CMJ Panels Day 2: Benjy Grinberg on Breaking Artists; Pandora's Tim Westegren Talks Failed Coup; Peter Kafka and Ted Cohen
CMJ Panels Day 2: Benjy Grinberg on Breaking Artists; Pandora's Tim Westegren Talks Failed Coup; Peter Kafka and Ted Cohen

Nontraditional Catalysts: From left: Surely Music's Pete Johnson, Triple Crown's Fred Feldman, Rostrum Record's Benjy Grinberg, Sensibility Music's Travis Yetton, Pandora's Matt Ostrower discuss unorthodox ways to break bands at a CMJ 2012 Music Marathon panel. (Photo: Andrew Flanagan)

Day two of the 33rd Annual CMJ fest's panels proved informative and provocative as the likes of Rostrum's Benjy Grinberg explained how to break artists with no dough or radio airplay on the Nontraditional Catalysts of Breaking an Artist panel. Also, two "fireside" chats: One with Pandora founder Tim Westegren who expectedly stumped for lower licensing fees and unexpectedly mentioned an attempted coup; and another chat between Ted Cohen of Tag Strategic and All Things D's Peter Kafka who put it in perspective.

Nontraditional Catalysts of Breaking an Artist

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Moderator Pete Johnson (founder of Surely Music) and panelists Fred Feldman (founder, Triple Crown), Benjy Grinberg (president, Rostrum Records), Travis Yetton (marketing and brand management, Sensibility Music) and Matt Ostrower (head of artist partnership and programming, Pandora) fielded questions from an audience of students and artists at the mouthful-of-a-name "Nontraditional Catalysts of Breaking an Artist" panel, an attempt to unpack the obvious and less-obvious ways for new artists to increase their reach.

The same refrains from the panelists were hammered home throughout the presentation: having realistic expectations for career growth, the cultivation of relationships from the very beginning, and most importantly, creative usage of the many, mostly free, tools available to artists in the digital age.

When asked about the importance of radio, a recurring topic throughout the talk, Grinberg reiterated a point he made earlier about the importance of finding the right strategy for the right artist. "Again, it depends. We work with Mac Miller, who had a number one song with no radio spins. But radio still matters - FM still sells records, and having [Wiz Khalifa's song] 'Black and Yellow' all over translated to massive sales. But to do a radio campaign takes money and a team" - something few new bands are likely to have.

That led to a question about practical grassroots strategies for bands, which Grinberg put succinctly: "When you don't have money, you have to be creative," who continued that thread later by saying "There's lots of things you can do for free - when I say 'free' I assume you have a computer - like Ustream concerts, or homemade video. It's about using the resources available."

Feldman encouraged artists to fully embrace their audience via social media. "Engage! Use Twitter. I hate when we have to hire someone to do social media for a band. It should be a conversation - fans appreciate that window."

Ostrower, who touted Pandora's 'Heat Map' feature as a useful tool for touring bands, pointed out that half of Pandora's million-song catalog is comprised of independent artists, and that around 95% of that catalog is played each month, a possible promotional tool for up-and-comers. At least someone somewhere is listening - even if they don't know what to.

In the end, the day's first sentence may have been the most useful: "Each artist is different."

Fireside Chat: Tim Westergren, Pandora Founder

Tim Westegren (left), Pandora founder with CMJ's Robert Haber (center) and Nick Neyland (right) (Photo: Jem Aswad)

For his "Fireside Chat," Pandora founder Tim Westergren took the stage before an impressively packed hall with "Bobby and Nick from CMJ" (founder Robert Haber and editorial director Nick Neyland) stepping in for Matt Pinfield, who apparently fell ill the night before.

Westergren outlined his beginnings as a rock musician "living out of a van," most notably saying the experience was the foundation of his business education. "My first entrepreneurial experience was being in a band. Most of what I learned came from that," although he added, "Don't do it for the money."

About 10 minutes in, Westergren moved into the topic of radio royalties, something he's been quite outspoken about, and here he maintained his stance that "we pay a little too much." The legislation Westergren champions on behalf of his company, the Internet Royalty Fairness Act, seeks to reduce the royalty rate to which Internet radio services are held, and which accounts for 54% of Pandora's yearly revenue. The bill isn't making many fans out of artists, who would see their income streams reduced, though Westergren maintained the increased scale that the bill's passage would allow would expand the internet radio field exponentially, thereby creating a bigger pot of money to be distributed, even with reduced rates.

Another topic of great importance to artists was brought up by an audience member's question: SoundExchange, which functions as the Internet version of ASCAP or BMI, distributing collected royalties to artists and their representatives. Westergren pointed out that SoundExchange is sitting on "hundreds of thousands of dollars" intended for artists that hadn't yet signed up to collect, something he urged every artist, at every level, to do.

In one of the odder reveals of the presentation, Westergren told a relatively unfamiliar story about "an attempted coup by eight to ten employees" during the early days of the company that would have ousted him and other top execs, when most of its initial staff were still working for free or for deferred salaries. He noted that the coup did not come to fruition, and everyone eventually got paid.

Fireside Chat: Ted Cohen and Peter Kafka: 30 Years and We're Getting Closer

"Have you guys seen South Park? Remember the episode with Diddy, where he did everything first? Ted is like the Diddy of digital. He's done everything first. He's been in it for 30 years." So began one of the day's final panels, another "Fireside Chat," between All Things Digital's tech writer Peter Kafka and longtime music and tech executive Ted Cohen, who began his music career in high school, throwing shows at the local VFW.

The talk, frequently punctuated with amusing and illuminating digressions by Cohen ("In 1984 Robert Fripp, of King Crimson, invited me to a screening of Spinal Tap. I walked into my boss' office the next and resigned. Spinal Tap was every band I'd ever worked with, combined"), eventually settled onto the topic of the music industry's rocky, but evolving, relationship with technology.

Cohen, talking about the industry's initial backlash to the emerging technology of the early aughts, described a disheartening scene. "In 2002 it took me six weeks to get a deal done. In 2004 it took six months." Asked what he would do if given free reign over the digital strategy of one of the three existing major labels, Cohen described his approach: "It's not about big advances, it's about trying different things, not being afraid of evolution. It's amazing that in 2012 labels are still afraid of this. I would combine what I learned in the artist development and technological phases of my career. The end game used to be getting your record into a store - that's the beginning now."

Cohen also addressed Pandora founder Tim Westergren's optimistic outlook for that company, another business model with detractors at the major labels. "His IPO was done on the pitch that it was a profitable business model, and a year later he says it isn't." He continued, "Pandora is a different animal than XM/Sirius, which pays 6% for music. Music isn't 100% of their existence. Pandora's is 95% - they're making their money off the music. XM/Sirius isn't user-controlled and Pandora is. The labels' argument is: 'Pandora provides a customized experience that is different than radio, and the more customized the experience the higher percentage they should be paying back to the labels', which is replacement revenue for the lack of sales."

Near the end of the talk, Kafka, doing his best to keep Cohen on track, pointed to new data that suggested streaming services have positively affected labels' bottom lines. "The labels forever said 'we don't want the streaming to take off because it will cut into album sales.' But it looks like, from preliminary data, they're now saying 'we don't think this is cutting into sales. In fact, we might be seeing iTunes sales going up because of it.'" In response Cohen echoed Tim Westergren's take on scale vs. revenue, saying "It reduces overall music sales but could increase revenue dramatically. Pandora has shown you can reach 120 million people. If we're making a fraction of what we used to make per user, but there's hundreds of times more users - it creates a highly monetized audience base." The only thing for sure? Time will tell.

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