Thursday, May 24, 2012

Music industry on the operating table: An interview with Kez Whelan (M3 Event)

What is the most effective method of music distribution? How important are live performances to musicians? Has the digital era killed the record stores and has experiencing an album from start to finish lost its significance? Which is the best music format? Are today’s copyright laws adequate and can file-sharing be stopped without imposing the draconian restrictions on Internet content that ACTA/ SOPA/ PIPA suggest? M3 Event, a music conference that will take place on May 31st in Maastricht, will try to reach some possible solutions. One would expect these and other important for the music industry questions to be discussed by important music industry people but no, the conference is organized by a group of students from the Maastricht University. This is the first part of an interview with one of these forward-thinking young people; probably we’ll have the second part after the conference……

Could you introduce yourself and the rest of the people who stay behind M3?
I’m Kez, I grew up in rural England listening to Saint Vitus in the woods with my fellow hessians before moving to the city to develop my tinnitus even further. I recently travelled over to Maastricht (the Netherlands) to study, and met the rest of the M3 team within the past year. We’re all from very different backgrounds, with the others coming from Bulgaria, America, Germany and China. We bonded over a love of different styles of music and late night arguments about file sharing.

How did you come up with the idea for the conference?
Well, after we found ourselves constantly returning to these subjects, like whether illegal downloading is fair or not, whether the record store still has any relevance, whether the abundance of free music out there now has devalued its artistic qualities (and so forth), but never coming up with any answers, we decided to do something about it. M3 is what we came up with, a conference in which we gather together individuals who are currently being affected by these issues and ask them to duke it out, in the hope of reaching beyond the emotional hyperbole that often dominates these kinds of debates.
I suppose for me personally, I was reluctant to allow advancements in technology to dictate the role that music plays in our society. I mean, artists reduced to wandering minstrels, desperately trying to catch people’s attentions to put a penny in their hat so they can pay the bills, whilst huge organisations like Apple and tobacco companies continue to enjoy their champagne and caviar lunches aboard yachts so large they have a swimming pool in which you can comfortably sail another smaller yacht? Something about this scenario seems amiss to me. Of course, some will argue that it’s always been like this, but if we really are on the verge of a technological revolution, don’t you think it’s time we rethought this whole sordid business so as to maintain maximum respect for music as an art form?

You have no idea how much I agree with this…. What results do you expect? And do you think what you do will have any impact?
One of the things I’ve learnt through all of this so far is that my expectations are often not completely reliable! I initially came to the project with the overly optimistic and naïve view that we could sort out all of the problems musicians are currently facing, but of course nothing is ever black and white, and many of these problems run much deeper than the musical sphere alone. All these break-throughs in technology seem to be revealing cracks in concepts we had previously taken for granted, so what I hope to gain from the conference is a clearer understanding of where we can go from here. Time will tell if we’re able to have an impact on the bigger picture, but hopefully we’ll be able to sow the seeds of change, even if we can’t revolutionise music distribution overnight.

You’re not collecting fees for participation in the conference. Is everything on voluntary principles and do you get any help, financial or whatever, from the city municipality (one of the M’s in M3 means Maastricht, right?), from media, etc.?
Well, the university has been very helpful, as have a local student based company called Jules & You. We applied for funds from a local organisation called Code 043, who are set up to help out projects and initiatives like this one. They’ve been invaluable really, we couldn’t have done this without them!
But yes, everything is indeed on voluntary principles, in the sense that neither the M3 team, our speakers, or any of the kind individuals who’ve agreed to help out on the big day are making any kind of a profit from this at all. Covering the travel and lodging costs for all our speakers hasn’t been cheap though, so of course all this sponsor money is greatly appreciated.

