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SanFran Music Tech Summit (May 18, 2009)

22 May 2009

(for a way better article that gets to the point much quicker on the SF Music Tech Summit, see Kwan Booth’s piece @

First, there may be a “kid in the candy store,” feeling. Wow, so here’s all these industry insiders (yeah, I know the “inside” is probably like the layers of the onion, and there’s a lot of teary eyes), all gathered in one place, like some “Pancho and Lefty” poker match.

In this sense, The San Fran MusicTech Conference was of tremendous value for any “indie” musician, song-writer, producer, tekkie, record label employee, journalist, promoter—anybody interested in learning about, or working within, or even helping to save the official American recorded music industry (sometimes from itself). This event (which promises to continue annually), co—produced by Brian and Soshana Zisk, brings those who’ve worked in the industry for decades together with newcomers, deep-sea divers and shallow-water testers, to try out their wares, and check out the latest in technological fashion.

Yet, one doesn’t have to be especially interested in the new technological pushes to get valuable insights into how to maneuver in today’s music business from this conference; issues of access to the means of production were at least as important as
sales-pitches for particular cultural modes of production. There was one musical act who performed during lunch hour—but that was hardly the point; in fact, I purposely cut-out during his performance because I didn’t want the music to get in the way of the business (after spending 99% of my-life-in-music thinking the other way).

Sometimes the debates between contrasting views were explicit on the panels themselves; other times there was something of a city council meeting vibe, where dissenting views came from the audience or in the wings (though there was not much ‘organized’ opposition). Some of the most profound contrasting viewpoints were more implicit, occurring in contrasting two speakers on different panels. For instance, of the handful of active (mostly younger) professional musicians who spoke on panels, there’s a fascinating contrast between the causes (and/or commercial tie-in) that helped John McDermott (who cut his professional teeth touring U.S. Army Bases with his band Stroke 9) and Zachary Matthews, who cut his touring with Hot Buttered Rum in a hippy van fueled by dumpster grease. Matthews and McDermott’s models both showed the limits of, and provided an alternative, to the sole reliance on new technologies, as they provided a necessary grounding to, and a way out of, the “trickle down” model of success that some of the most vocal proponents of digital technology espoused.

There’s definitely room for a panel that addresses such issues as the fostering of connections between the already established live music scenes in the Bay Area, and the major labels and web-distribution networks. There’s many more money making opportunities if these connections are seen more clearly as a two-way street, especially as the recording and distribution industries have made severe cuts in their ‘regional offices’ (or more autonomous locally-run subsidiaries) in recent years. In the market place of ideas, there were many possibilities to choose from. I was especially pleased that the SF MusicTech conference was capacious enough to invite Heidi Richman, whose HRMP was founded six years ago “as a way to move beyond stagnant sponsorship models into packages that provide 360 brand/band/retail/technology interface.” Uh Huh…!! Exactly!

So, the SFMT conference is a process, teeming with possibility. So, yes, you should come next year. Even despite the fact that the 90% of the speakers were white male, the SFMTC is definitely much more indie-scene friendly than most other music industry conferences. I got some videos up:

And another:

2. Here’s an excerpt from the journal of a “culture critic” friend; he handed it to me just before being gunned down by ski-masked men with Nevada plates. It is therefore protected by the shield law…
May 18th, 2009.

“Changes Essential To Saving Music” (SF Examiner, May 18, 2009).

“Nightspots that anchor The City’s redeveloped jazz district need to make big changes if the neighborhood is to prosper, a new report said.

Forty years ago, much of the Fillmore district was razed in response to what some considered “blight.” To help revitilize the commercial area of Lower Fillmore, the Fillmore Jazz Preservation District was created in 1995. Since then, loand from the Redevelopment Agency have helped sustain businesses….

However, restaurants and music venues in the area—once known as the Harlem of the West—are too expensive and need to change marketing strategies to stay afloat, according to a publicly funded restaurant consultant’s report.

Yoshi’s, which expanded from its Oakland location to The City in 2007, takes a “Disney-like approach to jazz. No Soul, no funk, no personality,” one commentator said in the report by the Puccini group, which surveyed 120 people.

Yoshi’s did not return calls seeking comment…”

This article (by Examiner Staff Writer, Brent Begin) gets to heart of the central conflict, not only between live venues such as Yoshi’s and the Fillmore neighborhood such redevelopment largely displaced and marginalized, but also between competing models in the national/international recorded music industry that were evident at the SanFran Music Tech Summit the day the article appeared.

