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Can Conventions Save the Music Industry?
by Alex Cosper (7/24/16)

The music industry regularly throws big parties that their executives and accountants document as "conventions." Usually these events are thrown in huge cities like New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami and Minneapolis. The main purpose of these events is to showcase up and coming music talent and to discuss industry issues, particularly at the annual South by Southwest Music Festival (SXSW). Here are some of the most notable conventions of the past and near future:

ASCAP Expo, April 28-30, Los Angeles, CA
National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM), January 21-24, 2016 at Anaheim Convention Center, Anaheim, CA
Worldwide Radio Summit, April 13-15 at Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, Los Angeles, CA
The Conclave, July 13-15, 2016 at Crown Plaza Hotel MSP Airport, Mall of America, Minneapolis, MN
Coast 2 Coast Music Conference, September 2-5, 2016 at Deauville Beach Resort, Miami Beach, FL
Mondo.NYC, September 14-18, 2016 at New York University, New York City, NY
Revolt Music Conference, October 13-16, 2016 at Eden Roc, Miami Beach, FL
National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM), January 19-22, 2017 at Anaheim Convention Center, Anaheim, CA
South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Festival, March 13-19, 2017 at various venues in Austin, TX
Winter Music Conference, March 2017, South Beach, Miami, FL
Miami Music Week, March 2017, South Beach, Miami, FL
Ultra Music Festival, March 24-27, 2017 at Bayfront Park, Miami, FL
Launch Music Conference and Festival, April 13-16, 2017 at various venues in Lancaster, PA

SXSW is usually the biggest music talent showcase in America every March. Music fans and professionals come from all over the country to see hundreds of up and coming live acts perform. In 2016, the event showcased over 2,000 performers of various genres from over 65 countries. It attracts personnel from labels, management companies, booking agencies, PR firms, music publishers and music journalists seek to cover the best rising talent. Many of the performers fund their own trips and accommodations to play in front of music executives and new fans.

This huge event began in 1987 with less than 1,000 attendees, according to the official SXSW website. The festival now puts the spotlight on film and interactive technology as well as music. In 2016 key attractions included Neil Young, Leon Russell and Henry Rollins, with Snoop Dogg as the keynote speaker. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama also gave keynote speeches, which attracted the biggest audience to date.

The event featured 233 pannels, workshops and sessions and performances on 107 stages. reported attendance was an estimated 135,000 and brought over $317 million to the Austin economy. Part of the revenue generated from SXSW in 2016 came from large corporate sponsors such as Mazda, McDonalds and Budweiser.

The College Music Journal (CMJ) Music Marathon began in 1980, two years after the publication that documents U.S. college radio airplay was launched. A second festival called the CMJ Rock Hall Fest was held in Cleveland in 2005 and 2006, but was cancelled the following year due to lack of funding. The company phased out its print publications by 2010 but continues to exist as a website. Original founders Bobby Haber and Joanne Abbot Green sold the company in 2012, but will launch a new festival in September 2016 called Mondo.NYC, emphasizing music, technology and media, while the CMJ Music Marathon continues to be held every October, showcasing the nation's hottest college radio acts.

In 2016 A&R Worldwide and presented its 6th annual Worldwide Radio Summit, which is a radio convention that has picked up where last century's radio conventions by Radio & Records and Gavin left off. This event is perhaps the most prominent in America for the radio industry, as AllAccess has become the hub that most programmers turn to for the latest music and radio industry news. The online trade publication is headed by Joel Denver, who was once a high profile editor of R&R in the 1980s and 1990s. He shared his radio background with Playlist Research in an exclusive video interview in September 2015.

Issues discussed by industry speakers at Worldwide Radio Summit this year included advances in digital audience measurement, new revenue models, new technology, mobile music listening and radio's influence on music delivery platforms. I can remember attending radio and music conventions in the 1990s when all we mostly talked about was music and radio. Technology was not the buzz back then, whereas now it seems to be the exact opposite. The annual Conclave, which typically was about music and radio in the 90s, also now features sessions on podcasting and social media.

