Women in Music 2019

Music Tectonics on Fire: Tech Conference Carries On While Dodging LA Blazes (Guest Column)

Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Smoke plume from the Maria Fire rises above, as seen from Santa Paula, Calif., on Oct. 31, 2019. 

Imagine finding out the music industry conference you spent the last year organizing was suddenly in jeopardy due to fast-moving wildfires. Los Angeles’ music and technology scene has been quietly growing and, as the founder of a music tech PR firm called rock paper scissors, I decided to plant a flag in the ground with a new conference to gather the diversity of players worldwide in this geographically dispersed, vibrant city. At 3 a.m. on Oct. 28, the day before the Music Tectonics Conference was set to start at the Skirball Cultural Center in Brentwood, my phone began blowing up with text messages from my 12-person conference team. Our venue for the next day’s conference was now facing imminent threat of a growing wildfire, without power and surrounded by fire department blockades. Over the next day, more than a dozen homes were destroyed and thousands of people were displaced in the fire. 

With only 24 hours before the conference was planned to start, we had only a few options: hope the Skirball would somehow open the following day, cancel the conference or find a new venue. This unexpected turn of events felt strikingly similar to the very speed of change in the music industry our conference was planned to address -- especially in light of the sudden technology-driven shifts and innovations that have become a regular feature of the field. The wind shifts are swift, manifold and overlapping, making it hard to see overarching plates and fault lines. So, what do you do?

Though frightening, it’s only fitting that the first Music Tectonics Conference would face disruption, since many of the event’s programming themes were about the seismic shifts that are still underway in the music industry. We kicked off our pre-conference in downtown L.A. while simultaneously continuing to evaluate the status of the fire and shifting winds and calling dozens of new venues up until 4 p.m. With just a few hours left of daylight, the rock paper scissors team landed on the Sheraton Grand Hotel that could host us. That evening we walked into this hotel located on the aptly named Hope Street for the first time and the rooms were miraculously all set up. The sense of danger and recovery infused the event with a level excitement that oddly augmented our vision of putting on a different type of conference. In spite of the sudden venue change, we had a strong turnout with most of the registrants -- more than 400 people -- showing up. 

Taking a lighthearted approach to the subject matter, we held a contentious Blockchain Cage Match which was refereed by Arabian Prince of N.W.A and featured enthusiasts like Verifi Media’s Ken Umezaki wearing a lucha libre mask and skeptics like Music Biz president Portia Sabin wearing a satin cape. There was the “AI’s Got Talent” talent show for artificial intelligence applications, including Amadeus Code, Boomy, Song AI, and Super Hi-Fi, and emceed by music tech journalist and DJ Dani Deahl. And we handed out “Seismic Shift Trading Cards,” which featured 18 ways the music industry is being shaken up. 

The card “Music Like Fire” was meant to be about how music is finding new uses across industries from sports and healthcare, to furniture and food; not about how literal fire would impact us at the last minute. The “Music Like Air” card referred to how voice-enabled devices are changing how people interact with and discover music — a topic explored during a panel with representatives from Pandora, Soundhound, and Google Home. “Creation and Engagement Intermingle” was about how user-generated content blurs the lines between performer and audience, and came up during our session on social video and music on TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook. “Uses Outpace Systems” reminded us that when new uses of music emerge, databases, royalties and licenses have to catch up.

Our event attracted the entire “macrosystem” -- labels and DSPs, majors and indies, music tech startups and social media giants, founders and investors, humans and artificial intelligence, blockchain enthusiasts and skeptics -- bringing members from every corner of the industry into the same room. When you gather professionals from such diverse roles, intriguing tidbits emerge; information that is hard to pinpoint outside of this type of setting. 

For example, we learned that TikTok hasn’t decreased the amount of viewing time on other platforms like YouTube or Instagram. Instead, it has added more viewing to people’s lives overall. Like Netflix, social video is competing mostly with sleep. Facebook and Instagram stickers and swipe-ups send people directly to streaming services, so are not just leading to discovery, but increase plays where it counts. TikTok also has a ripple effect carrying viewers to music services to do more listening. Rasty Turek, founder and CEO of Pex, has created tools that allow rights holders to trace these movements and see where their music is being used across three dozen social video and audio platforms, including YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and SoundCloud. 

During the “AI’s Got Talent” talent show, Dave Park of Recombinant, developers of Song AI, predicted that artificial intelligence software will inevitably be able to write music based on the past work of big name songwriters like Paul McCartney, and people will pay top-dollar fees for access to these songwriting capabilities. During the same session, Taishi Fukuyama of Amadeus Code postulated that AI songwriting would empower new communities of artists to create wholly new genres, the way sampling led to hip-hop. He also announced that the official song for the Pope’s arrival to Japan was composed using AI.

We found out that major labels are more open than ever to working with music tech startups. They have learned the lesson of disruption and though they are still protecting their intellectual property and looking for ways to grow monetization opportunities, showing interest in controversial technologies like blockchain, artificial intelligence, uses of stems and fan remixes. CD Baby CEO Tracy Maddux called for more tools for artist promotion, such as for making music videos more easily. 

AdRev’s CEO Noah Becker called for more transparency across the industry. In a fireside chat, he advanced the idea that the more information rights holders share together, the more revenue is made by all, unlocking income that had been stuck in rights disputes. 

Zach Katz of Raised in Space also had some advice for the entrepreneurs out there: Investors have direct contact with all the labels, managers and digital streaming services. “Every major or manager or streaming service is one text message away from a fact check,” he said. “Stop exaggerating to us about deals you have in place.” 

The biggest lesson of all, however, is that to really explore where innovation in music is going, you need to have all the players talking together. There is no longer a single formula for success in the music industry. And it is no longer taboo to find the balance between indies and majors, between rights holders and music platforms. Everyone gets it now. And the only way to dodge fires or get ahead of seismic shifts is to break out of our bubbles, work together, and stay calmly focused on the end goal. The rigid silos of the past -- the ones that got us into the piracy mess of yesterday -- will not serve us. We need everyone in the same room, whether that’s at a cultural center in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains or a hotel downtown on Hope Street.  

Dmitri Vietze is the founder of the Music Tectonics Conference and Podcast and the CEO of music and tech PR firm rock paper scissors, inc. 


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