Even experts unsure at conference on Music Branding 2.0

Panelists face a packed house Wednesday at Ryles in Inman Square for a conference on “Music Branding 2.0.” (Photo: Marc Levy)

The music business has always been a jungle, and the trick was to survive attacks from the lurking animals. Now the trick is just to find a path in, let alone through it.

From the testimony of panelists at the Music Branding 2.0 conference held Wednesday, finding a path is flummoxing even the experts — veteran band members, producers, engineers, publicists, marketers and professors who have worked with everyone from Jadakiss to Coldplay and Carly Simon and done everything from appear on MTV’s first broadcast to serving as chief creative officer for a Nine Inch Nails video game.

If it ever was, it’s no longer just about having great music. The four panelists and moderator threw out a welter of Web sites, services, suggestions and anecdotes to the 200-plus people gathered at Ryles jazz club in Inman Square, admitting they didn’t have the answers to where the industry is going or how artists can best survive and succeed.

“MySpace was great for a year when it first came out, and everybody put their music on it … I don’t even check my MySpace anymore,” said Matty Trump, owner of the MHMG music company and engineer and producer for top hip-hop, reggae and rhythm and blues acts. “Nobody looks at MySpace anymore, and it’s starting to happen to Facebook.”

Facebook is over? With its 436 million users? No one blinked.

“Friendster was before MySpace, and all the bands were on Friendster. Then MySpace was huge. And then Facebook started to become big. Have you noticed any new sites — maybe you can give the artists out there a tip to the next site people are going to go to?” asked moderator Tim Hare, a Berklee College of Music student who has played bass in bands including Baby Strange and Young Astronomy.

Not really, no. But there were some runner-up suggestions, including last.fm and Pandora, which recommend music to users based on what they already listen to. One has employees find musical connections, while the other relies on an algorithm looking at such factors as beats per minute. By linking to the work of laid-back surfer and singer Jack Johnson, panelist Paul Rapp said, Pandora took a friend’s song getting 100 downloads per week and turned into one selling 10,000 downloads a week. (An entertainment lawyer, Rapp was also in the band Blotto, which had a video play on MTV’s first day.)

Cambridge’s own Sam Adams won praise Wednesday for creating a sensation with his catchy hip-hop track, “I Hate College.”

But Andrea Johnson, a Berklee professor, A&R veteran and former accounting manager for Gloria Estefan, noted rock sensation Lady Gaga’s experiences with Spotify, a music site — not yet available in the United States — where she drew a million streams for a song and was rewarded with a check for $167.

In a further example of industry fragmentation, Hare asked about finding music on YouTube, where chances are good that instead of finding the video you want, you’ll be confronted with “some creepy guy in his basement singing along to the song.”

Part of the problem, panelists agreed, was the staggering amount of music being made, a result of how easy cheap computer software and the Internet have made it to mix, produce and deliver songs. The same phenomenon has resulted in an overabundance of sites on which to market and find music, such as ReverbNation, Rhapsody, Bandcamp or emusic.

“I don’t know really where to find new music, except for blogs. There’s a lot of blogs for different genres of music,” said Trump, leaving unaddressed the challenge of finding the most helpful blogs.

So what can artists do?

With her ability to garner publicity and engage with all forms of media while writing and performing critically acclaimed music, Lady Gaga was cited repeatedly as a model. “The first time I heard out about Lady Gaga was a scandal about whether she’s a man or a woman,” Trump  said. “That’s how I found out about her music. It’s things like that, sticking out. Look at the way she dresses — she wore a hamster cage on SNL. But she’s standing out. Now she’s got her own headphone line, music, everything.”

Stunts in general drew praise. Johnson gave her blessing to the rap duo Gnarls Barkley using a $30,000 advance to buy 30,000 copies of their own song on iTunes. “They reinvested it in their own song and created media buzz, and that’s what it’s about,” she said. (Although she was skeptical of the staying power of sheer spectacle such as Lady Gaga produces, which “gets tired after a while. At the end of it all, you still need to have good music.”)

Rapp lauded Cambridge’s own Sam Adams for creating a sensation with the hip-hop track “I Hate College.” “It’s just finding something people can relate to,” Rapp said. “Most people treat radio as an appliance … You’re doing this really poetic music and you feel like, ‘I’m not going to do that’ and you want to keep yourself separated, and I understand that, but if you want to stand out, you’ve got to do something that’s going to be catchy and people can sing along to and it’s fun.”

Selling out, as it was once called, is a good thing. (Perhaps that’s why Music Branding 2.0 was itself sold out.) Artists should reject brands that don’t make sense for them, panelists said, but Rapp also believes “Anything that puts money in artists’ pockets is a good thing.” Hearing Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” on Carnival Cruise Lines advertisements means “the Igster’s getting some money,” while he recalls hearing of an obscure band from Washington, D.C., broken up for 25 years, whose members were tracked down and offered $200,000 to be part of a Hummer ad campaign. They rejected the offer. “You do have that choice,” he said. “Sometimes the best art is made when there’s restrictions put on it. You can be a lot more subversive that way.”

And of course using social, interactive media to their fullest was recommended, including Twitter and even Facebook, although Trump said he’d had to remove those apps from his phone to keep from addiction. Panelists suggested setting aside just a half-hour or so a day to keep Web sites and fans updated, or even hiring interns or a “band member” whose sole role was to keep the Web loaded with fresh content, updates and tweets.

Lijie, a Berklee student performing with Lijie and the Kings, is already savvy about marketing her art, but said she valued the conference for its specifics.

There were also idealist-approved ways to stand out and get ahead proposed by the panelists, including getting to other states or countries for shows by contacting far-off clubs, public relations people or universities; trying out for the National Association for Campus Activities; hooking up with independent filmmakers so when their work gets seen, your music gets heard; and connecting with a charity to donate time and proceeds from a show or song, as Wyclef Jean did with Haitian earthquake relief. The final panelist, publicist Amanda Caswell, suggested getting ahead could be as simple as making friends with other bands to form a group tour.

The audience was heavy with students, marketers and music executives, and the upfront labeling of the event as being for “branding” ensured the most cynical advice on commerce and strategy was welcomed even by the creative sorts.

“As an artist, you get so focused on the art,” said Lijie, a Berklee student performing with Lijie and the Kings. “That’s what it’s about. And yet at the same time, you have to find a balance between making the music and making a living.”

She is already straightforward about marketing her work — passing out CDs saying her music was “For fans of Damien Rice, Feist and Sarah Bareilles” and displaying her Web address prominently — and thoughtful about an assessment of what feature was likely to make her stand out from other bands: She’s Asian. She has also connected already with a charity, the Berklee-based Beyond Borders.

But she embraced advice to take creative risks when shooting videos and said she found the specifics of the conversation valuable, taking notes and jotting down the name of Web sites mentioned by the panelists.

Those details made the conference valuable for many.

“A lot of conferences and panel discussions, you hear a lot of theory and don’t get much in the way of specifics,” said Julie Gomstyn, a corporate communications expert with the marketing firm Digitas. “Here you got the specific amount it costs to get an album done.”

Do Lijie and the Kings need advice on branding? The band performs at 8:45 a.m. April 16 on Fox 25 news, a slot it won when Lijie, who said she was disappointed by losing an appearance on NECN, sent in a CD.

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