Online marketing efforts and a leveling of the playing field between independent and major labels dominated discussions today (Sept. 6) at the seventh annual Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Conference &

Online marketing efforts and a leveling of the playing field between independent and major labels dominated discussions today (Sept. 6) at the seventh annual Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Conference & Awards. The usual suspects, such as MySpace and YouTube, were frequently referenced, as attendees at Atlanta's Renaissance Waverly Hotel discussed everything from new online opportunities to global touring.

"Marketing yourself online is 100% cheaper than marketing yourself offline," said Sumant Sridharan, director of product management at LiveDigital. "It's the most cost effective way to brand yourself as an artist."

Sridharan spoke these words during the conference's opening panel discussion, "Channeling the Digital World," which was moderated by Billboard executive editor/associate publisher Tamara Conniff.

Co-panelist Universal Motown CFO/executive VP of operations David Ellner also pointed to MySpace and YouTube when conversation turned to the changing distribution channels, another common thread running throughout the day. Such Internet sites are creating "huge opportunities for everyone," Ellner noted. That is, he added, "if the content is compelling."

A similar current of thought coursed throughout the second session, "Cashing In: The International Connection." Sponsored by Armed Forces Entertainment and moderated by Billboard's R&B/hip-hop correspondent Hillary Crosley, the panel centered on bridging the gap—as well as capitalizing on—the international music market.

Overcoming such hurdles as the new immigration laws, language and spiraling costs of promotion and marketing rely principally on two cornerstones: building relationships and understanding markets you want to target. "Every [foreign] market is different," said entertainment attorney Kendall Minter of Minter & Associates. "You can't have this global view that everything is the same."

To illustrate, Minter pointed to touring in the United States verses Europe. "You can play 20 dates here in the U.S. and be barely on [people's] radar," he explained. He said the reverse is true in Europe, where touring artists are not dealing with a country the size of the United States.

Touring globally was also a point of discussion during the day's final panel, "R&B: Declaration of Independence," which focused on marketing and promoting independent R&B music. Singer/songwriter Eric Roberson spoke highly of the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. He noted that contemporary R&B and soul music are very much revered in those territories. "You need to keep your options open when it comes to touring," he said. "Sometimes the U.S. might be calling your name; other times, it might be the U.K. or Germany."

To be sure, MySpace and YouTube were name checked by all Independence panelists—except for Music Choice director of urban programming Lamonda Williams, who simply stressed the importance of nontraditional outlets to help spread the word about independent music.

When moderator Gail Mitchell, senior R&B/Hip-Hop editor of Billboard, wondered aloud how independent R&B music will progress and move forward, Williams spoke for many when she said, "It's not going away. But you must exercise all the available nontraditional platforms, whether it's wireless, digital, online or cable. There are so many alternatives to exposing your music. Take advantage of them."

Additional reporting by Gail Mitchell.

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