Blogging MIDEM 2013: Part 3 – Ephemeral Playback
There’s something that is somehow intriguing about making the listening experience so precious at a time when it is so devalued. And in the midst of Monday’s marathon information overload on steroids, learning about a new app that will only allow you to play a song one time seemed downright appealing.
MIDEM 2013 is now officially over, but the last 36 hours seemed to have occurred in a kind of accelerated time continuum so it will probably take days to process everything that took place. Monday has been traditionally the most overloaded day during MIDEM, and Tuesday the quietest, and this year was no exception. On Monday, I spent most of the day frantically trying to catch parts of multiple simultaneously-occurring sessions, since there were so many potentially interesting discussions going on, but I haven’t had a moment to turn my experiences into hopefully coherent prose until Tuesday afternoon now that everything at MIDEM has pretty much ground to a halt.
(Monday, January 28, 2013)
I was hoping to catch a session on French music export that was scheduled to begin at 9:30am and run until 11am, but I didn’t get down to the Palais until 10 since the video of my talk with Kofi Amoakohene (posted yesterday) was still uploading and at that point there were two additional sessions I wanted to attend. The first was a press conference about Record Store Day 2013, a worldwide campaign to get consumers into record shops on April 20, 2013. The organizers for Record Store Day describe it as “the largest open source event in the world.” In previous years over 1600 independent record shops have participated and over 2 million people attended worldwide. According to Record Store Day Co-founder Michael Kurtz, President of the Department of Record Stores (USA), the event “is about rebuilding trust. Over the past 20 years there has been an erosion of trust between fans and the music industry, particularly the major labels.” Record Store Day is adamantly about small entrepreneurs and getting people excited about listening to new music through the process of discovery rather than a big business marketing campaign. David Godevais, director of CALIF (France) who is the organizer for Record Store Day in France (where it is called “Disquaire Day”) claimed that during last year’s event he had “never before seen so many people queuing for record stores.” But Kurtz stressed the importance of keeping it grass roots since that is the key to its success. “We can’t allow it to be taken over and glutted.” Another member of the panel (whose name was unfortunately not included in the program schedule) posited that the large chain stores ultimately led to the decline of consumer interest in record shopping and compared a good independent record store to a good local bakery.
But before the panel was over, I dashed out of the room and up a flight of stairs to catch part of a session on the future of collective rights management that was put together by GEMA, the German performing rights society. Current EU guidelines have transformed the spheres of influence of national performing rights societies as has the global digital music marketplace. But as Dr. Enjott Schneider (Composer and Chairman of the Supervisory Board of GEMA) opined, “We must operate with transparency, but if I look into the future I see Google and Apple, organizations with no transparency.” Austrian singer/songwriter Andy Baum described how the music business has turned into a rights business and sees the new model as a problematic one for creators, “Those who are trying to get the rights are not doing it for the benefit of the artist, that’s for sure.” Alexandra Thein, a Member of the European Parliament, commented that it will be not be easy to get a political majority to support tougher rights protections at this time since they all have to address the fair treatment of consumers. During the question and answer period, Robert Ashcroft, the chief executive for PRS (the British performing rights society) claimed that “sometimes it’s better to move forward than to defend where we are” and that “the main prize is a pan-European market that authors can actually make money in.”
From there I wandered into the presentation of the results of MIDEM Hack Day 2013 which I attended the launch of on Saturday. I only had time to hear about four of the newly created hacks, since there were so many sessions competing for my attention, but the one that grabbed me was called “Ephemeral Playback” which was created by a Barcelona-based hacker named Alasdair Porter. Basically, his device is an attempt to return scarcity to music. It allows you to listen to a single song only one time and then pass the file along to someone else to do the same. His goal is to create a chain of single-time listeners. While it’s ultimately anathema to a record collector like me, there’s something that is somehow intriguing about making the listening experience so precious at a time when it is so devalued. And in the midst of Monday’s marathon information overload on steroids, the concept seemed downright appealing.
But I had to move on to a discussion about how to revitalize classical and jazz back catalogs in the digital era. According to Jerald Miller, founder of Nu Jazz Entertainment (USA), “people in classical and jazz are always behind the eight ball.” Jonathan Gruber, director of Ulysses Arts (UK) claimed there is a “false distinction between streaming and downloading.” Although Miller countered that there’s a significant distinction in certain communities, “In New York we don’t drive so we don’t listen to XM radio; we’re in the subway.” However Gruber thought the more significant distinction that needs to be made is between listening to music for free (which is a chance for discovery we should encourage) and a deeper engagement through ownership, personalization, and collecting. Although most of the classical music that has been selling in the digital realm has been bundled introductory compilations, Gruber was optimistic that these could be a gateway to “premium product” in the future. Both, however, believed that the era of the lavish boxed set, which doesn’t really translate into the digital sphere, is over even though neither conceded that physical sales will completely disappear. Miller described the absurdity of a Miles Davis re-issue sold in a trumpet case. “Who is interested in that and can afford it? I don’t care about collectors; they have most of what they want. I want to reach new audiences.”
Next I trekked to the opposite side of the Palais to attend some of “Visionary Monday,” a whirlwind series of presentations, some of which only lasted 10 minutes, focusing on new technologies and new listening modalities. Robert Scoble, the startup liaison officer for Rackspace Hosting (USA) claimed we have entered a new “age of context” in which experiences will be transformed based on knowing customers in deep detail. Rather than sounding Orwellian alarms, Scoble was excited about how musical performances could be tailor made to specific audience members creating one-of-a-kind personalized experiences.
