Inside Music Biz 2019: The Power Summit's Chief James Donio On Six Decades Of Industry Shake-Ups & Top Concerns Today

Peter Frampton
Harmony Gerber/Getty Images

Peter Frampton, pictured in Anaheim, Calif., on Jan. 24, will receive the chairman’s award for lifetime achievement.

From creative monetization tools to globalization and industrywide inclusion efforts, it’s anything but status quo in today’s ever-shifting music landscape. While the Music Business Association’s annual Music Biz Conference has always served as a mirror for the industry at large, the power confab -- which will hit Nashville May 5-8 -- has become a true think tank of today’s luminaries working to tackle the biz’s 21st-century concerns, from streaming and metadata to diversity and health issues. Addiction is a new focus at this year’s “How Music Hurts the Artist & How It Heals” panel, which is a nod to the self-medication and psychological issues that come with the booming live market and the often grueling touring schedules that have resulted. Technology law (a response to the growing DIY footprint) will be a focus of talks on how to start a publishing company and artificial intelligence’s invasion of the business, including in hit songwriting. (“Is it inevitable that a computer will create a chart-topping song in the not-so-distant future?” asks the panel “Artificial Intelligence Meets Tin Pan Alley.”)

The conference moved from Los Angeles to its Music City location five years ago and marked its 60th anniversary in 2018. Once geared toward the retail sector (until 2013, the gathering was colloquially known as “NARM,” short for the conference hosted by the National Association of Recording Merchandisers), the event has widened its mission to include anything that affects the axis of what president James Donio calls “commerce, content and creative.”

With over 300 speakers and more than 100 sessions, the 2019 edition promises plenty of firepower. Keynoters include Apple Music global creative director and Beats 1 host Zane Lowe, Def Jam Recordings chairman/CEO Paul Rosenberg, new RIAA chairman/CEO Mitch Glazier, Capitol Records senior vp global creative Amber Grimes, The Orchard co-founder Richard Gottehrer and a joint session by Motown president Ethiopia Habtemariam and Caroline/Harvest Records president Jacqueline Saturn. In his role as ringmaster of all things Music Biz, Donio pulled back the curtain on the upcoming conference.

How do you keep the gathering fresh?

The music business changes every day. There are acquisitions, consolidation, incredible benchmarks that are being set by artists like Ariana Grande; you’ve got brands that are [newly] influential in the business. The Music Modernization Act was passed, and now we’re building up to when that goes into effect in 2021. The industry needs to be nimble and flexible, and our programs need to be as reflective and up-to-the-minute as possible. While we try to give key thought leaders the opportunity to come back, we have hundreds of new faces each year.

It’s your fifth year in Nashville, and you have signed on to remain there through 2021. How does Music City affect the conference’s identify?

[The event] will almost have tripled in attendance over those five years, and [the location] brought another dimension to it in terms of the creative side of the triangle because of the kind of global music city that Nashville is. Adding that audience of creatives -- songwriters, publishers, managers and musicians -- and marrying that with the commerce and content piece has really added value.

Streaming has returned the recorded-music industry to growth mode. How will Music Biz address this?

We have more program elements focused on indie artists and how the different music services are working with creatives. The entire first day is a series of workshops with the major music services -- Amazon, Apple, Spotify, SoundCloud, YouTube -- who share their latest visions for the future. The industry today is predicated on metadata, and there’s an enormous amount of [it] being collected. It’s critical for those of us in the industry to know how it is used and how to look for opportunities to monetize that information.

There’s an academic component that keeps the demographic young. How does that shift the overall dynamic?

There’s probably a couple of hundred students who come to Music Biz, so there’s a lot of fresh thinking. Certainly the age profile of the event has gotten much younger. It’s keeping the dialogue and perspective fresh. I have this parallel life as a professor of music business [at Temple University and Monmouth College], where I’m seeing the ebb and flow of a business that has changed so much over three decades, and trying to inspire wide-eyed 19- to 22-year-olds who want to be part of this adventure.

It’s the second year of your financial literacy summit as well. Why is that so important in today’s DIY world?

There’s so much conversation about, How do you monetize? How do you make money? But we didn’t see any other conference helping small businesses or indie artists to answer the question [of], Once you are making money, how do you plan for your future? It’s the second year for that. Last year, the summit was standing room only, so there’s a need there.

Music Biz hasn’t discounted the brick-and-mortar aspect of the industry.

There’s still an important physical business. Record Store Day is a huge business globally, and the year-over-year growth in vinyl has not been a flash-in-the-pan trend. It’s a sustainable business model. There is a vibrant physical community -- it’s not the majority anymore, but it’s still of critical importance. We have a Physical Business Action Committee that is very active throughout the year.

When does 2020 planning begin?

Now! We have a shortlist of keynotes and ideas for panels and presentations. This is our first year at the JW Marriott, and we’re booked there for three years. Once we do a debrief on 2019, we do a big survey and quickly begin with no lull, but we like to leave space for surprises -- like Dolly Parton and Linda Perry’s last-minute talk last year about their Netflix project, Dumplin’. That came together a week before the conference and is one of the highlights of our history. 



The Award Winners 

In addition to keynote speeches, panel discussions, workshops and networking, the 2019 Music Biz conference will again take time to recognize both recent and lifetime achievements. The Music Biz conference’s awards and hall of fame dinner -- held at the JW Marriott Nashville on May 7 -- will honor British rock icon Peter Frampton with the chairman’s award for lifetime achievement, Sony Music Nashville chairman/CEO Randy Goodman with the presidential award for outstanding executive achievement, Darius Rucker with the Harry Chapin memorial humanitarian award, and Kane Brown and Bebe Rexha as breakthrough artists. Other honorees include The Orchard’s Richard Gottehrer, for outstanding achievement, and Richard Storms and Alayna Alderman of Rochester, N.Y.-based Record Archive, this year’s independent spirit award recipients. The event also will feature a performance from Country Music Association Award and Academy of Country Music Award-winning artist Luke Combs.

In 2018, the Music Business Association feted the “soft launch” of its hall of fame with the induction of Tower Records’ Russ Solomon, who had died that March. This year, the association shifted the awards luncheon to a dinner, which now includes a red carpet for its current crop of inductees, like the late producer George Martin (The Beatles, America) -- whose honor will be accepted by his producer son Giles Martin -- as well as record labels Atlantic, Capitol and Sub Pop; landmarks like the Apollo Theater, CBGB, Hitsville U.S.A., Sun Studio and the Troubadour; and, posthumously, late industry pioneers Ahmet Ertegun, Herb Abramson and Miriam Bienstock. “There were lots of halls of fame and ways that creative people were being recognized, but there wasn’t a place that would exclusively recognize businesspeople in terms of executive leadership as well as landmark venues and businesses and media,” says Donio. “We should be doing that.”

This article originally appeared in the April 27 issue of Billboard.


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