Saturday, December 16, 2006

Aspen Live!

I've been attending the 3 day music conference, Aspen Live. Yesterday, the featured speaker was Anthony Zuiker, the creator and producer of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, one of the top rated television series for the past five years.

Just nine years ago, the aspiring writer worked as a tram driver at Las Vegas’ famed Mirage Hotel. Soon thereafter, he had a movie produced and is now famous for creating CSI. CBS has earned its spot as the number-one rated network due in large part to the series’ success.

Currently in its seventh season, CSI has received widespread critical acclaim and has earned distinction as the highest rated drama on television. The show earned its first Emmy nomination for Best Drama Series in 2002 and received subsequent nominations for Best Drama Series in 2003 and 2004, in addition to three Golden Globe nominations for Best Television Series (Drama). Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer Productions, Zuiker serves as Executive Producer of CSI and writes numerous episodes each season.

Anthony described his passion for music and outlined his commitment to use the series to "break" artists. Fascinating. This guy actually wants to give artists a forum, a platform that will help them reach the immense audience that television still provides better than just about any other medium. As he neared the end of his presentation, Anthony delivered an impassioned plea to those in the industry to focus on "the music."

He also described a new initiative he planned to pitch to CBS on Monday. I won't spill the beans here by laying out the details, but the audience seemed enthusiastic about the proposal. We'll have to see where this goes.

The second part of the evening featured a discussion led by Mike "The Goon" McGinley, Founder/CEO of SRO Consultants, and by Jeff Treuhaft of Verisign. This might have been a powerful forum: the topic was "Crossroads of Media and Technology," and the focus was on trying to come to terms with the gulf that separates the world of tech startups from the established, old school music industry - particularly the labels. Unfortunately, things didn't seem to get off on the right foot. Mike asked what might have been a rhetorical question: "what kind of success are you going to have with your business if zero dollars are allocated to marketing? He asked whether people in the room had read the book "Search" by John Battelle. Perhaps two or three of the group of 80 responded in the affirmative. He spoke about innovators, imitators and idiots - the path from value creation to value depletion in an industry and asked where the next Mo Ostin was going to come from. There didn't seem to be many answers.

The most interesting part of the discussion, for me, grew out of Mike's suggestion that the major labels ought to consider providing some portion of their content - perhaps 10-15% - to tech startups. He reasoned that this would be one way to improve the current situation - one in which tech/music entrepreneurs like Shawn Fanning (who developed Napster in 1998) feel compelled to "break the rules" to get content. He asked, somewhat rhetorically, what the audience believed young tech entrepreneurs would need to be able to coax a content deal from all four major labels. One of the participants - a marketing director associated with one of the major labels - asked why the majors should "give up" 10-15% of their deal. "What's in it for us?" On the other hand, the same person acknowledged that "the record business is dead; we're in the music business."

It sounds to me as though there's a desperate attempt by the industry to protect 70 cents of each dollar in a market environment where fewer and fewer dollars are being spent.

What was particularly disappoining about this discussion, for me, though, was the realization that very few of the people in the room are paying attention to the underlying business and market trends that are working together to provide alternatives - or certain death - the the industry as it has existed for decades. I asked whether anyone had read Chris Anderson's "Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is About Selling Less of More." Maybe someone else at the conference had read it. I don't think Mike had. The ideas in Chris's book are the things this industry needs to be talking about from morning till night. Right now, that's not what's happening at all. Which seems strange to me in what now appears to be the twilight of this once extraordinary industry.


hbrooks said...

I could not make Aspen Live this year, and it's a little disappointing to read your commentary. Mike’s idea for labels to provide a percentage of free content to start ups is an interesting one. I’d like to see repository of free music that labels and independent artist could contribute to, and start ups could access for content.

Interesting to note that you are the only attendee that has blogged on the conference (so far). Would have liked to see some live blogging or podcasts from Aspen Live.

Pribek said...

I am curious about what Anthony has in mind.
Music has become a loss leader. Apple doesn't really seem to care about making a profit from I-Tunes, they want to sell hardware. Wal Mart is the largest brick and mortar outlet and the have actually used the words "loss leader" in press releases.
Every period of large growth for the music industry can be directly tied to a change in format. Piano rolls to 78s to 45s to L.P.s to 8 track, cassette to C.D.
The industry has flat missed the boat with the digital file and lost a generation of consumers. There is an ongoing trend in which large companies including the major labels are buying large chunks of publishing, indicating that they feel the future is in licensing.
I have not read "The Long Tail" but I am somewhat familiar with the premise.
If one is establishing a niche, the missing ingredient seems to be an effective way to market music in the digital world.
The major labels are now nothing more than advertising agencies but they still have the upper hand. Marketing is where the level playing field ends.