Then the winners of the MIDEM Lab were announced. The winner for music discovery, recommendation and creation was Instrumagic, developed by Eyal Eldar (Israel), which enables tablet users to play a virtual guitar without needing to learn the instrument. The app has a databank containing 200,000 licensed songs and users can play any of them by simply tapping on their tablets to trigger strums and chord changes. According to Eldar, 85% of people in the United States who don’t play a musical instrument wish that they did and now they can.
Other winners were: Jamplify (USA), for marketing and social engagement; Stageit (USA) for direct to consumer sales and content management; and Audience FM (France), which was the overall prize. I was particularly taken with Stageit which enables artists to perform concerts from a webcam anywhere and collect listening fees as well as tips from people who listen in. This could be yet another alternative concert space for the most challenging new music since it is possible to build a significant audience for just about anything online. Whether online audiences are willing to pay, of course, is another matter, but according to Stageit’s Evan Lowenstein, some of his artists—who include Lisa Loeb and Rick Springfield—have been able to make $30K in 30 minutes.
I glided briefly into a two-hour presentation about electronic music at the MIDEM Academy. The main pearl of wisdom I gleaned from the short time I was there was from a YouTube representative on the panel (whose name is unfortunately not listed on the program schedule) who explained the positive relationship between YouTube and electronic music:
YouTube and electronic music sit very well together since YouTube is an electronic medium for distributing content. It is one of the most popular genres on the platform. They can fill venues with a thousand people on a couple of days’ notice through YouTube.
He then described a gig cancelled due to Hurricane Sandy that was done instead via webcam over the internet from hotel room. Of course since remuneration from YouTube is virtually non-existent (unless you’re Psy as someone pointed out during a session earlier in the week), this might be perfect fodder in the future for platforms like StageIt.
Back to recorded music, I then rushed back to the Classical Discussion Lounge to hear a discussion about making digital work for classical music between Gramophone Editor-in-Chief James Jolly, Naxos of America CEO Jim Selby, and Mickaël Arcos, a software engineer for Abeille Musique in France. According to Arcos, there are “no shipping costs with digital so it’s very attractive.” But Selby asserted that “consumers ultimately make the decision about what they want.” He believes that the physical business has not gone away and will remain stable in the coming years. When Jolly asked if there was a way for free to be a viable option for distributing music, Selby was adamant:
There’s no free lunch. We have to be very careful about free and not let others build their businesses on the backs of other people’s content and not pay for it. We need commerce tied to free. I don’t get anything for free. If I don’t pay my cable bill, they’ll cut me off.
After that heated discussion, I attempted to head back to Visionary Monday but got waylaid by the Czech-Slovak party and the Lithuanian party. Wine, beer, and stronger drinks were plied to passers-by with abandon, in hopes that they would walk away with some interest in the music of those countries as well. These days, people seem reluctant to fill up their luggage with promotional CDs (I’m the exception to that rule, I know), but I continued to spot evidence of the work of the Vinylrecorder as I eventually found my way out of the exhibition hall.
I caught the very tail end of a debate about how the music industry handles innovation in which Robert Ashcroft of PRS was again part of the discussion. He talked about how PRS was the first performing rights society to license YouTube even though they were not happy with the terms. “I’m not gonna see myself as a dinosaur,” he exclaimed. “Apple is now making more in profit than the music industry ever did.”
I was frantically trying to write up the events of Sunday to share with readers here during most of this, so I wasn’t able to glean much else. I did, however, manage to catch Paul D. Miller (a.k.a. DJ Spooky)’s closing performance for Visionary Monday. I love those globe-spinning turntables!
Now it was concert showcase time. My energy was pretty zapped by that point, but I caught part of the opening act at Magic Mirrors, which was Endah N Resha, an Indonesian husband-and-wife folk duo who won the 2013 “Play MIDEM Live” competition. I hoped their music would incorporate some elements of gamelan, but it was pretty much pop-folk in an international context, although they briefly made a few sounds that were reminiscent of kejak, the traditional Balinese Ramayama monkey chant, and, at one point, seemed to be alluding to bola lap, an Indian music performance technique where tabla players call out rhythmic patterns.
Since there was a Congolese musician named Celeo scheduled to appear at The Establishment, another club several blocks away, I thought I should hear part of his set. Unfortunately, Celeo, like the other MIDEM attendees from Congo, was not allowed into the country. The club brought in a local singer/rapper who was originally from Congo named Uba. But since no other musicians could be brought in on such short notice he performed to a pre-recorded track, which was quite disappointing even though he had a nice voice. Perhaps even more disappointing was the fact that I was one of only three people in the audience.
I ended the night back at Morrison’s Irish Pub to catch part of the Canadian Showcase, which had been a performance highlight of MIDEM for me last year. This was the other extreme. It was so crowded I could barely maneuver my way in. I stayed to listen to a couple of songs performed by pop rock singer/songwriter Jesse Labelle and his band, but people kept pouring in and it was starting to feel extremely uncomfortable, so I called it a night.
There is still quite a bit to report about today’s activities, but I’ve been typing madly away for two hours and now need to go have dinner so it will have to wait. I fly back to North America tomorrow (first stopping home in NYC, then flying out to Winnipeg the following morning), but I will try to tell the rest of the story as soon as I can.