What kind of attendants have already registered? How those who want to take part in the conference can do it?
It’s been pretty diverse so far, we have a healthy mix of musicians, artists, animators, label representatives and promoters, and of course a sizeable portion of intrepid students. We’re close to finalising all of our speakers too, and have been revealing one a day for the past week on our Facebook page. We’ve got an eclectic array of musicians (ranging from a trio of German house DJs called DBN, right the way through to Dutch sax-and-drum duo Dead Neanderthals and their frenzied mixture of jazz and grindcore), journalists & scholars and record label representatives, so those attending will certainly be witness to some very intriguing discussions indeed.
We’re treating M3 as a kind of public forum, so of course registration is completely free. If you’d like to get involved, all you need to do is follow this link - - and arrive bright and early in Maastricht with an open mind!
The doors are always open at M3, so if you would like to know more, or just generally harass me, send me a mail at

You interview artists from different music genres and on different level of establishment, experience, etc. Do you see some major differences in the ideas for the present and future of music industry if you analyze the answers of these groups: established artists (though I hate this word) – up-and-coming, signed - unsigned, label management – artists. I know that it’s not possible to generalize but do you see any main tendencies? For example, the way they react on the free files sharing.
I’m currently gathering data from all of our interviewees, but we still have them rolling in on a daily basis so this is going to be something of an on-going task I think. It’s interesting that you make this distinction, I haven’t actually looked at any differences between newcomers and the so called ‘established’ acts just yet, but that could certainly be very revealing. I have noticed that many of the younger bands have claimed that file sharing is unstoppable, and have therefore been experimenting with different ways to use it to their advantage, whilst some of the more experienced artists are reluctant to embrace any of these new ideas. Whether that’s for good reason or just due to stubbornness is completely up to the reader!

So far, 47% of our interviewees think that the idea of an album as a work of art, that should be experienced from start to finish, is being lost as the public at large are increasingly shifting over to digital mediums for their music, and a whopping 74% of those who thought this were sorry to see it go. It definitely seems that a lot of people think using a computer as your primary source for music has a detrimental effect on your listening experience, which is interesting to note. I would find myself agreeing with that idea, for me listening to music whilst gazing into a screen is nowhere near as engaging or rewarding as losing myself in a good record, but some of the others in the M3 team actually prefer the convenience and aesthetic of streaming websites, for example.

Vinyl’s been the most popular listening format, with around 40% of our interviewees citing that as their preferred way to listen to music. However, 25% of vinyl lovers also said that they felt their record collection had become impractical, and had shifted over to using digital files. I love physical formats, but I can of course sympathise with this. I’m currently listening to all my music through a hard drive, as I couldn’t feasibly bring their 1000 plus CD counterparts on the Eurotunnel with me when I came to Maastricht…

Have you tried to gather opinions from people on higher level positions in major labels? People who are generally blamed for robbing the artists and for being too conservative and unreceptive to new ideas?
I’ve tried contacting some of the majors, but they haven’t really been that responsive on the whole. Some have replied saying they’re simply not interested, but the majority have not got back in touch at all. Make of that what you will, but I have a feeling many of my mails are getting lost in the bureaucratic labyrinths that these organisations enshroud themselves in. An email sent to a punk band’s Hotmail account, for example, is usually answered within a matter of days, or sometimes even hours, whilst often with major labels, after going through contact forms, agents, PR guys, and the team of trained chimps that I imagine sort through all their spam mail, you’ll be lucky to hear back from them that month, if at all. Personally, I see this as one of the benefits of cutting out the middle-man.
I did actually try and contact Lars Ulrich a few months back, but I’m not holding my breath for a response on that one…

He probably has a few of these middle-men to check his mails. And the other way around – did such people try to contact you, to share opinion or to express interest to take part in the discussions?
We’ve had some awesome responses from musicians from all over the world, which has allowed me to find some really cool projects that I may never have stumbled across otherwise, but generally everyone who has reached out to us operates on a smaller scale, or a DIY basis. I’m sure the majors are incredibly busy, but if any of you are reading this, ask yourself this: “Is the fact that a team of hapless students have assembled leading figures from across Europe to examine the flaws in the music industry a sign that we need to rethink our strategy?” If you find the answer to that question is yes, then I would love to hear from you.

