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Blog // Creativity
February 18, 2011

Conferences, Workshops or…

I’m normally pretty ruthless when it comes to attending events. I’ll pencil a lot of things in, then skip them if I can. It’s great to hear industry figures speak and networking is important. But, there is a global industry built around conferences and public speaking. Sometimes this industry is the path to great ideas […]

I’m normally pretty ruthless when it comes to attending events. I’ll pencil a lot of things in, then skip them if I can. It’s great to hear industry figures speak and networking is important. But, there is a global industry built around conferences and public speaking. Sometimes this industry is the path to great ideas and inspiring stories and sometimes it is just a whirlpool of recycled theories and simplistic commentary.

When I attended MusicMatters last year I totally expected to revisit the conference in 2011. The move to Singapore further reinforced that feeling. Then, organisers published a short list of confirmed speakers and my heart sank. As much as I admire and would like to meet Steve Lillywhite and Imogen Heap, the rest of the list was all about the big end of the industry. There’s still a place for meetings that involve major labels, large-scale distributors and multinational marketing departments. But, times are not just changing, they have changed – for good.

MIDEM seems to have recognised this, which is why this year so much of the reporting focussed on new music services and app development. If I could afford the time, I would definitely travel to Rethink Music (founded by MIDEM and Berklee College of Music). That feels like a place where people will talk about new models that are directly relevant to where musicians like me find themselves.

Any meaningful conversation about the music business ought to cover the whole of the industry. That’s what makes the music tech revolution so fascinating. SoundCloud is growing and becoming financially stable by offering a service to the whole music scene, from hobbyists through to major labels. Topspin will soon open its service to all musicians on a very affordable basis. This is the same platform that is behind Grammy winners Arcade Fire, Eminem, Cee-Lo Green Bela Fleck, Herbie Hancock and Paul McCartney.

As attractive as the spectacle of the Grammys (or, for that matter, American Idol) might be, it only represents a thin (if previously lucrative) slice of the pie. I explored that a bit last year when I wrote Whose Music Industry Is It Anyway?. We have been through a revolution in the music business – not just the drop in sales that has devastated the major labels, but also the fundamental change in the music tools available to every musician and the ability they now have to transform their local music scenes (see also Who Can Start The Music? and How To Develop A Jazz Scene In Hong Kong).

Like many other Jazz fans, I loved seeing Esperanza Spalding win the best new artist Grammy. It’s good to see such incredible talent rewarded in that way. But also, she is a teaching-artist; a model Berklee has long developed for working musicians. Unlike the big-hit recording industry model, the teaching-artist approach has deep roots in history.

Good teaching is transformational and powerful. It’s hard to copy a good teacher and their work is valuable, both culturally and as a sell-able commodity.

This is something the photography world seems to understand better than the music world. I just heard today that the team from Lightenupandshoot will be hosting a workshop in Hong Kong. I’ll be there. These guys are great photographers, but they are also tapping into the urge, amongst both hobbyists and professionals, to become better by shooting more compelling images and working smarter.

As I’ve mentioned before, the Lumen Dei tour in Ladakh was a watershed for me. I’d love to travel with David duChemin and Matt Brandon again and there are a few other touring photographers that have caught my eye. After all, two weeks on the road with “best in class” photographers – if that doesn’t change you deeply, then what will?

Which, leads me back to the conference thing. Meeting Steve Lillywhite or Imogen Heap would be cool and I’m sure they could give a great conference presentation. But, I’d much rather pay the money to spend a day or two in the studio with them, seeing the way they work and trying to apply that to my own craft.

In a way I’m feeling the same about the upcoming Semi-Permanent conference here in Hong Kong. Some great names featured there (especially Kayt Jones and Stefan Sagmeister). But, back to back fifty minute presentations are only going to take us so far. What is this really? A tour? A show? I’m not sure.

Maybe I’m being too cynical about the conference industry. There is a place for insider discussion and networking sure (and, I may still go to MusicMatters). But, right now I’m a lot more obsessed with getting better at the things I do and completing the projects I’ve undertaken.

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