I had the great fortune to attend both the NAMM show and the MIDEM conference over the last ten days. The two premiere music industry events of the year – one for the makers of musical instruments and music technology – the other for indie record labels, music publishers and mobile phone companies.
At the NAMM show, the 85,000 strong crowd thrilled to the greatest selection of musical instruments in the world, demonstrated with panache and enthusiasm by a variety of musical virtuoso’s and old rockers. The likes of Eddy Van Halen, Carlos Santana and all sorts of vaguely familiar looking dyed-black or dyed- blonde old rockers show up regularly at NAMM to remind us all what the music industry is all about really – making music with real live bands and real instruments. Actually of course the technology part of the show is pretty impressive too with $1m booths on display from the mighty (and somehow not too distantly linked to me) Digidesign/M-Audio/Sibelius triumvirate or equally big shows from the likes of Roland and Yamaha – not to mention the Apple booth or strong smaller entities like Native Instruments, Propellerheads and Cakewalk. The energy and the creativity on display in the products and the thrusting level of competition is quite serious and great fun. It’s also starting increasingly to move up the value chain – and across into the visual media and into the distribution of media to the customer. The fact is that the extent to which contemporary recording artists now want to control the whole show from their decks, synchronise the lighting and video effects with the audio – and then output the whole enchilada to MP3 – is way more exciting than having a mobile phone company explain how it’s corporate strategy for global control is use the handset to outdo iTunes. Off we all go again, noodling away into the palms of our hands. But the fact is that the energy and growth seen at the NAMM show is a great reflection of the extent to which we are all creators now and the huge enthusiasm for making music, recordings, mashups, remixes, videos and all manner of content – that ultimately can be digitised, manipulated and shared.
At MIDEM, it was clearly the mobile phone operators who were spending the most money trying to demonstrate their relevance. The corporate manicures of the Motorola girls were as polished as anything at the Paris motor show. And they were responsible for the most expensive handouts on display. The state of an industry can always be judged by the quality of the giveaways at its trade shows. Most of the rest of the exhibitors were either ignoring the current state of the industry and just as frenetically and occasionally dubiously as ever, trying to licence their wares to each other – Latvian hiphop anybody? My favourite from a distinctly dodgy looking Chinese booth was a DVD entitled “Museum Pieces of Universal Music” – this was not a feature about Elabs and Larry Kenswil, (sorry Larry!) but it did seem to reflect the mood of the increasingly vocal minority who concern themselves with the future of the industry. They, this year more than ever, bemoaned the dead weight of the major labels who now look a lot like losers trying to hold on to the dying parts of an old business model which even they don’t really believe in anymore.
From LA to Cannes – the weather was cold and grey – but the mood couldn’t have been more different. In Cannes the remains of the music industry flocked to the hotel bars along the croisette in time honoured fashion and engaged in the usual terrific high level industry gossip with inebriated colleagues until 2 or 3 or even 4 in the morning. But somehow there seemed to be a kind of futility about it. Some people commented, well everyone here is very happy and excited by their digital future – except for the majors. But others took a more morose view and felt that as long as the majors and their highly paid factotum the IFPI held on to their dogmatic positions and desparately tried to sustain the old music industry model by blocking new initiatives and continuing the absurdity of suing their own customers, then all progress was horribly detained.
In Annaheim, at Pluto’s Kitchen in the Disneyland hotel – a different air of unreality prevailed but one which seemed to celebrate the absurdities of digital life in a more joyous fashion and roll with a few friendly shoulder punches from some of its more traditional representatives. The stoned student in the Pluto outfit insisted on taking part in our business breakfast despite the fact that we all clearly wanted to have a serious and work-related conversation and that Pluto is notoriously dumb. While Snow White turned up and insisted on reading from the powerpoint presentation which my colleague somewhat precariously had up on his Apple powerbook at the breakfast table. “Reach out and touch our customers” she read, and then walked around the table prodding each of us with her snowy white index finger – just to make sure we were real. While in Cannes, of course, we just all sat around saying – who exactly are our customers – we can’t touch them so perhaps they’re not real – and what can we get away with charging them for music? A flat rate perhaps? An eat as much as you can eat fee – not unlike the pricing of the peanut butter pizzas served fresh for breakfast in Pluto’s Kitchen? But still the question remains whether the kids will still buy it – and by the way if they’re not really the customers anymore – who is that old bloke dressed up in a granny outfit offering to spoon feed them sprinkles of music – as much as they can eat? Did anyone say ISPs?