After a six-hour flight, a layover in Zurich and another two-hour flight, followed by a 40-minute drive, my shuttle pulls up to the old Carlton hotel along the Croisette, the main drag of Cannes along the French Riviera. As I am accustomed to experiencing, a line of paparazzi and hyperkinetic teenagers line the Carlton's front drive, craning their necks and jostling for position as I step out of the car. And, as I am also accustomed, there is a collective sigh of disappointment when they see it is me.
One of the strange things about MIDEM--and there are plenty of eccentricities to being in Cannes in January--is that the music business' largest conference occurs at the same time, in the same town and even, ultimately, in opposite halves of the same venue, the Palais des Festival, as the NRJ Awards. NRJ is a European radio conglomerate. And these awards have been described to me as France's equivalent of the MTV Video Music Awards. This year the paps were out in full force to document the coming and going of stars including Alicia Keys, Carly Rae Jepsen, PSY and, perhaps most of all, Taylor Swift and One Direction.
If this all seems like quite the hullaballoo, then I should note right now that most at MIDEM are only tangentially aware of the show. I doubt that more than a relative handful of the 6,400 who attended this year's MIDEM went, or even gave it a thought. And I'm fairly certain that neither T-Swizzle nor rumored ex-beau Harry Styles or any of the other pop A-listers stayed in town long enough to catch Myspace getting chided by indie associations for its lack of licenses, or the announcement of the winning startups for the MIDEMlab competition, or the standing-room-only Billboard breakfast in which Beggars Group founder Martin Mills spoke stridently about Google needing to be more supportive of copyright or...you get the idea.
MIDEM, then, is the perfect representation of today's music business: It is actually two businesses. On one side of the Palais, in a lush theater on Saturday night, is the top 40 business, which creates and perpetuates stars by getting their songs onto radio (or at the center of the social Web) so that millions of copies can be sold. And in the basement, roiling and toiling during work hours, is everyone else. The indies, the startups, the small publishers, the distributors, the marketers, the app makers, the data collectors, the policy thinkers-all the dreamers and hustlers who more or less figure out how to keep their business going on a month-by-month basis, and in the process supplies the business as a whole with much of its new energy and ideation.
Once upon a time, MIDEM was the marketplace for the international record business, and I do mean "record." Labels and publishers came and listened to vinyl on turntables through headphones at booths on the exhibition floor, and if they liked what they heard, ordered a quantity or signed a deal. Today the international business has moved online, and MIDEM has become a marketplace of ideas. But ideas can be exchanged online also, without the expense (if you're American) of an international flight to a decadent resort town.
This year's attendance of 6,400 is down from a recent peak of around 9,800 seven years ago. The corridors around the demo booths were notably light of foot traffic. It was far too easy to get a beer (or six) at midnight in the bars in the hotels where everyone stays--the Majestic, the Carlton and the Martinez.
Mind you, I didn't talk to a single person in the business who wasn't quick to say that he or she got from MIDEM what they came for--they made the connections and found the business they sought. But it's time to face facts: Cannes is no longer the right place for this conference.
It was a quirk of scheduling for this year's MIDEM that left me with nary a morning during my four-day trip when I didn't have to be up early. And let's be honest: The panel discussions are great and all, but we go to MIDEM to talk and drink and be social, well into the night. This is the sleepover winter camp of the new music business, and sometimes that dedication requires watching a sunrise or two from the front end.
My home-away-from-home is a peculiar bar called La Chunga--400 square feet of mostly dark woods and tin. If you show before 2:30 in the morning, there will be no one present, excepting a table at the front of some hard-lived working girls and a surly bartender or two. But at 2:30, a near-magical transformation takes place. The dreamers and the hustlers stream in. A thick-necked Frenchman takes the stage. Champagne flows--and flows and flows--and above heartfelt covers of everything from Bob Marley to Elvis Presley, this community revels together around wooden tables until the wee hours. A meaningful percentage of my best memories and best friends-not just in this business, but in life-have unfurled themselves in this tiny cavern.
Last year, I saw my friend Pegi Cecconi for the first time that MIDEM at La Chunga. I met her at the previous year's MIDEM, or maybe it was two before, as someone who worked at Rush's management company SRO. But when I saw her on this January night in 2012, she had lost a lot of weight. After we exchanged hugs, I told her so, and she told me that she had been diagnosed with lung cancer. She was going to have an operation a few weeks later, and then she'd know her chances. Pegi is one of those full-of-life types that this business seems so great at attracting. And I don't know if it was bravado or convincing herself, but when she saw the look on my face she told me not to worry. Can you imagine? But she'd had an amazing life, she said, and what would be would be. That night we danced and drank and laughed until we fell over, and she really changed my outlook on life. Here was a woman who was a stacked coin-flip away from losing everything, and she was choosing to celebrate. When I tell you I was happy to see Ms. Cecconi at La Chunga this year, with a clean bill of health, I want you to appreciate just how happy I was.
I share this because I want you to appreciate how much more MIDEM is to most of us who attend than just another business conference. MIDEM is where the music business--not the top 40 one, but the roiling, toiling new music business, new members welcome--comes to get away from their desks and their day-to-day to ideate and think, learn and meet. This experience-and MIDEM, by extension-is more necessary today than ever. But as much as I love La Chunga, and as much as I'll always have a trove of memories from every little corner and cranny of Cannes, the new music business doesn't need this town anymore. It is time to say goodbye, 40 Euros vodka tonics. Goodbye 400 Euros hotel rooms. You don't make a damned bit of sense to the new music business. The top 40 superstars will carry on quite nicely in the Palais, where they are comfortable. Adieu.
Pegi and our friends stayed out until five or six in the morning. The founder of Musicmetric overflowed my glass with champagne on the dancefloor. I confiscated the BlackBerry of a rights executive from Sony so she'd stop working. I hugged two members of Team Pitbull and danced briefly with the head of the International Assn. of Entertainment Lawyers, and his wife, Stacy. Later, a married executive made a small fool of himself chasing after a senior executive until she finally had to tell him directly, "This just isn't happening." And later still-though not later enough-the cruel mistress that is my alarm clock shoved me from bed and onto a stage for a 10 a.m. keynote discussion with Kobalt CEO Willard Ahdritz about international licensing schematics. I barely had a working voice but it was worth every second.
It's the new music business. It's far from perfect. But as the saying goes, I'll dance with the one that brung me. And wherever that dance may be, I'll dance hard.