The organizers of New Noise Santa Barbara, a three-day “music and digital media conference” that invaded downtown State Street this past weekend, sell the event as a hip and timely educational event for those plugged in to the music scene — the West Coast’s answer to South by Southwest Conferences and Festivals (oh, that shiny Mecca of hipsterdom), if you will. The panels and speeches took place at the Canary Hotel (possibly decorated by the same interior designers as the Anthropologie chain of clothing stores), while the concerts were held up and down State Street at venues like Velvet Jones and Whiskey Richards.
Seeing as this was the first year ever for this budding enterprise, I can forgive some unprofessional staffers, needless delays and often-boring moderators. I can even pretend I didn’t notice the heaps of self-congratulatory hype about how cool and edgy it all was and how lucky attendees were to be graced by the presence of semi-indie darlings.
That being said, I enjoyed the panel that I attended. Tim Westergren, founder of Pandora Radio (and perhaps the most recognizable name on the roster of the weekend’s speakers), gave a keynote speech Friday afternoon, in which he illustrated the importance of interdependency in the music business by re-tracing Pandora’s surprising success. Dressed casually in jeans, a long-sleeve shirt with the Pandora logo emblazoned on front and fashionably tussled, light brown hair, Westergren is the prototypical new digital entrepreneur. Accordingly, he maintained a very open and casual attitude throughout the speech, inviting audience input and cementing his legitimacy as a music fan turned music businessman.
Westergren explains industrial interdependency (up-and-coming buzzword?) by using his own experience with travel. When you purchase an airplane ticket online, your journey through the Web site is designed to lure you into purchasing compatible services from adjacent industries such as car rentals, spas and wineries. Since the health of the airline industry is connected to the success of adjacent vacation-related industries, they are “interdependent.” By working together, they can increase profits for all involved.
Westergren and Pandora seek to create that same synergy within the music industry. Right now, radio stations and music labels are systematically organized to screw the artist out of money. The lack of diversity in stores’ catalogs makes it hard to earn a living as a musician unless you have mainstream success. The only way to get mainstream exposure is to be played on radio stations, so radios get to use artists’ content for free while the music label eats an exorbitant percentage of the sales for promoting the band. Ugh.
Thankfully, Pandora is going the opposite direction of traditional radio — inclusive instead of exclusive. The upstart’s infrastructure doesn’t distinguish between big labels and small labels… even unsigned artists have a shot at being played, and you can submit music yourself through the Web site’s interface. Also, Pandora actually pays to play music, creating a monetary flow from the sponsor/advertiser through Pandora to the artist. Along with providing increased diversity, Westergren sees a future of new artist services. Somebody’s got to manage these new successful bands’ tours, sell merchandising, deal with rights and retail, etc. All that’s needed is a new class of brave entrepreneurs crafting services tailored to developing needs.
Westergren has some ambitious dreams. The coolest vaporware he mentioned during the keynote speech was a map, accessible by the band, which shows the geographic concentration of their fans within the United States. This information would be compiled using the user-provided ZIP code, helping bands formulate their tour routes and informing fans of their up-and-coming tour dates through e-mail. Utilizing interdependency, other connected businesses such as music sales and merchandising could be offered through a sidebar listing multiple options for each service. Everybody does what they do best, everyone makes a profit and the band can concentrate on the artsy end of things like, you know, making music.
Slightly teleological but infectiously optimistic, Westergren is excited for the future of music. Hopefully, the KIIS FM-worshiping masses will catch on.