(Left to right) Ben Folds, Amanda Palmer, Damian Kulash, and Neil Gaiman at Mad Oak Studios, in Allston, Mass. Monday, preparing to write and record eight songs in eight hours (which ended up being six songs in 12 hours). (Photo: Phil Farnsworth)
BOSTON -- Technology will pull the music business into the future, but musicians have to find the way, panelists said at the Rethink Music conference  here, presented by Berklee College of Music and MIDEM in association with Harvard Business School, Tuesday (April 26).
"Our hope is that we can set out to solve the problems that beset the music industry and do it on a 21st century timescale," Berklee College of Music President Roger Brown told the 400 attendees at the Hynes Convention Center.
But Brown's keynote address came with a warning: "We need to have the artists and musicians and creators at the table, not just deferring to the businesspeople to work on it."
One example of the artists using technology to lead the way was the conference's "8 in 8" rapid-recording project with Amanda Palmer, Neil Gaiman, Ben Folds and Damian Kulash of OK Go .
It became "6 in 12," actually, as they recorded six songs in 12 hours on Monday night. A live webcast of their efforts in a studio in nearby Allston drew several thousand viewers, they said. Topics for some lyrics -- from Nikola Tesla to squirrel suicide -- were crowdsourced from Twitter via the #8in8 hashtag.
They finished their work at 4:30 a.m., but they still made it to their 10:30 a.m. conference session, by which time the album ("Nighty Night") was available on Bandcamp .
"I like the way it demythologized the process for the people watching," said Gaiman.
Palmer noted that they'd taken flak from music blogs for the effort: "We did condense the recording cycle into 12 hours, but we weren't out there waving the flag saying, 'This is how everyone should do this.' "
"We got a bad review before the record was made," said Folds.
"Compressing the process was brilliant," Gaiman said to laughter.
Nearly everyone on the opening panel - "Creativity Changes: Fostering Art in a World of Technology" - said they were wary of "the culture of free" brought on by digital music delivery, whether it's illegal downloading, giveaway singles or gratis licenses for promotional use of songs.
"I think there's a lie that's being promoted … that music has less value or small value or no value," said Del Bryant, CEO of BMI.
Lost Highway Records VP of A&R Kim Buie cited Radiohead's "In Rainbows" model of making a new album available online for whatever fans were willing to pay: "They could afford to do that, but my immediate thought goes to the brand-new artist…they can't afford to do that."
"I wonder if we're at the point we can't stop it, though," said recording studio owner Jim Eno, drummer for the band Spoon. "Technology today also allows bands to make money in more creative ways," Eno said, noting a lot of bands have paid for sessions at his studio with fundraising campaigns via Kickstarter.
"I want to see what happens when one of those projects hits a million units and the lawsuits begin," Jon Platt, President of Creative, EMI Music Publishing, said with a laugh.
Buie cited this month's Record Store Day  as a bright spot for both paid music and physical product. "It was an unbelievable success and created enthusiasm all across the country" among fans, retailers and artists alike, she said.
"There's one question I can't answer: Five or 10 years from now, how are we going to make money? " Allman Brothers Band manager Bert Holman said, eyeing queries submitted to the panel via Twitter. "I don't have the answer. I think that's what this conference is all about."
In another session, MIT Professor and composer Tod Machover gave a tutorial on bleeding-edge music and composing interfaces that take the ideas behind games like Guitar Hero into another dimension, where the disabled can compose their own symphonies and the process of composition can help diagnose Alzheimer's at an early stage.
But even he was wary about the process could take us if the technology or the business model comes first. Machover said, "We have to let the music lead."