Artists and tech geeks debated the future of the industry at SF MusicTech

The fifth annual SF MusicTech Summit was only on its second round of panels last week when cellist Zoe Keating aptly summed up a major goal for the event. She was a panelist in a discussion concerning the ways musicians can "get popular" when she observed the difference between typical music summits and tech-based ones like this. "At music conferences, everyone's trying to hold on to the crumbs of the past," she observed, "while tech conferences are trying to figure out the future."

Her opinion was validated as the day progressed at the Hotel Kabuki, where 800 musicians and tech geeks gathered to swap business cards and debate exactly where they should be putting their efforts.

Should bands spend more time creating a giant Twitter following, like Keating, who has 1.3 million signed up for her feed? How exactly will artists be helped by the fact that Google joined forces with MySpace? The future definitely wasn't in the decision to allow Third Eye Blind singer Stephan Jenkins' "special presentation" at MusicTech's finale. His bizarre ramble lasted 30 minutes and could be boiled down to his discovery that bands sell their CDs on the Internet. One attendee muttered to a friend as they left the room, "I spent all day getting smarter, and Stephan Jenkins just made me dumb again."

The summit stayed interesting, however, because nearly every argument regarding where the music-tech industry's biggest inroads are being made ignited strong opposition. The disparity made clear that musicians should stay educated on tech issues regardless, because innovations that can benefit them are happening all the time. As West Indian Girl's Francis Ten put it, the musicians who watch VH1 specials and think bands still get "discovered" the old-fashioned way are sorely mistaken.

Ten was moderating Keating's panel, a group that debated which Web tools work best for musicians. Keating comes from a tech background, was an early Twitter adopter, and uses every publicity weapon in her arsenal. She has sold 30,000 records without a label that way. Other acts need a push from a savvy manager. Whitesmith Entertainment's Emily White said she recently started managing Brendan Benson, a solo artist who also performs in the Raconteurs. She claims to have helped his ticket sales for one concert jump from 150 to 600 in four days, just by tweeting back information about upcoming shows to Twitter discussions of Benson.

White was adamant that artists no longer need labels to do their publicity, arguing that acknowledging fans online and at shows will help boost sales. Not so fast, countered David Katznelson, a veteran of Warner Bros. who now runs the indie Birdman Records. "Most bands claim to love Twitter," he said, but they won't always make time to network with fans. Hence the need for a label — even a small one — to put in the work and put up the cash to help records get sold.

That conversation marked another general theme for MusicTech. For years, we've been sold an image of the untouchable artiste with an aide who handles the dirty business details. That view goes hand-in-hand with an act that refuses to hang with its followers, believing it's better to stay mysterious. Those are valid attitudes, but thousands of struggling musicians have to work to keep fans interested enough to buy their stuff, come to shows, and get friends to do the same. At that level, the panelists said, sites like Twitter and Topspin, as well as the old-fashioned postshow meet 'n' greet with the crowd, generate more income than acting aloof from fans.

MusicTech also drew the big guns. Representatives from Google, MySpace, Pandora, and YouTube took the stage to spin the myriad ways they're working to get music to consumers faster. Speed and instant gratification — two ideas that were completely foreign to record labels a decade ago — are prime objectives. But while that's great for giving musicians exposure, a later panel with Gang of Four's Dave Allen reminded artists that Google is a double-edged sword. Its recent deal to put its streaming partners at the top of music searches logically most benefits its partners. Allen, who is head of a digital strategy company, encouraged artists to at least run their own Web sites so searches bring fans directly to the bands first, and not, for example, to MySpace.

Family of the Year, a group whose name was mentioned in multiple panels, was MusicTech's most dynamic example of musicians in step with their tech side. The Silver Lake indie-pop act is a walking record label. Members take up specific tasks related to Twitter, e-mail blasts, Web design, and other duties. They also embarked on a cute promotional concept. As drummer Sebastian Keefe explained on a social networking panel, Family of the Year created an "old-school Twitter" tour. Send in $5, and the group will mail you one-line postcards from the road.

Whether snail mail will help Family of the Year become the next Third Eye Blind remains to be seen. By the time the free wine was spilling at the end of MusicTech, crystal balls were only slightly clearer than when the attendees were sipping complimentary coffees earlier that morning. But even with all the disagreements and confusion, it was refreshing to be in the presence of so many new ideas rather than hearing people complain that there are too few crumbs to go around anymore.

 
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