MIDEM has long been one of, if not the ultimate annual dipstick for the music business. And so it's worth paying careful attention to what came up this year -- the 45th iteration of the event. This year's ran from Jan. 22 to Jan. 26.

Once, MIDEM was a place where labels, publishers and distributors would come together in small booths and listen to music-on vinyl, then cassettes, then CDs. Deals would be worked out on the spot with paper, pen, taste and guile, and international partners would be found, all determining what records would be respective priorities and for whom in the coming year. This was the MIDEM where young lawyers like Allen Grubman got their start banging out the paperwork on quick, cheap and abundant deals and a skinny little publisher with giant red spectacles began to make a name -- Lucian Grainge -- as a hustler.

The event evolved with the business through the years, and has been challenged along with the business of late. MIDEM is 5% smaller this year, according to official numbers, and was officially 10% down the year before. Unofficially, some would say it appears to be losing population a bit more quickly than that. But make no mistake, MIDEM is essential -- perhaps more so than ever.

Back when music had a clear and present business model, MIDEM existed to color within the lines. Bring music to Cannes, find partners for all your key territories, repeat. Today, with the global business having shrunk by nearly a third since 2004 and still no overarching answer in sight, MIDEM has become one of the key places to go and hash it all out. The health of the music business depends in no small part on the continued success of such idea marketplaces.

Over at the multi-story, bunker-like Palais, MIDEM continued to smartly shift the focus of its formal programming toward technology-based solutions. A "music hack day -- literally, a team of hackers flown in by conference organizers, creating programs for music -- drew a lot of attention and generated some fun ideas. Top startups were named in three categories, and tech investor Saul Klein of Index, who has invested in such companies as Last.fm, Songkick, Sonos and other music brands, gave a well-received talk about what would compel him to invest in a music company today.

But as anyone in attendance knows, the truly vital part of MIDEM happens after hours, in places like Station Tavern back in the old city, where Ian Rogers' Topspin hosts an annual happy hour, this year coinciding with the broadcast of the National Football League's conference championship games. Or in the strange and tiny little club La Chunga, just off the Croisette, where on any given night you can see top doers and thinkers crammed onto a tiny dancefloor, jumping around to music that ranges from hand-picked Greek guitar to remixes of current dance-pop hits. On Sunday night this year, I saw "Glee" music supervisor P.J. Bloom chatting at the bar with Jeff Liebenson, president of the International Assn. of Entertainment Lawyers, while Daniel Klaus, who manages AppFund, and Gerrit Meier, COO of Clear Channel's online operations, hit the dancefloor with Pegi Cecconi, one of Rush's managers. So it goes, all night long, for five days.

And of course, there is the Carlton hotel bar, which doesn't seem to get started until around 1 a.m., and doesn't close down as much as stumble into breakfast. One of the funniest lines I heard at this year's conference was delivered in one of these moments by the ever-articulate and erudite Jim Lucchese, CEO of the Echo Nest. It was 4 a.m. and Lucchese was among a small group who had left an uproarious time in the suite of Bug Music CEO John Rudolph, when Greek star Athena Andreadis offered to play a song on the grand piano downstairs. As Lucchese helped her to remove an elaborate vase in order to open the piano, he chided himself out loud, as a parent would a child: "I shouldn't be touching expensive things!"

OK, maybe you needed to be there, or maybe you can appreciate the innate awesomeness of a talented, rising pop star playing a witching-hour set for a quorum of six in marbled halls along the Riviera. Even as she finished her song and the group was chased off by hotel staff, business was still happening. There was Billboard's own digital GM George White meeting Daniel Zaccagnino, a founder of Indaba; the latter's network of independent artists a potential perfect match for Billboard's soon-to-launch Billboard Pro service, offering aspiring artist charts and toolsets for their online fan base.

We are joined in our indiscretions, quasi as they may be. We need moments-or yes, five-day treks to Cannes-to remind us that the music business isn't a dour place but one that still allows us the occasional indulgence of being characters, and to discover the character of which we are made as men and women. We need these moments to bond together the players from new parts and different generations of one music business community.

Creative solutions don't simply happen because quarterly pressure demands it. They happen when bright and passionate people come together in an environment where they can let down their hair a bit, and think and breathe together. The Web may have shrunk the global business world to a tiny backyard. But it will never replace the Carlton bar at 3 in the morning.