NYU's Stream-Tech Music Conference Teaches, Explains & Tries Not to Ruffle Feathers

The participants in the Stream-Tech Music Conference at New York University's downtown Brooklyn campus, which addressed various issues in the music streaming space, remained fairly noncontentious -- at least, until the Q&A session following a mid-afternoon panel entitled, fittingly, Streaming Wars.

After music critic Robert Christgau pointed out that no one had talked about sync licensing and touring revenue, a young woman said she didn't see why she couldn't sell as many albums as Taylor Swift and another nervously complained that the panelists made it sound as if musicians should just accept the New World Order: Streaming is the future and artists will never make any money off of it because the music industry is "rigged." "Wait," joked moderator Errol Kolosine, an assistant arts professor at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, "so you're saying the music industry is rigged?"

Presented by the Clive Davis Institute, the Norwegian Consulate General, Music Norway (the first panel and general theme of the day focused on music streaming's homeland, Northern Europe), and Music Ally, the Stream-Tech Music Conference aimed for the nonpartisan version of Spotify's recent artist outreach mission: to explain to students, professors and other music industry members how streaming is affecting the music marketplace and artist careers. As Clive Davis Institute adjunct faculty Stein Bjelland said, "It's all about technology and money today." 

As the day progressed from its 10 a.m. start time to the closing comments at 5:30 p.m., the room's audience gradually shifted from a more buttoned-down professional crowd, likely there for the dense digital rights breakdown and networking hour, and students, who came for content-creator-friendly tutorials like the Streaming Video Economy, led by IND Music co-founder and CEO Brandon Martinez, and Infiltrating Blogs: The New Powerhouse, featuring the FADER's Jon Cohen (still as hip as ever, except as any savvy music follower knows, it's FKA Twigs, not "Twigs").

The IFPI's Patrick Charnley opened with some hard facts and figures: The U.S. far outstrips nearly every other country with streaming music services, with $79 million in growth in the first half of 2014 compared to its second, the U.K., at $31 million (all figures in U.S. dollars), YouTube gives out $500 million in revenue to labels that belong to IFPI, and that growth in streaming is somewhat offsetting the decline in downloads in Germany, Denmark and, yes, Sweden.

A2IM vp Molly Neuman took the podium next to talk about somewhat drier, but very important, thorny legal matters surrounding digital breakage. For the uninitiated, "breakage" encompasses largely major-label licensing negotiations like equity in streaming companies like Spotify in lieu of payments, or usage-based royalty rates replaced with "listening hour guarantees" -- basically, anything that could theoretically be negotiated privately, a process that's currently protected by law. 

In light of her speech, the following 30-minute presentation was very illuminating indeed. Achim Matthes, director of digital partner development and sales at Sony Music U.S., sang the praises of the growing business of streaming (50 percent year over year, according to the IFPI, with subscriber bases growing by 40 percent). Sure, the omniscient record store clerk was great, he said, but it's exhausting to pore over vinyl for hours when you can't eat or drink -- enter Google Play's Clash documentary Audio Ammunition, Spotify's The Real Story of Nas' "Illmatic," and other service-generated content that educates the listener just as much, if not more, than your local record-store guru. He also touted the power of playlisting and big data. 

While most of the panels fairly assessed the pros and cons of streaming, however, Matthes did not, a conspicuous lack of perspective that stuck out like an especially black-and-blue thumb after Neuman brought up the issue of breakage. After hearing that Sony may have a share in a company that they weren't saying anything negative about, it was difficult to take what Matthes said -- though he seemed to be genuine -- without a grain of salt. 

Listening to the following panel, from marketing head Daniel Green of high-fidelity streaming service Tidal, also required a bit of skepticism. Though Neil Young's equivalent lossless audio device, Pono, has already proven itself successful with a Kickstarter campaign that surpassed expectations, streaming services for audiophiles is definitely a niche market, which Green admitted. (Interestingly enough, 93.6 percent of their target audience is male, so the advertisements he showed the audience were tailor-made for men.) There was little information he could tell us other than that they've been approached by hi-fi hardware developers like Sonos, which is promising. 

What's not promising, as Streaming Wars attested, is the music industry. Through sometimes convoluted metaphors of evolution ("If Def Jam is a brontosaurus with one foot in the mud..."), entertainment attorney Nick Sciorra discussed with Kolosine and Phonofile managing director Erik Brataas equity, the discrepancy between the U.S.' affinity for Internet radio and its struggle for market shares in the rest of the world, and how data has trumped content as king.

"Do you really think you can make a living in New York City from selling CDs?" Kolosine asked the aspiring Taylor Swift. "To be that big, someone's spending millions and millions of dollars to break you, and they're expecting that back tenfold. You have to pay attention to the economic equation to get to that point."

Music Ally's Kareem Fanous had some more reassuring words: "Every generation has gone through the same problems," he said. "It's about embracing new ways of reaching your audience." 

At least the speakers at Stream-Tech seemed to have gotten that down pat.