This article first featured in the Record of the Day weekly magazine (Issue #766 / 22 February 2018)
RotD travels to Amsterdam for FastForward 2018 to find two-way conversations focused on the future of music business.
By Liz Stokes
As is always discussed in the music industry, there’s no shortage of conferences. Whether it’s on home turf or travelling across Europe and beyond, there’s certainly no deficiency in the number platforms on which to discuss the business. Whilst a wealth of discussions can breed new ideas, selecting the ones that are worth the time and investment in such a congested landscape is primarily driven by word-of-mouth. Thankfully, the buzz created by FastForward is plenty strong enough to carry it onwards.
In its third year in Amsterdam, and indeed its life, FastForward is still focused on cultivating intelligent, candid and forward-thinking conversations with a living room-style ambience. Large enough to offer differing opinions yet small enough to spend time with most in attendance, it’s a uniquely constructive and all-inclusive environment with positive change at its heart.
This year’s two-day event kicked off for us at the ‘Future of D2C, Merch and Monetising Fans’ panel – one of four conversations with the keyword ‘future’ in its title, a small detail which leads to genuinely interesting results. Offering an artist’s perspective on the situation, electronic producer Dan le Sac gave an honest account of his journey to where he is now. After realising that he enjoyed making music but not selling it, he flipped his model to pay-what-you-want via Bandcamp. Whilst an average sale is worth around £5 to him, with some paying £50 and others paying 50p, he also noted that he pays his rent via his Twitch stream – a $4.99 subscription to his viewers, though they can watch for free with adverts. Despite an on-the-whole positive message for artists doing it on their own terms, he did also warn that the way he now does business is only open to him because he “saved when he was successful” and that the route to market wouldn’t necessarily be viable for new artists. It’s worth noting that the parallels between games and music have been on conference agendas for over half a decade now, but rarely past sync deals do we hear of artists finding ways to harness it.
In keeping with the theme, on the following day Dr Jo Twist OBE, CEO of UKIE (Association for UK Interactive Entertainment), gave an engaging speech from her side of the fence. We were struck by the fact the industry is only 40 years old yet holds the record for the fastest-selling entertainment product of all time: Grand Theft Auto V. The subtle differences between the games and music worlds felt stark when Twist highlighted that the audience are always referenced as ‘players’, not consumers, and the piracy issues are largely dealt with by allowing players to modify games themselves by creating new levels or characters, which leads to the audience being involved rather than alienated. Arguably the music industry is making a, and embracing the, change but it’s these small alterations in mind-set which strike us as a way to invite money-spending audiences into the process, rather than blindly assuming they can always be best served by brains of the business.
RotD Editor Liz Stokes moderated the ‘Future of Advertising’ panel with Abhishek Sen, co-founder of NumberEight (a company which offers tech solutions to predict user intent through artificial intelligence and sensors), Nikoo Sadr, Marketing Manager at The Orchard, Pat Carr, formerly of BMG and Infectious and now Director of her own artist services company Remote Control Agency, and Sebastian Simone, Head of Digital Strategy at Warner Bros Records. All were in agreement that despite being the largest ad network on paper, you can’t just throw money at social networks and expect them to yield results, being part of the conversations that are happening organically and then using the ad platforms to support those conversations were the only real effective usage.
Traditional advertising methods such as billboards and television were all but ruled out unless dealing with A-list talent, whilst magazine adverts and website takeovers were mooted to only be worth it in niche genres such as metal where the fans are loyal and engaged. Looking to the future, a blend of traditional and tech was discussed, with the use of augmented reality and interactive options being a possibility, although some warned of time-squashed commuters bothering to hold their phones up on a busy, quick commute. There was a warning from the panel about being too intrusive with audio ads on smart speakers and an air of caution about the best way to harness them going forward.
On the ‘Future of Search and Discovery’ panel, Sammy Andrews, CEO at Deviate Digital, and Tom Packer, Director at Motive Unknown, stressed the importance of “traditional media”, tastemakers and blogs in the current climate, as playlists such as Fresh Finds on Spotify (current follower count 584k) use AI to search the internet for mentions, as well as pulling from “anonymous Spotify tastemaker listeners”. Andrews commented:
“You need to maximise your chances of discovery to be picked up by the algorithms. You can’t rely on editorial placements on these platforms, you have to look for opportunities everywhere you can and double down on everything positive that happens in order to feed that whole machine.”
“When other players come into the system in a bigger way, the likes of Facebook and Google, they have access to such a huge amount of information about us that could be a really interesting add to the mix for discovery. Instead of relying on your play history and aligning you to others with similar taste, they could scrape the web for all of the cultural contexts around an artist, combined with YouTube information and playlists. You need to be active in all locations to be discovered.”
Using Run The Jewels (a Motive Unknown client) as an example, Packer explained how their music may not be the most Spotify playlist-friendly so looked at other opportunities, resulting in them working with the games industry in a two-way partnership that saw the band become downloadable characters. Although there are now methods and a level of understanding when it comes to discovery on Spotify specifically, when moderator Stuart Dredge from MusicAlly questioned the panel on how to maximise a playlist placement, Packer warned that Spotify is still a “walled garden” which means everyone still has to be “doing everything else around that”.
The traditional ‘end of the conference’ drinking game panel, sometimes formally named The Future of Music panel, was once again an open conversation about what’s working and what still needs work on within the industry. As is to be expected, futureproofing songs with tagging for smart speakers was of note, as was the power of independent artists in a world of DIY tools. The broad range of topics on offer saw Summer Kim, Head of Business Development at CI, vehemently state that “if you can’t afford to pay your intern, don’t have an intern”, Mark Douglas, CTO at PPL note that “blockchain has some relevance to our industry but it’s not a panacea to all of our problems. We’re not doing enough to capture data at source and blockchain with a load of rubbish on it is not going to help us one little bit” and the good old adage “not all streams are created equal”. Obvious points maybe, but always worth hammering home.
FastForward’s ‘FastFifteens’ – the 15-minute platform format used to discuss businesses, use cases, or share advice from experts – still holds as a valuable source. Vaughn McKenzie from Jaak, Daniel Lee from NCS and Julia Killer from SoundCloud were particular standouts over the course of the weekend.
Perhaps the best indicator that FastForward is both attracting the right crowd and creating the best environment comes at the end of each conference segment; the all-too-often deathly silence that falls on a room when the audience is asked “any questions?” doesn’t happen at FF. Participation is strong and dialogue invariably continues late into the night over scheduled drinks. Long may it continue >>