In only its second year of existence, Music Tectonics — the annual industry conference that explores the convergence of music and technology — was forced to shift to a completely online event as the pandemic took hold in the United States. But it wasn’t the first time that organizers’ best laid plans had been undercut by an act of nature.
“You know, it’s funny. By the time the pandemic had arrived, we already had to pivot because that first year [in 2019] was the year of the brush fires in [Los Angeles], where our conference was supposed to be held,” says Music Tectonics founder/director Dmitri Vietze, who also serves as founder/CEO of music tech PR firm Rock Paper Scissors. “We had to move our conference within 24 hours. So, it only made sense that the next year there was a pandemic.”
After being held virtually in 2020 and as a hybrid event in 2021, Music Tectonics will return as a fully in-person conference in October — with an expanded global profile that grew out of the conference’s two years online. “We had people from India and Australia who were staying up all night to participate in our live events,” says Vietze. Now, he adds, “we’re finding a lot of international contingents are having conversations with us from as far away as South Korea and Norway and Germany.”
Slated to take place Oct. 25-27 in Santa Monica, Calif., with conference partners that include LANDR, LyricFind and Vibrate, Music Tectonics 2022 will feature a keynote address by Spotify head of innovation and market intelligence Máuhan Zonoozy as well as panels with industry insiders and entrepreneurs, including “The Catalog Gold Rush in the Streaming Economy,” “Collaborative Creation With Fans,” “Copyright in the Age of Web3” and “Ultimate Live Music Tech Tools.” In the lead-up to the event, Billboard spoke with Vietze and Music Tectonics marketing director Eleanor Rust about the origins of the conference, what attendees can expect this year and the most pressing issues facing the intersection of music and tech.
How did Music Tectonics evolve out of your work leading Rock Paper Scissors?
Vietze: As an entrepreneur, I’ve always liked building community. At Rock Paper Scissors, we have been working with more and more music innovation and music technology companies and wanted to see the same creativity applied to that community-building. Obviously, there’s the creativity of the music itself, but there’s so much happening with how people are approaching business models that we wanted to put that into the form of an event where [the industry] could gather and we could learn about more of those ideas and see more people find each other and build great business practices together.
What unserved need was Music Tectonics designed to address, and what sets it apart from other music and tech gatherings?
Vietze: We’re big fans of conferences like South by Southwest and Indie Week, Music Biz and Midem. Each of those have their own flavor, and we felt there could be an independent conference that wasn’t beholden to any particular contingent of the industry — not focused on majors or indies, labels versus streaming services, but instead focused on this idea of innovation that would bring all those parties together.
This is the first fully in-person Music Tectonics conference since the inaugural edition in 2019. What was it like having to pivot to an online format in only your second year?
Vietze: Like everybody, at first, we faced a lot of fear and concern about what [COVID-19] means for the world, as well as our event and our businesses and our livelihoods. But again, we went back to that idea of community-building and decided to leverage the advantages of what we could do when everybody was remote. We leaned into things like online speed-networking. We also experimented with metaverse stuff because we want people to not just talk about this stuff but actually experience it. And we ended up having a global audience as a result.
Rust: We pivoted to online really quickly for a series of lead-up events. Music Tectonics was set to do a South by Southwest party in March, and we pivoted immediately to turn that one in-person meetup into a series of three online meetups with our community and then just kept those going throughout 2020. We experimented with online platforms that way so that by the time the conference [happened], we had something that we knew people were going to love.
Is there anything you took from the virtual editions that’s carrying over to the in-person event this year?
Rust: One thing we really learned from online is that the event needs to match the platform and vice versa. You can only do what the platform is good at in an online event. In a sense, we’ve taken that to real life by having three conference days at three different venues that are going to offer very different experiences. We’re not going to do all of that in a hotel basement anymore. Part of [the reason for] that is because our event had to change for online.
In 2020 you had, what, 800 people online?
Rust: Yeah, and then 1,000 for 2021.
Vietze: It’s early so we’re still working on [the] plans, but we’re finding a lot of international contingents are having conversations with us right now from as far away as South Korea, Norway and Germany. We’ll see if they make their trade missions, but it seems like that international market is also interested in connecting in-person with the American market.
Rust: I definitely credit the online events with being able to include [international] people last year. Now they know us and are interested in coming along for the ride.
Are you going to have an online component this year?
Rust: Not to the conference, although we do have some lead-up events [that will be online]. For example, we’re just about to launch our startup pitch competition. We started that in 2020, so this is our first time in-person. We’re going to have a semifinalist event online on Sept. 7, so 10 semifinalists will pitch online to a jury and all conference badge holders will be invited to that. We’re going to have some other [online] programming [that will be] the first time that conference badge holders will really be able to meet and mingle. That in a sense is stage-setting so that people can network and get to know each other before they get to the conference.
