Music Biz Marks 60th Anniversary Amid Great Change

Ed Sheeran
Paul Kane/Getty Images

Sheeran on the opening night of his 2018 Australian tour at Optus Stadium in Perth, Australia.

When the Music Business Association (also known as Music Biz) stages its 60th anniversary conference in Nashville May 14-17, the industry organization will honor Ed Sheeran, Nile Rodgers, Julia Michaels and the late Russ Solomon, the legendary founder of Tower Records.

Solomon, who died March 4 at the age of 92, was once the most celebrated music retailer in the world. He will be posthumously honored by the association on May 17 as the first inductee into its newly launched Music Business Hall of Fame.

Eleven years have passed since Tower Records closed its last store in the United States, which almost certainly means that there are people working in the music industry who have not heard of the retail chain, known for its endless aisles of CDs -- and, before that, vinyl LPs -- and obsessively knowledgeable store clerks.

Today, Spotify is the world’s most celebrated music merchandiser, and label executives maneuver to get their songs placed in the service’s prime real estate on its popular playlists.

While the music industry has changed dramatically in the six decades since the precursor of Music Biz -- the National Association of Recording Merchandisers, or NARM -- was founded, “the [organization’s] mission hasn't changed,” says president Jim Donio. That mission: “To be a trusted forum for all the different aspects of the industry to come together and do business.”

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(right) Rodgers and Chic performed at the 2017 Glastonbury Festival in England. (left) Michaels onstage during Live in the Vineyard in Napa, Calif., in 2017.

NARM and now Music Biz “have always been a mirror of what the industry needs us to be in order to conduct commerce,” says Donio.

In the early days, NARM’s annual conferences drew independent record distributors and rackjobbers (the wholesalers who stocked records in a broad array of retail outlets, from grocery stores to truck stops). Later, wholesalers known as one-stops, such as Alliance Entertainment, emerged to stock big-box chains like Walmart and Best Buy. Independent retailers like Tower Records grew into chains. NARM represented them all.

The association also became an advocate for retailers and wholesalers as they parried with the major labels over terms of trade. In 2000, NARM filed an antitrust suit against Sony Music Entertainment for embedding web links in the physical CDs sold in brick-and-mortar retail stores. When the CD was played through a computer, the links took customers to a Sony online store, which sought to sell music directly to the consumer, cutting out the retailer. The music company later ended the practice.

“There were times when we were more involved in public policy aimed at how the industry conducted business,” says Donio. “We are [also] a place to find business and a forum to exchange ideas, and that hasn’t changed since we were formed, 60 years ago. We have always been known for commerce.”

With the launch of the iTunes Music Store in 2003, NARM embraced digital services, right up to today’s streaming giants YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon, as well as the largest retail chains, Target and Walmart. Pandora president/CEO Roger Lynch and Sony Music Nashville chairman/CEO Randy Goodman will discuss the impact of streaming at this year’s Music Biz Conference.

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Donio (right) presented Maren Morris the Breakthrough Artist Award at the 2017 Music Biz Conference.

Alliance Entertainment chairman Bruce Ogilvie, who attended his first NARM convention in 1982, says the annual conference to this day is still the most efficient way and place “to meet with suppliers and accounts in person.”

But the transition from NARM to Music Biz wasn't easy. The organization’s finances took a hit with the decline of physical music sales, and the annual conference had declining attendance.

“For a while we were in financial straits, but John Trickett [who served as the organization’s treasurer until his death in 2016] did an amazing job while Jim Donio and the board came with a solid transformation,” says Music Biz vice chairman Steve Harkins, who is also vice president/GM of book and entertainment distributor Baker & Taylor.

That transformation involved changing the organization’s name from NARM to Music Biz in 2013 and reaching out to engage other sectors of the industry, including business affairs, copyright and legal executives.

“Jim definitely made lemonade out of lemons when most of the brick-and-mortar retail sector collapsed, and he skillfully pivoted NARM into the digital age, complete with the always-risky name change,” says Richard James Burgess, president of the American Association of Independent Music (A2IM), the organization of indie labels.

Now, Music Biz focuses on helping all sectors of the music industry. Over 100 conference sessions are scheduled and are divided among topics: metadata, entertainment and technology law, brands and strategic partnerships, music and money, and synchronization, among other areas.

The organization has also taken one of its primary goals -- providing information and education about industry issues -- a step further by reaching out to colleges. The move helps ensure that young people will see the industry as a place to have a career and grow into industry leaders, according to organizers.

Education “is a bigger part of our mission today,” says Donio, who is also an adjunct instructor teaching music business classes at Monmouth College in New Jersey. He notes that the association now includes some 20 colleges and several thousand students among its members.

“We have a responsibility to prepare the young people who will one day lead this business,” he adds. In 2017, 200 students attended the Music Biz Conference.

“Think of that infusion of college students,” says Harkins. “Ten years ago, the music industry was the devil to the younger generation,” as it sought to block peer-to-peer file sharing that allowed them to get music for free.

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Solomon in 2007.

Another reason Music Biz has enjoyed a rebirth? The decision to move its conference to Nashville, which has embraced the organization.

“We are now in our fourth consecutive year here, and we will return for at least two more years,” says Donio. The location has helped make the conference a draw outside the United States, he adds. “With Nashville as a global hub, we had industry executives from 15 to 20 countries attending last year.”

Despite the industry’s move toward streaming, the Music Biz Conference still has a place for the brick-and-mortar business. Wholesalers like Baker & Taylor and Alliance Entertainment, and retailers like Newbury Comics and Dimple Records, will be in attendance.

As it marks its 60th anniversary, the association will look back at its origins in 1958, which was quite a remarkable year for the music business.

“That year, the [Country Music Association] was born, as were the Grammy [Awards], the RIAA’s gold and platinum award program and the Billboard Hot 100 -- all still ongoing,” says Donio.

“We will be celebrating our milestone but will recognize these other milestones as well -- including Rhino Records and Newbury Comics, which will both be celebrating their 40th anniversary -- in various ways, through some visual elements and presentations during the four days of the conference.”

This article originally appeared in the May 5 issue of Billboard.