ROCKRGRL Inc. presented this one-day symposium at the Institute of Musical Arts in Goshen, MA this past Saturday. The theme was "I Will Survive: Making a Living in the Music Business." It opened with an interview with Robin Lane, conducted by ROCKRGRL founder Carla DeSantis, followed by three panel discussions on the past, present and future of the music industry. I participated as a panelist on "Tomorrow: What Will a Career in Music Look Like in the Future?"
Robin Lane was, to this Philadelphian's ears, Boston's answer to Robert
Hazard. She found her voice as a singer/songwriter but found her
success as the leader of a band in the New Wave era. Like Robert Hazard
and the Heroes, Robin Lane and the Chartbusters were a huge regional
success. For both, the peak of fame was short-lived, but Robert Hazard
was never dropped from his label because he was pregnant, unlike Robin
Her current work is even more noteworthy. Under the name A Woman's Voice,
she conducts songwriting workshops with trauma survivors as a form of
therapy. Carla's goal in building the event around Robin was to help
spread the concept so that others can replicate it elsewhere.
In contemplating the rest of the day's discussion, I realized how much
has changed since I regularly attended music industry conferences in
the '90s. Back then, the standard goal for musicians was to get signed
to a major label and get their songs on the radio to be successful.
But with overall sales down, major labels losing their
monopolies on distribution and commercial terrestrial radio losing its
influence in exposing new music, the path to initial success, let alone
career longevity, is no longer obvious.
The recurring theme among those who had found success was the need for
reinvention, of creating and seizing new opportunities. Nini Camps
built her DIY career into gigging 200 nights a year; she transitioned
to the less grueling work of working on soundtracks. She commented that
it has forced her to focus on the craft of songwriting, especially when
she has strict deadlines. Lizzie Borden has moved on from recording for
a major label to DJing on a rock radio station, among other endeavors.
Kudisan Kai got a long string of work as a back-up singer for the likes
of Anita Baker, Chaka Kahn and Elton John. Despite Elton's backing, she
couldn't get a major label deal because the A&R rep couldn't
imagine how to market a black female rock singer, but her varied
background made her an ideal faculty member in voice at Berklee College.
Some existing institutions in the music industry remain effective,
albeit in new ways. Musician Sonya Kitchell described how her
A&R rep fills the role of a tough coach, offering outside
perspective on her work and egging her on to aim higher. Brooke Primont
of Cherry Lane Music Publishing described how publishers create
exposure and revenue streams for songwriters through placement in
movies, television and commercials.
In looking to the future, June Millington, IMA co-founder and member of
the band Fanny, lamented Guitar Hero from the perspective that would-be
musicians will become discouraged when they discover that learning to
really play the guitar is much harder than playing the toy that is used
in the videogame. Beth Tallman, General Manager of Rykodisc, suggested
looking to other industries for models for success since so many of the
music industry's established practices are now failing.
It is both a scary and exciting time for music. On one hand, technology
such as GarageBand, MySpace and iTunes
make it much easier for any musician to record and distribute their
music. On the other hand, with the means of production now in the hands
of so many, it is even harder to stand out in the crowd and find a
sufficient audience to make a living. This was an interesting event
that raised questions that could have entirely different answers in
just a few years' time.