The Future of Music Summit - My Take

The Future of Music Summit 2013 – A Personal Account 

Last month I attended the Future of Music Summit, a conference held at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.  While it is customary to review and report on such gatherings immediately after or even to blog about them during, I am going to share some of my thoughts and impressions gleaned from my notes and memories, now a month later.  The time lag has not diminished the value of the information that I was awarded by my attendance, although some of the details, names and minutia may be forever lost except in the videos and podcast left in the cloud… (

The Future of Music Coalition does a wonderful job fulfilling its mission to bring together the business political and artistic forces that shape the future of music industry.  The musicians, songwriters, producers and entrepreneurs all benefit from having forward thinkers come together to share best practices, review trends, plot strategies and to be encouraged to continue to advance the cause and value of the art of music. 

I have attended the annual conference several times now and I was once again impressed with the range of subjects broached and explored.  While copyright laws and policies, streaming royalty rates and data mining may not sound sexy, when placed in the context of indie music genres, career development and maintenance, music as an agent for social change, jazz advocacy and an array of other relevant topics, the conference can have a tremendous impact.  Personally, it was once again affirming… 

Snippets and nuggets from my notes: 

What is the value of music?  Obviously, music’s value cannot be simply measured in terms of sales, salaries, royalties and box office receipts.  There are not only the esoteric and edification values to individual consumers but also macro-economic impacts as well.  Even so, there were appreciated discussions on the need for careful consideration of minimum royalty rates for musicians and composers vis a vis publishers and owners of masters.  These financial considerations are important not only because of the issue of fairness but also in the interest of providing musicians with the ability to earn a living in order to assure the sustainability of the industry and art.  Talented, smart artists need a pipeline to livable earnings to be encouraged to enter and stay in the field.

Consumers and fans need to realize that music is not free.  Streaming and subscription providers need to realize fairness is good business.  And musicians need to realize the wisdom of controlling their masters and being judicious with their publishing rights.  Musicians must realize, in addition to being artists and performers, they are bands, brands and businesses. 

Copyrights laws and politics require advocacy, interpreters and political allies.  Marketing, promotion and other aspects of the industry require musicians to be multi-faceted, informed and dedicated planners.  Musicians need their own organized infrastructure, no matter how small their enterprise.  They need a team to expose and monetize their music and image in order to maximize their chances for success. 

Successful marketing and promotion, in addition to great music, requires a narrative that will be shared.  It must be well constructed and tell a compelling story in a compelling way. 

As they mature, musicians can extend their careers by finding new ways to be creative.  Musical theater, film and video, lecturing, etc. can generate income outside of the usual avenues of performing live and releasing albums. 

Music and Social Activism.  On the second day of the summit there was a panel discussion called: “The Global Sound of Social Change: Music, Empowerment and Community Building.”  Panelists included: Stephen Brackett, emcee of the Flobots, who talked about his group’s activism in community organizing and the issue of music education for youth and the development of a community center in Denver; Wayne Kramer, founder of Jail Guitar Doors of USA, which created a program for getting instruments into jails and prisons; and, Ariana Delawari, musician, actress and filmmaker who was among the first female rock musicians to perform in her native Afghanistan and who also went to work with women in Uganda to compose and perform wailing and forgiveness songs. 

These musicians were amazing examples of those who use music to “inspire, educate and transform lives” by taking music beyond being simply “a commodity or source of entertainment.”  They advocate using music to build community and bring people together around social issues.  They encouraged us all to engage with other musicians to do the work and to not be afraid to stumble through or being discouraged by falling, but to be willing to find your way, through trial and error, to evolution and advancement.  

Other panelists urged us to write a new narrative – beyond ourselves – for peace and justice.  To accomplish our lofty goals we need to build and utilize non-profits and foundations; we could set aside percentages of activism in capitalism; and, we need to harness our fans to respond to societal needs.  “Only art can bring about a change of heart.” 

Josh Kun, a professor at Annenberg School of Communication, University of Southern California, gave a wonderful and innovative presentation entitled “The Art of the Crossfade” in which he traced the history and use of the horizontal slider to mix between two sound sources, the essential function of the deejay and which led to the eventual creation of hip-hop music.  We now live in the age of post-production.  Kun sees the value in corporations using musicians in residence to bring the aesthetics and methodologies of “re-mixology” into the business environment. He posits that society at large can benefit from the deejay skill of “listening for points of intersection and possible connection.”  His lecture was informative, insightful and innovative.  He used a split screen power point presentation and mixed music and sounds into his lecture.  I was inspired by the content and his use of multi-media in a lecture format. 

I was also inspired by the unabashed optimism of Tom Silverman, founder of Tommy Boy Records and the New Music Seminar.  Tom is bullish on the future of the business of music and he thinks the doom and gloom predictions of the industry are premature and the best of the post-digital age is yet to come.  

"We're at the point where we're at the end of digital downloads (as a major revenue stream for labels and artists) and we're not even thinking about what's next," he said. "We're all still too busy fighting (Internet) piracy."

But the development of new business models linked to massive technological advances can take years to come to fruition. Consider that the phonograph, introduced in the 19th Century, didn't truly foster a thriving recording industry until the 1940’s. By that standard, the current revolution is still in its infancy. 

I talked to Tom about his early venturing into producing rap records long before the genre become widely popular; and relating to my own career I commented that being ahead of one’s time was almost as bad as being too late. While we agreed being right on time was the obvious goal, Tom said being ahead of the curve was better than being late because then you’d have the chance to say “See I was right!”  Great point.  Especially at a Future of Music themed event. 

I was impressed with a number of the presenters.  But I was not the best note taker.  There was for example, one female musician on a panel on the first morning who ended her presentation with a top ten list of things she recommends for musicians and I swear it was the greatest, succinct yet comprehensive primer of a check-list, ever; but, alas, I didn’t get her name or any information on how to get that list.  (She said it was a part of a preface that she wrote for somebody else’s book or documentary.)  

So to get better, more comprehensive info and insights you could go to the Future of Music Coalition website, or better yet, plan to attend next year’s summit. 

J. Plunky Branch, musician, producer