Digital Summit Strives To Stimulate

“It’s the fifth year for both events,” remarked newly appointed Leadership Music Executive Director Karen Oertley as she welcomed the sparse Digital Summit morning crowd on Sept 29 at Belmont University’s Curb Events Center. “But the first year that we have joined forces with Next Big Nashville.” Attendance numbers for the Summit have yet to be tabulated, but a backstage official noted that, although the body count might be slightly less, the financial side was strong.

Mark Montgomery of Claritas Capitol offered a few brief opening remarks saying, “Our goal at this event should be to lead the conversation about the music business.”

Sessions on Wednesday (the only day this writer was able to attend) were fast paced and generally 40 minutes or less. NPD’s Russ Crupnick admonished the industry for confusing price and value with respect to the CD format. “Consumers wanted more value, not necessarily lower prices,” he said. “The industry created its own CD death spiral by giving the discs such a bad rap and that triggered lowering prices and shrinking shelf space.” Krupnick did note that mainstream connectivity across devices will lead to new revenue streams, “Consumers are willing to pay for music,” he affirmed.

Author/CMT VP Jay Frank interviewed Big Machine CEO Scott Borchetta in a (why-is-this-so-short) 20 minute segment designed to provide an operational overview of the elements that have driven his company’s success. “We began to attack every new opportunity we could discover,” said Borchetta thinking back to the company’s start about five years ago. “Many of these online outlets had never been called before by a country music label. It’s all about gatekeepers, you have to take every one of them down.” Borchetta also cautioned, “Once you get someone’s attention you have to be ready. Luckily, with Taylor we didn’t have to teach her, she was already engaging with her fans online.” Borchetta tied the changing marketing landscape back to the music. “It doesn’t matter to me how we distribute the music,” he said. “Our job is to find the best artists and make the best music. We can move faster than the big corporations.” A closing point concerned the unauthorized leak of new releases, especially Taylor Swift’s album which is scheduled for release Oct. 25. “First it’s stealing when that happens,” said Borchetta. “But it’s also a let down, because when we release the music we want to be ready for the fans, with special offers, information, and all kinds of content. When something gets leaked ahead of time we’re not yet ready and that ruins the experience for everyone, most of all the artist.”

Next on the agenda was Evolution Of The 360 Deal. No disrespect to the panelists, but this proved a perfect time for a stretch and a schmooze. The topic was new about 4 years ago.

Highlights through the day included two web surgeons giving tips and tricks—The Site Doctor Is In. Nick Francis of Project 83 offered a checklist of web site dos and don’ts. A fast loading home page is a “do,” using Flash a “don’t.” Also “don’t” disable the browser’s back button… Unfortunately, this presentation was “sandwiched” during lunch to make up for the morning’s late start and as a result was poorly attended.

National Music Publisher’s Association President/CEO David Israelite offered a very persuasive half hour regarding New Challenges and Opportunities for Songwriters and Music Publishers. Challenges included the absence of a free market for songwriter/publisher rights, since royalties and license rates are set by the government. Chief among opportunities were new models including the cloud-based subscription where copies become unnecessary. Israelite believes the music cloud will add so much value for consumers that it might severely limit piracy because all your music would be available all the time on all your devices.

Although the terms “actionable” and “ubiquitous” were repeatedly spoken during the day, one attendee really caught my attention saying, “The speakers this year are really lots of the right people, it’s just that the conversations don’t seem to be actionable.” Couldn’t agree more. Moments on Wednesday of “leading the music business conversation” were few and far between, and rarely actionable.

For example, what about the pros and cons of a single, all-in, digital song royalty? What about a concentrated session with actual hands-on, button pushing advice about the best ways to market using Twitter? or using Facebook? What about building web sites using open source (free) products like WordPress and Drupal? The concept of new business models was mostly ignored.

Jim Griffin lectured about having a central database for the “ever-expanding legion of online rights holders,” an idea of tremendous significance for all rights holders and collection entities. But his 15 minutes passed without igniting an audience spark. Griffin, a long time visionary, was, as Montgomery suggested, leading the music business discussion. This central database topic will become increasingly important, as the collection world becomes a mad game of musical chairs and many of the established names lose their seat at the revenue table because they haven’t built such an info repository.

In summary, kudos to event planners for a great roster of participants and obviously lots of work putting it all together. However, the agenda needs to find more ways to extract the “Wow” factor from these talented guests. I also question the necessity of a two-day event. Fewer and fewer of attendees can actually dedicate two full days. Pack it into one day with parallel .edu tracks.

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David M. Ross has been covering Nashville's music industry for over 25 years. [email protected]

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