Tuesday, December 09, 2008

ROCKRGRL at IMA: I Will Survive

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 Lane.

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.

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