Virgin host “Disruptors” and Will.I.Am hangs out with ‘geeks’

On October 29, 2013

Virgin Disruptors Live Debate

Last night a very interesting panel of people came together to discuss technology and its effects on the music industry. I’ve embedded the talk below, but first I have a few thoughts about the discussion. You can choose which order you want to do things though ;-).

The event was hosted by the plucky little jack of all presenting trades Colin Murray, who had with him songstress Imogen Heap alongside Spotify’s Trevor Skeet, Songkick’s Ian Hogarth and Vevo’s Nic Jones. In an interesting twist, the show used Google Hangout to connect Will.I.Am, Scooter Braun, Amanda Palmer and Zoe Keating to the forum. Surprisingly it all worked well together with very few hitches and little lag.

Has tech killed the music industry?

What a title, aye?! Tech… killed the music industry? A pretty awful idea, let alone one to base a discussion on with this panel. The foundation of music as an industry IS tech. Will.I.Am was clued up enough to point this out; soon after we could record music, there were Gramophones to sell. Abbey Road, the first purpose-built recording facility built by the Gramophone Company to supply the industry, came along to serve up media to the masses. Later, Sony and Phillips would lead the music industry into the era of portable music – first with the tape cassette, and then by bringing the CD to market. Tech kill the music industry? Hell, tech MADE the music industry.

But tech has evolved further, and we are now in the digital age. The CD plus home computers, the internet and digital encoders like Winamp gave rise to a new way to convert, copy and share media. I won’t go through the whole story of music in the digital age, as that’s a whole other blogpost/essay/book. This is where Virgin are going with this title – but it is still a terrible title.

The artists, managers and techs… NOW FIGHT!!

Spotify beatdown

After looking at the panel, I honestly thought this was going to turn into a bitching session between the artists/managers and Spotify, with Songkick getting lots of praise and Vevo washing their hands by saying “ad revenue” a bunch of times. Spotify is the soft target, which is probably why they sent a rep who is both a Spotify employee working in “artist relations” and also an artist/DJ/producer. I’d love to know just how many direct relationships they have with artists. But Mr Skeet didn’t get placed in the crosshairs as expected; instead he was defended and even given some ideas and good feedback to help artists get more from the service. Palmer wants to see more tech firms giving back to the industry, and not just in payments for play. All these tech firms want to drink from the pool of media content, but more need to be contributing to that pool. Palmer asked:

Wouldn’t it seem that the place that’s making the lion’s share of the profit should also be putting money back into the creation of content to have a healthy ecosystem?

Keating demanded more transparency and a method by which the artist can set their terms for working with Spotify. Back in July, Nigel Godrich ranted about the apparent deal major labels cut with Spotify, leaving indies with very little, and he later went on to boycott the service with recording pals Radiohead. Lets also not forget that in 2009 it was reported that majors held a combined 18% stake in Spotify. If the cards are really that stacked, I can’t see Keating’s request being met.

So no fight? No eye scratching about payments from Spotify being crap? Nope. Cue Vevo’s entrance into the conversation and a heated discussion I hadn’t really seen coming.

The disheartening Vevo

Heap brought the discussion away from the hangout and back to the floor, snapping at Jones about Vevo’s adverts – how when she or her family visits her Vevo page, they have to sit through an advert that generally has nothing to do with her music. Again, transparency is the request, and Heap wants to know what her label Sony and Vevo have agreed to in regards to her music. Again, more control is requested, which is where Will.I.Am becomes active – and given his reputation for commercial deals, it’s the conversation he is most impassioned about.

“We have to pay for our videos to be on that platform”, argues Will.I.Am. “…can we choose what brands come before or after our content when I’m the one paying for the video?!” For Will, it’s about his brands and commercial interests. Lets not forget he is a “Creative Innovator” for Intel, has equity stakes in Beats and has a fashion label / iPhone accessory company. The multi-faceted musician-producer was pretty cold cut when it came to this:

‘I Gotta Feeling’ is still the number one downloaded song of all time in iTunes, but I made more money from the equity I own in Beats…

Will.I.Am’s advice – surround yourself with coders and technology innovators to push your music forward. Or as he put it:

 “We can sit here and complain or we can go out and find some motherfucking geeks…”

So a musician/entrepreneur/innovator (or whatever he calls himself this week) like Will.I.Am naturally wants the companies he has deals with to appear with his music. Heap and Keating’s idealistic view is to simply keep brands they don’t agree with away from their music. Given that the brands with the biggest advertising budgets are possibly the ones artists like Heap, Keating et al would want to stay away from, this doesn’t serve Vevo’s ad based model very well.

I haven’t said much about Scooter Braun, who made sure to remind us all several times that this conversation won’t matter in 10 years. Well I guess we shouldn’t bother then, aye Scooter? But he also joined in on the Vevo bashing, citing the lavish party he and his peers were invited to to launch Vevo, yet were never actually consulted on the how/what/why of Vevo’s model. Vevo built a model to make money out of music videos without apparently consulting the manager of an artist with the top hits on Youtube. He went on to warn:

You can’t expect to get anywhere with an artist unless you’re willing to let them have a voice… If they’re not in the know, they’re going to kick your ass! 

What do we want?! Discussion!! When do we want it?! …

In short, artists want more discussion with tech companies. They want more transparency and better data from the likes of Spotify and Vevo, while also wanting control of the adverts being placed with their content. Heap wants them all to get in a room and have it out; Jones and Hogarth agreed this was needed, but that artists were difficult to get hold of. The mistake they could all be making here is that tech companies don’t treat artists as equals and simply see them as content creators to drive their business. We have already seen this with the biggest record store of them all, iTunes. Back in 2003, Steve Jobs admitted iTunes was not there to make money, but to sell iPods:

“We would like to break even/make a little bit of money but it’s not a money maker” 

And like Will.I.Am said, the money is in the hardware. Musicians are passionate about what they do and the personal art they craft, and how that art is perceived is important to them. But tech companies are tech companies, not music companies. Many people even say the major music companies are barely music companies. For the tech firms, there will always be music to utilise their market strategies, despite the protests from the likes of Godrich and Radiohead. Just go look at the first iPod keynote in 2001 and how Jobs acknowledges that music is not a speculative market – everyone loves music!


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