My vivid memories of radio and music conventions in the 90s was that it was more of a big all night party than learning about the business, other than meeting big names within the industry that I otherwise only knew about from reading trade magazines. I remember that each year I'd see a speaker who was not even in the radio or music industry but somehow got to be the moderator at panels. I didn't think it was fair that some of my colleagues and I who got great ratings and press for our radio accomplishments were just relegated to "attendee status" while a nameless industry outsider got to blast his industry vision to crowds that filled ballroom-size venues.

It turned out that this no name character ran a trucking company and made so much money at it that he helped with the funding of the convention, which is why he got to be on a microphone in front of radio and music executives. I only found out this information from a music industry insider years later.

Another clear memory was when the microphone was passed around the room filled with about a hundred alternative radio programmers from around the country. The topic was "music leaks," which are songs that radio plays without permission from the label before the official radio release dates. When the mic was placed in my hand I said, "the only leaks I ever played turned out to be stiffs." In the radio and music industries "stiff" means flop, such as a record that gets airplay but doesn't catch on, so it's dumped from rotation. The whole room erupted in laughter.

I understood why radio programmers thought it was hilarious, but it cracked me up even more that the music industry would laugh at itself. It practically gave away that "leaks" are just gimmicks to raise interest level in a record, as if it can help a radio station's image and ratings to play a certain track before its competitor does.

But my biggest contribution to the industry was over the debate on radio listener festivals, in which radio programmers complained that labels weren't giving them enough love, while music execs complained that bands need to get paid instead of doing so many free shows for radio. An undertone was that stations were expected to give airplay to several new acts from a label just to get a headliner or name act for their festivals. The music biz explained how it costs thousands of dollars to do such shows, as the bill was often picked up by local concert promoters. The radio biz reminded the music biz that airplay is a big reason for record sales.

So when it became my turn to talk on the mic, I suggested an idea off the top of my head that I thought would be a compromise for both industries. Do autograph parties featuring the artist at a private venue for radio contest winners. And if the band wants to do stripped down acoustic sets that aren't hard to set up, go for it. That would eliminate the heavy costs, while exciting the listeners and giving exposure to the artists all at the same time. A few music execs told me afterward they liked the idea.

But the immediate response from a well known radio programmer was that "it wouldn't work." So to prove that it can work, I threw an autograph party for the alternative rock station I programmed in Sacramento, KWOD, called the "KWODOGRAPH PARTY" featuring the band Bush in 1995. It created a huge buzz on the air and helped us have our greatest ratings as an alternative station, making it one of the top rated major market alternative stations in America at that time.

I stopped attending radio and music conventions after I stopped working for radio stations, but I can tell from seeing posts on Facebook that these events are still fun and party-spirited. The question is: do these conventions help improve the radio and music industries? Based on the fact that the leading companies in these industries are still deep in debt, I'd have to say they aren't providing the information needed to turn these industries around, but it's still ok to party.

My advice to both industries for future panels is to get deeper into the topic of regionalism. The Telecom Act of 1996 led to big radio mergers that piled up big debt, which has influenced the radio industry to shift its attention from local to national perceptions about music. Not that local music was ever that big on radio, but as radio moved more in a corporate direction, local independent acts had less of a chance to get radio exposure. Playlists became more duplicated around the nation, as each city began to lose its local identity on the radio.

Since I never got to host a radio panel at a convention, here's two more cents worth of advise. The music industry needs fresh sounds instead of the same old tired over-produced sound that doesn't stick this century. Millenials aren't exactly raving about new music on social music, as many even prefer to explore music of last century as an alternative. Each station should feed a certain amount of new music from their own region to the national music scene. Ultimately, stations could learn from other regions, which could lead to labels signing better artists who create more interesting and exciting music.

If everything stays the same, and the big 3 labels continue to dominate the airwaves, this could be the most forgotten decade for music of all time. A fresh approach, however, of many more sources fueling the national music scene - which was the case in the 1960s - could expand popularity and revenue for both industries. If radio developed local acts with airplay, it would also give stations unique identities again and give them familiar acts for their festivals that would make communities proud of their local scenes.

See also:

How to start a music project
Tips on how to produce music
Job of a live sound engineer
Affordable ways to promote music online

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