Is the record business headed for oblivion?

The Audiophiliac visited the New Music Seminar Festival in NYC last week, and he came away as confused as ever.

Steve Guttenberg

I've attended New Music Seminars in NYC before, but this year's event definitely had more passion and spirit. The subheading of this year's festival, "Appetite For Disruption," hinted at the possibilities. The shindig's hub, the old Webster Hall concert venue, hosted nonstop action, and there were more goings-on at 17 clubs and music halls in Manhattan and Williamsburg (Brooklyn).

Guest speakers ran the gamut, from heavyweights like Bob Pittman, CEO of Clear Channel; Lyor Cohen, CEO and chairman of the Warner Music Group; Steve Boom, Amazon's VP for Digital Music; Steve Savoca, head of content for Spotify, and singer/producer Wyclef Jean. Producer Moses Avalon did a full-on rant predicting Google's downfall, and why that might be a good thing for the music business. Basically, Avalon railed against the free business model, and he said this on his Web site: "You give music away for free (or charge next to nothing) and somehow make up the difference on the volume, touring and merchandise. It's the Long Tail logic that inspired Radiohead's famous 'pay what you want' release In Rainbows, an experiment that neither they, nor anyone else in the know, has repeated." I don't get it either; when music is free or really cheap, it's worthless.

I polled 2012 New Music Seminar attendees at random to find out how they listen to music, and out of 25 people, a few listened to CDs, four play LPs, two or three mentioned YouTube, one liked FM radio, and few more were into Internet radio, but the overwhelming majority listen to streaming music services. That's cool, but it also means they don't buy physical or downloaded music. Remember, these folks were attending the 2012 New Music Seminar Festival, so they're either musicians or in the music business, and they don't buy recorded music. That's weird.

There was a lot of talk about "monetizing" music through a diversity of platforms, new ecosystems, licensing and other channels. Sounds great, but I haven't yet heard about a young band making a substantial part of their income from any of it. I wish I could share a new revelation, a tiny morsel of music business wisdom picked up from sitting in seminars for three days, but I don't see any light at the end of the tunnel. Why would a young music fan buy music when they get it streamed for free or a low monthly charge? On the upside, CD album sales are still in the hundreds of millions per year in the U.S., and iTunes numbers are rising, but music acquisition is trending down, even as people listen to more and more music. Competing with free or almost free isn't easy.

Tom Jackson at the 2012 New Music Seminar. Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Tom Jackson gave a highly entertaining presentation about how to improve staging and performance tips for live shows. Jackson helps bands focus their vision and bring out what's truly unique about each band's music. Check out his videos.

Sure, musicians will continue to make music because they want to express themselves, but new bands have almost no expectation of making money from selling recorded music. The feeling throughout NMS was very positive, and that was the best part of being there. I can't say I learned anything new, just that there are lots of people trying to get their music heard. The best advice to musicians was, "Get out there, play your music for free, expose your music to as many people as possible, and if it's good, the money will follow."

A young woman, Kriss Mincey, handed me her CD, "Scratch n' Riff," and I really like it. She's a soulful singer, and the tunes are good. Check it out. Then I met DJ Black Canary, an audiophile DJ who uses uncompressed WAV files.

No one knows where the music business is going, just that it's going to be completely different in 10 years. Right, that's old news; everything is changing too fast.

About the author

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Home Theater, Inner Fidelity, Tone Audio, and Stereophile.

 

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