Conference Reflects on Music Industry

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San Francisco band Thee Oh Sees, fronted by lead singer John Dwyer, dress up in masks while posing for press photos. They played at Noise Pop on Feb. 27. (Courtesy of Noise Pop)

Independent music label executives, artists and fans gathered at the Swedish American Hall in the heart of the Castro for the first annual Industry Noise, an event at which to discuss the current issues surrounding the business and the artists in the independent music scene.

Industry Noise, now part of the Noise Pop week in San Francisco, featured panels and keynote speakers throughout the day to talk about the economy’s impact on artists and label executives and how technology is changing the industry.

It seems no matter where people look, the economy is affecting everyone. The day’s first speaker was punk legend Fat Mike who is the cofounder and owner of Fat Wreck Chords, considered by many in the industry to be the most successful independent music label. He did not pretend to be optimistic about how the economy is affecting the industry and Fat Wreck Chords.

Comparing his company’s revenue over the last two decades he lamented, “[in the] nineties [we made] $10 million in gross a year. Now we’re doing $1.5 or 2 million. We’re at about half staff than we were two years ago.”

Miles Hurwitz, who owns MH Management, a small company whose clients include alternative rock band The Matches, mirrored the sentiment: “Reduced income means laying off staff, trying to do more with limited resources.”

Though many indie labels are being forced to make cuts and layoffs, there was a sense of optimism that independent labels will be around longer than most of the major labels. Greg Werckman, who runs Ipecac Records out of his house in Marin, said that expectations for independent labels are not that of major labels, therefore they don’t necessarily take the same hit. He described how major labels throw large amounts of money into artists they think will break, and when these artists don’t make the cut, the label takes a huge loss in an industry that is already hurting.

Many of the panelists explained that the key to success is to sign artists that create good music, and hopefully people will buy the album and purchase tickets to see the band live. “It is still about finding a good band, making a good record and touring. That’s still our best strategy,” said Vanessa Burt of Fat Wreck Chords.

The other big theme of the day was how technology is changing the way artists distribute content, bring in fans and deal with copyright issues.

Along with touring, the Internet is currently by far the most important method of promoting music and attracting new listeners. Social networking sites like Myspace, Twitter and Facebook are making it easier than ever before for fans to feel as though they are connected to the artist. This puts pressure on the artist to constantly have new content uploaded to keep both old and new listeners interested. Artists reiterated that the pressure is hard to handle and never existed before the Internet boom.

Shawn Harris from The Matches remembered having a video and a story on the front page of the music section on Yahoo. Within a couple days it was nowhere to be found. The overwhelming feeling from the panelists was that the Internet is revolutionizing the relationship between artists and fans, but as attention spans grow smaller it becomes harder to maintain that relationship.

During the panel on the Internet, John Dieterich of the San Francisco indie band Deerhoof commented that the Internet is a useful tool in determining what listeners are thinking. The web is also helping people discover and purchase new music more easily.

Dieterich and the panelists also stressed some fears about how easy it is for people to write whatever they want on the Internet, even if it isn’t factual. He said that the difference between 1909 and 2009 is that you don’t have to be a professional to write a story on your blog. The inability to regulate reviews, comments or videos on the Internet can help an artist or a band, but a lot of the time it only causes damage.

Copyright laws were a concerning topic that arose on many panels throughout the day. Since the Internet has made it easier for people to upload a bad performance from a concert or a lower quality advance copy of an album, artists have been trying to play damage control over content they cannot completely manage. When questioned as to what to do about copyright infringement on the internet, entertainment lawyer Owen Seitel explained that there really is nothing that you can do most of the time, other than try and get it removed which can be time-consuming. He also explained that lawsuits can take years, and once an artist adds in legal fees it becomes very expensive.

Industry Noise’s inaugural conference was well received by many of the music fans that attended. “ I felt it was very good for getting my foot into the industry. I thought it was a cool conference because since it was so small you could really talk to these industry people,” said Chad Heimann, a freshman media studies major at USF.

The day was filled with both fear and optimism for the future of artists and labels. Some expressed hope that, in the economic crisis, independents will survive over the major labels, but others wondered how long until they would be forced under.

Many felt the conference was reflective of San Francisco’s music culture. “It’s genuine, not corporate. Very indicative of what the San Francisco music scene is about,” said Rolling Stone and the Onion freelancer David Downs. Industry Noise offered powerful discussion on the state of the independent music scene and what artists and label executives are doing to promote quality music at a level below the mainstream.

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