While veterans of the legacy music business milled about in the hotel lobby bar and conducted private meeting on the sidelines, the most exciting part of the NARM conference in Los Angeles was taking place inside a small room in the lower levels of the venue here.
About 150 executives representing the label, distribution, retailer and digital sides of the business gathered in a room to map out the ongoing convergence of the digital and content industries. It was the general meeting of the Digital Think Tank (DTT) initiative, NARM's three-year-old effort to expand its focus from the traditional music retailing business to the newer digital retailer and distribution industry (and in the process rejuvenate the historic association's image for a new generation).
In the room were companies that you'd expect to see at NARM -- labels like Universal Music Group and Sony Music Entertainment, music lawyers, a few managers, etc. -- but also some decidedly un-NARM-like attendees. These included mobile app developer Smule, subscription services Rhapsody and Rdio, and download store providers like 7digital, and even iTunes.
"The music biz is a curb appeal focused business," NARM VP of digital strategy and business development Bill Wilson (who also leads the DTT) said during a morning keynote speech updating attendees on its progress. "But it's what under the surface that will cost you if it's not built correctly and maintained properly. This is what NARM and the DTT is about."
The group's efforts are funneled into several working groups, focusing very much on the "plumbing"-like concerns, such as metadata management, supply chain optimization and metrics and product development. For instance, during the NARM keynote, Wilson introduced the group's Product Metadata Platform project -- an update to NARM's existing retailer database that will include digital product data plus new features that address particular digital commerce concerns. These include rectifying discrepancies in artist and song names, updates on catalog deletions or delays and resolving rights conflicts.
This week, the DTT also introduced new working groups to focus on the issues unique to the subscription music business -- a contextual metadata initiative and a group focused on music, gaming and mobile.
Some of these efforts may seem a little dry. Nothing is less sexy than metadata. But it makes sense for this group to start here. The metadata issue is a problem shared by all sides of the digital music industry; everybody agrees that it needs to be address, and the steps required to resolve the problem are largely free of politics or controversy.
Should the group successfully build this one solution, it could gain the momentum, trust and gratitude of its members needed to start tackling the more contentious issues. And it would go a long way towards establishing the DTT as an actual force for change rather than just another groupthink ego stroke that many of these forums can quickly devolve into.
Several digital music companies -- subscription services in particular -- have long wished that such a forum existed, a place where competitors could discuss their shared concerns in the presence of the music industry executives in a position to do something about it.
Forums like this are common in other industries, particularly in the tech space. CTIA -- the Wireless Association, for instance, formed its Wireless Internet Caucus in the late '90s to expand its focus on the needs of the content and application community. (Full disclosure: I worked in that group for four years prior to Billboard). It, for instance helped create the system that led to the ability to send text messages between users of different mobile operators (formerly, only users of the same carrier could text each other). Text messaging use skyrocketed as a result.
This is a strong example of how groups like the DTT have the potential to have a strong impact on the industries they are formed to assist. The DTT seem to have the right people and right goals in mind. Watching how well it executes will be an effort worth making.