Aside from the fact that it’s completely in-person, are there any new elements people can expect this year?
Vietze: Each day has a different flavor. The first day is at the carousel at the Santa Monica Pier, which is the venue we used last year for networking. This year, we’re going to do a startup carousel where people can come and get demos of some of the startups that are participating in our competition. Then, the traditional conference is an exhibitor hall — it’s a keynote, it’s panels and the schmooze between the sessions — and we’ve got parties on various days as well. The third day we call the Music Tech Dojo. We’ve been to other conferences where people are like, “Oh, shoot, we met there, but we didn’t actually get to sit down and have a meeting.” So, we are taking over this coworking space, also in Santa Monica, where people can continue those one-on-one meetings and get the rest of the business done.
What are the most pressing issues facing the intersection of music and tech right now?
Vietze: I don’t think people are realizing that streaming is the new baseline for the [music] economy. Not everyone’s happy with how the money is getting paid out, but it has totally brought the music industry to a viable place. By saying it’s the new baseline, what I mean is, it’s not the end of the road. Music has become digitized and licensable in a way that’s not perfect, but it’s actually working from a business perspective in a lot of ways. That digitization of music is now going to get exposed in a lot of other places. When we talk about video gaming and music or metaverse and music or user-generated video creators using music, or virtual reality and music, all of those things are these new layers. You can fight about streaming and fight about Spotify, but they created a pathway that [will build] a lot more revenue streams.
There’s [also] this music creator category that is exploding. It’s going to be as big as what Instagram did for photography and what YouTube and now TikTok’s doing for video. I’m intrigued by those tools, whether it’s artificial intelligence or other kinds of maturation of mobile apps, that people have an entire band and studio in their pocket. As a result, the people who are in the business of selling recorded music are going to be competing for attention with everybody, because everybody’s going to be making music.
Are there any trends that took off during the early parts of the pandemic in the music/tech space that you feel haven’t really survived the transition back to in-person?
Vietze: We have the Music Tectonics podcast, and one of the first things we did was ask the question: What is going to explode, or what’s exploding right now because of this remote isolation? And we focused on a few areas. We focused on remote music education, remote collaboration tools and livestreaming. Those were the three big categories. Though the demand was extremely high for all of that stuff during the pandemic, it may look like the demand has waned to the point where it’s no longer even a thing right now, [but] I don’t think that’s the correct analysis. The demand was so damn high that it looked like this stuff was exploding, and then when it went to lower levels, it looked like it was dying. But I think the pandemic paved the way for a path to monetization and for the survival of those innovations and the way that people interact around music. Something like 400 livestreaming companies emerged in total from before and during the pandemic. Obviously, the majority of those are not going to survive. However, some of them will, and it’ll be part of the overall music diet in terms of the fan experience and in terms of artists and artist teams’ career experiences.
What emerging technologies in music are you excited about?
Vietze: At the first conference we did a session called “AI’s Got Talent.” The idea was, what’s the role of artificial intelligence in musical creativity? The debate at the time was not that different from how different generations of musicians protested mechanical pianos, player pianos, turntables being used as musical instruments, synthesizers — all these things had a controversial moment. Eventually, a certain type of creativity and new forms emerged, new genres emerged and got adopted. The same thing is happening with artificial intelligence. So much to the point that the conversation isn’t really happening anymore. There’s not as much, “AI is a problem.” Instead, you see this massive wave of musical creators who are using this stuff. As a result, we’re going to see this massive creativity of new styles, new genres, new songs, but also new generations of people who wouldn’t have had access to making music. As a social phenomenon, it is just going to continue to grow like a tidal wave.
Non-fungible tokens have taken off in music in a way that few people anticipated, but it’s a contentious issue. Now, you have a lot of people saying, “Oh, the bottom is going to fall out, or is falling out, and there’s no real future in this.” What are your thoughts on where that’s going?
Vietze: The crux of what’s beneath the surface with the concept of NFTs and Web3 is solid innovation. Once the technology comes into place, it’s just a matter of time before it’s actually a day-to-day operational, useful tool. Right now, people are learning as they go, as they create, as they purchase. [In the future], we won’t be calling anything an NFT, but you’ll still have this experience of knowing that there’s value, that you’re unlocking new opportunities through a purchase and that there will be a chance to track things in a way that doesn’t invade your privacy. Those are all great things, and I think they will happen. And it makes sense that there will be very large market corrections along the way.