Even though The SanFran MusicTech Conference, featuring “many of the best and brightest minds…at the convergence of commerce and culture,” did not emphasize the role of government seed-money (or other political issues, such as the role of the Telecommunications Act of 1998 in the current crisis), it could provide some of the tools bringing such changes the Redevelopment Agency calls for, in part because the crisis the music industry and The Fillmore district face are rather analogous (like, could Yoshi’s utilize the new technologies to start community based podcasts simulcast on Am-radio, or a record label that would be more involved with, connected to, a local music community?)

While some political conservatives (who do not like spending government money on the arts) may take a certain “I told you so” glee in the failure of government loans to prop up Yoshi’s (or AIG, or GM, etc), at least the publicly funded report gave voice to genuine, legitimate, concerns that should have been granted more credence when they were voiced by longtime Fillmore residents during the 1994/95 debates over what shape such local “revitilization” would take. It’s an example of “trickle down” economics on a local level,
which, for my purposes here, has an aesthetic dimension: A Disney-like approach to jazz. No Soul, no funk, no personality. No “blight.” & too expensive.

Some of these issues are much more about the failures of San Francisco Urban Planning, the loss of manufacturing jobs and small locally owned businesses (not directly part of the entertainment industry) that led to an exodus of long-time Fillmore residents from which the live music scene grew. Trying to pump up the music industry with a Supply-side approach was doomed to failure, as the projected demand for these services never quite materialized.

In many ways this specific conundrum parallels the more technological aspects of the recorded music industry, the main focus of the SanFran Music Tech conference. On one side, there were big industry executives (both in traditional record labels and at the vanguard of the ‘digital revolution’), entertainment and intellectual property attorneys, whose notion of forward progress in the music industry is largely full-steam ahead into the new technology as a kind of ‘redevelopment.’ On the other hand, there were other panelists (although lesser in numbers), who questioned the point of the increased expenses and wondered out loud about the possible loss of a more human element (soul, funk, personality, etc.), or re-establishing integral connections to local scenes (to the mutual benefit of both).

At its best, this is not an either/or choice. Sometimes social progress and technological progress can go hand-in-hand; in the last century the recorded music industry (especially radio and records) played a significant part in racial desegregation, for instance. Too often, however, technological progress gets sold as social progress. This is as old as Henry Ford if not P.T. Barnum. One panelist argued that INTERNET RADIO is an upgrade in sound quality analogous to the “alleged” upgrade in sound that FM claimed over AM in the last 40 years. Both points are highly debatable; I’m not saying there aren’t some gains in the new technology, but very few dared to ask what has been, or may be, lost if we listen uncritically to the advertising voice (heard on 95.7 The Wolf, for instance) peddling Hi-Def Radio, “time to upgrade.” (cf. Bertolt “Mack The Knife” Brecht’s 1929 essay on the radio).

It would have been surprising to find an apologist for “AM,” or even college radio, at a “musicTech” conference (though there were quite a few people who welcome the return of vinyl), but even if only an atavist (In Alissa Quart’s sense) would argue AM rock and roll radio could be a viable money-making model for the distribution of new and cutting edge music in the 2010s, we do well to ask whether some of more aggressive sales pitches, from charging $5 a month for internet downloading services, to new initiatives in niche-privatized internet stations, truly show an understanding of both the needs of most consumers and most musicians operating today. Many of these pitches fail to seduce, and if the music industry can’t wage a campaign even as seductive as that waged by a politician to promise a hope for new social enfranchisement, we’re in trouble indeed.
(FIX this “blanket statement” during a revision).

On the other hand, there were folks who have been working in alternative models. Sub Pop may be over 20 years old now, but their Long Tail model still seemed a little more ‘sustainable,’ at least for the kind of musical act that would rather sell 10,000 to 20,000 units on a regular basis than the hundreds of thousands the major labels may promise, but more often than not does not create a successful long-term strategy (as bands, in losing some of their control, tend to lose the grassroots support they had once they’ve gone major). One thing this conference made clear is that at least some, if not all, of the A&R people at the majors are beginning to understand that part of what was lost in the post-1980 music industry was a “musician’s middle class,” just as with the general American economy. The creation of mega stars like Brittney and ‘N Synch, for instance tended to create a false either/or proposition for musicians (and decrease the range of what’s considered ‘commercial’ music, as a form of market censorship that ultimately bit the industry on the butt).

Again, there were aesthetic consequences to the business models of niche marketing, the death of vinyl and the single, that may have in the short term created more profits, but in the long term created deeper consumer and musician discontent and disenfranchisement….”

(breaks off here); but whatever you do, don’t analyze the magic away!

2. In lieu of a review