hide captionThe four who tried to write and record eight songs in eight hours: Ben Folds, Amanda Palmer, Damian Kulash and Neil Gaiman.
Phil Farnsworth/Courtesy of the artist
The Berklee College of Music just wrapped up a conference on the future of music industry - yes another one. What makes this interesting is that it was held by a school that's set to graduate a class destined for this very industry. High-level representatives from Interscope, Tommy Boy, Warner Music and other labels were there to defend their industry. And, as a nod to how that industry has changed, Damian Kulash of the band OK Go, Ben Folds, Amanda Palmer, and Neil Gaiman locked themselves in a studio for 12 hours and came up with six new songs — with input from from their fans (who were watching live online) via Twitter.
The four are already successful. They Tweet, they blog, they create viral videos and release music on-line – largely independent of the music industry system as it once was.
"Getting signed meant reaching people," says Boston singer and performance artist Amanda Palmer. "Getting signed meant people would hear your music. That doesn't mean anything anymore."
Palmer orchestrated the "flash collaboration" with Kulash, Folds and Palmer's husband, sci-fi writer Neil Gaiman. Their objective: write, record and release 8 songs in 8 hours. Gaiman says they invited people to tweet song titles to inspire the writing process — and to watch the entire experiment streaming on the internet in real time.
"What's interesting here is the incredible speed with which we can get what we do today to our fans, to the curious, to people who just see a reference to it on the internet and want to find out what it is," says Gaiman. "That completely changes everything."
That was the point of this exercise, and why it fit into the Rethink Music Conference. Kulash and his band OK Go split with their major label last year.
"As the music industry has collapsed, there's been this preponderance of conferences and lectures about exactly what's going to happen in the future," says Kulash. "Since nobody knows how to make money in music anymore the only way to make money is to talk about how you're going to make money."
But Del Bryant, CEO of BMI Publishing, sees a bright future. His company's been representing songwriters internationally since 1939 but he says things have changed dramatically in the digital age.
"We, ten years ago, weren't licensing hardly any digital," says Bryant. "Today we're licensing it, it's the fastest growing sector or our income in percentage points. We will cross $30 million in this year."
That's one bright spot in an industry that's seen CD sales drop 50% in the same time. Tom Silverman founded Tommy Boy Records in 1981 and worked with everyone from Queen Latifah to De La Sol. He says old paradigms like shipping out millions of physical CDs are history.
"There's a lot of fear because the old models aren't working the way they did before and the big businesses were based on those models," says Silverman. "Those models were based on control, and control was based on limiting supply. You can't limit supply in the digital world — it's an unlimited thing."
Since labels can't make money by controlling unit sales anymore, they need to start caring about customers — something Silverman says they haven't done in the past. And he says musicians do need labels.
"You may not call it a label, but whatever your team is, who's going to do marketing, who's going to do billing, who's going to monetize the assets and the brand?" he asks. "Who's going to do collections? Who's going to do legal? Who's going to protect them when people steal their stuff?"
There is a dominant perception — in this DIY era — that aspiring musicians don't need or want record deals. But a recent survey by ReverbNation.com and Digital Music News found 75% of more than 1800 artists surveyed actually do.
"If you want to be a great brand ideally you're relevant to the masses," says Neil Jacobson, Senior Vice President of A&R and management at Lady Gaga's label, Interscope. "And getting to the masses now is harder than it's ever been, there's just so many places you have to get. Eyeballs are all over the place, and being able to coordinate those is something that a label can provide."
While industry reps at the conference tried to take the old model into the new world order there were a lot of young music students in the crowd for whom there is no model.
"'What's next?' You know, there's a lot of questions to be raised," says Emily Elbert, a senior at Berklee College of Music majoring in performance. "You know how they have those Choose Your Own Adventure books when you're a kid? That's kind of what this is now. It's like you can create your career however you want."
Emily Elbert performs Michael Jackson's "Thriller".
Like musician Amanda Palmer, who dreamed up the 8 songs in 8 hours exercise. She divorced her long-time record label a year ago.
"As an artist you kind of are obligated to empower yourself, which is kind of a pain in the ass, you know," says Palmer. "It was clearly easier when you could just get in a limo and be told what to do, but that's now over."
And that's fine with Palmer. Her experiment ended up with 6 songs in about 12 hours and the musicians admit it's not their best work. As for getting their best work to fans, Kulash joked, "Maybe artists could start releasing it at all of the conferences about the future of the music industry."