In your opinion, what are the main trends that the music industry will follow in the next lets say ten years?
It currently seems like a lot of bands are making their albums available for free digitally and then charging for the physical product, but I don’t know how sustainable that is in the long run. I’m digging it right now though, as it means I’ve been able to listen to so many new albums on a daily basis, and then grab a CD if any of those bands really inspire me. I’m aware of the fact that I’m in the minority here however, as many kids today grew up with the idea of paying for music seeming absurd, and just continue to fill their hard drives to bursting point without paying a penny. In one sense, that’s really nice that some of this generation are not equating music with money, but on the other hand, money rears its ugly head in so many circumstances, and this is no exception. In a world where cash unfortunately rules over many of us with an iron fist, it doesn’t seem to fair to rob musicians of their livelihood simply because we believe music should be free. Of course it should be, but if we want it to be we’re going to have to look at many other things that should also be free, like food and shelter for a start, and then work from there.
To return to your original question though, I honestly have no idea. It’s anyone’s game at this stage, there are some ingenious ideas being thrown around, and some exceptionally short-sighted ones, so it’ll be very interesting to see how things progress...

And something a bit out of the topic – you’re a Black Sabbath fan, what is your opinion on all the things happening around the so called “reunion”? Did business kill the music, in the Black Sabbath case and as a whole?
Oh man, where do I begin? I was initially going to boycott the Birmingham and Download shows, out of respect for Bill Ward (or at least, told myself that that’s what I was going to do to make the fact that Tony, Geezer and Ozzy were playing again and I couldn’t afford to go see them slightly less painful), but after following all the recent drama quite obsessively, I just don’t know what to think anymore. And to make matters worse, the set list for that Birmingham show was insanely good. I mean, really - opening with Into The Void and then going straight into Under The Sun before dropping Snowblind? And they played Wheels of Confusion! Argh! That’s the stuff dreams are made of, but without Ward on the kit the whole thing feels kinda hollow… I don’t buy for a second that Ward can’t still batter those skins, if that had ever been an issue surely that would have been dealt with before the first big announcement? People tell me I’m being sentimental, or, even worse, that it’s “only the drummer” – only the drummer? Bill Ward represents an entire quarter of what makes Black Sabbath the greatest band in the world! Sure, there are plenty of bands out there that can shift their tub thumper without too much of a problem, but for some bands it just feels wrong. Can you imagine Zeppelin without John Bonham? Autopsy without Chris Reifert? Darkthrone without Fenriz?! I didn’t think so…
So, in all honesty I’ve just found this whole debacle profoundly depressing. I imagine all my fellow Sabbath fanatics worldwide are probably feeling pretty much the same as I am right now – like a confused, heartbroken child whose parents are currently entangled in an extremely painful and messy divorce. Taking sides at this point feels impossible, and it’s pretty sickening to think that, once again, money has turned something that should have been beautiful into a wearying shit storm where nobody really wins.

This live filming from 1978 concert tour in support of their album features one of the last performances with the original classic line-up of Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward)

Even though the business aspect may have ruined this reunion, I don’t think the business will ever kill the music, especially not in Sabbath’s case. Those tunes are just too damn powerful! I firmly believe that every one of those first 8 albums is a timeless classic (yes, even Technical Ecstasy. I know I may be alone in this, but come on – can any of you who disagree seriously look me in the eyes and tell me with a straight face that Dirty Women is not one righteous jam?), and no amount of petty drama and squabbling will ever tarnish the impact those records have had on my life, and the countless other Sabbath fans out there. Four friends from Birmingham working dead-end jobs rose up and embarked on an epic voyage that changed the face of music forever, and even if they may have forgotten that, we never will. As Butler, Iommi, Osbourne and Ward themselves told the world in ’78, Never Say Die…

***by Vania***

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