majors. Out of that though, the smallest independent company at the time (Virgin) was only half the size of the smallest major. Now, the solar system consists of mainly two blobs - the duopoly of Sony and Universal - then thousands of tiny blobs, indicating all the independent labels. This has meant a massive power shift within the industry. There used to be room for everyone, there were less media outlets, and the business was much simpler. Alison doesn't believe mergers are good for business as she believes that competition is a great driver for creativity. The majors, she said, unwittingly disrupt this competition.
Twitter and TwitPic fails, meaning no, I don't actually have the capability to tweet photos to you throughout the day as planned (what's up with that!??).
There are music showcases tonight, Thursday and Friday night for recently signed and independent musicians, so if you live in Brisbane check the Big Sound site for gig times and venues and availability of tickets (many have already sold out).
Until tomorrow, when I shall attempt, once more, to tweet updates to you and will provide you with another blog download of the day's events. I hope that you've found some of this information useful, as my intent for attending the conference is to share with people who don't live in Brisbane or couldn't afford to go.