Top of the Charts in 2015: SXSW Panel Predicts Changes in Fame Game
Top of the Charts in 2015: SXSW Panel Predicts Changes in Fame Game

The traditional path to fame for musicians is rapidly changing course--while major label marketing machines for sales and airplay are still moving artists to the top of the charts, technology and tools like social networking, YouTube and streaming services are more and more influential in breaking new stars.

In this panel, Alex White, CEO of music metric company Next Big Sound, charged panelists to answer the question how will artists become famous five, 10, and 15 years from now, and what factors will drive the most influential charts such as the Billboard Hot 100 and the iTunes charts?

Ted Cohen, managing partner at digital entertainment consulting firm Tag Strategic, noted that he thought Amazon's charts are a better measure of real trends-more than 50% of Amazon mp3 sales are from independent labels, as their recommendation algorithm creates a deep-discovery tool that outlets like iTunes are not.

Billboard Digital general manager George White pointed out that major labels will dominate the Billboard charts as long as radio is a major chart-driver, as the major labels do really well in radio promotion. As charts shift towards measuring plays on streaming services and YouTube, viral stars like Antoine Dodson will become more prominent.

BMG president for North America Creative Billy Mann cited the Civil Wars, a band who topped the iTunes charts by selling 60,000 units on their own, from their house-as tools and resources improve for independent artists, these DIY leaders will gain more traction even on sales charts.

Drake was cited as an artist who signed to a major after being the top-selling unsigned artist in history, but Mann noted that Drake had a previous TV career, and made an alliance with an artist (Lil Wayne), who gave him bankability, before being picked up by Universal.

After Alex White asked whether "famous for being bad" viral YouTube stars like Rebecca Black have a bankable career path, George White noted that the "iTunes chart reflects the past two hours. That will be the province of a YouTube phenomenon, because anyone can be famous for a few hours. Weekly charts and year-end will be the sustainable measure."

Vector Management GM John Ingrassia emphasized that "You have to be really good to cut through and stay at the top of the charts for a sustained amount of time. As a manager, I need to know can you sing can you play, do you have the personality? Just being good on social networks doesn't mean you're worth investing in. YouTube is a really great tool because anyone can see you." He added that centralization of resources like YouTube for music discovery will continue.

In response to the question of whether artists at the top of the charts in five years from now will have a manager, a label, publisher, and agent, Cohen asserted that "the label will be the first one to go. You need a manager, even if it's your girlfriend. You need someone objective. Manager and agent are really necessary." There was consensus on the panel that all the traditional services of a label are needed but that these services can be assembled by tools and team members in new and different ways.

Discussion turned to how music consumption will change and how this will affect the charts, and panelists agreed that "music as service" with recommendation-powered streaming services will become enormously more influential, especially when Spotify comes to the U.S. and Google rolls out its new mystery service.

Mann suggested that streaming services are more conducive to the human interaction that is necessary to sustain the exchange of music. "When I was growing up, I gave mixtapes--you'd give to a girl who wasn't interested in you. Spotify represents that in modern world. Being able to share is really important."

Finally, George White argued that at least as important as a change in the mode of distribution will be the change in marketing practices. "What hasn't changed and needs to change for [streaming services] to be meaningful is it's very different to drive revenue through Spotify than it is through iTunes. If you market like you do today, and rely on Spotify to monetize your music, you're in big trouble."