How to Be Your Own Pimp: the Millennium Music Conference 2016

In the mid-twentieth century, dinosaurs roamed the Earth.  They had names like ‘Motown’, ‘Okeh’, and ‘Columbia’, and they prowled the landscape searching for young men with guitars and keyboards that they could gobble up, digest, and excrete.  At the recent Millennium Music Conference, a local professor extended this analogy to describe the end of the era of major record labels: temperatures grew colder, and as the dinosaurs began to gradually turn and eat each other, a multitude of tiny mammals arose from their footprints.  

When the market for recorded music began to diminish in the 1970s, major labels gradually consolidated until only three remained: Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group, and Sony Music Entertainment.  Indie labels began to thrive in the market vacuum of the ‘80s, but within 20 years most of them had also been absorbed into the “Big Three”.  But even as the number of labels diminished, artists continued to flock to the songwriting industry in unprecedented numbers.  Garageband and Soundcloud have virtually eliminated all entrance barriers to recording and distributing one’s own music, so all it takes to be a working musician is a creative impulse stronger than one’s desire to earn a stable annual salary.  Ironically, the conference was infused with a sober nostalgia for the previous millennium, in which there were more people willing to pay for recorded music and fewer competing in its production.  

My drive to the Millennium Music Conference in Harrisburg, PA fittingly set the tone for the event. Suffice to say that on the way back I was grateful it was too dark to see the dreary flatlands outside.  This was not the orgiastic celebration of music I thought it would be.  Instead, it served as a venue for struggling young artists to network with each other and search desperately for the Holy Grail industry hack that would keep them in the business. In fact, the conference was so focused on the industry that I almost forgot music was a part of it (I certainly would have, were it not for the hoards of inked-up, twenty-something bearded men taking notes beside me).

Spanning two days and five hotel conference rooms, the event offered a variety of workshops with titles like “Navigating the Copyright Maze” and “The Current State and Future of Radio in the Digital Age”.  In between each block, musicians trickled out of their seminars and pooled in the hotel atrium around tables plastered optimistically with business cards and concert flyers.  In the Expo Room, behind booths of recording equipment and handmade bongs, artists mounted a small stage and took turns showing off a handful of their songs.  Being around so many musicians made my fingers ache for a fretboard, so I impulsively signed up for a slot.  The brief time I spent serenading the listless room was the only overtly musical event in my entire first day at the conference.  The rest was business.  

As someone with a vague but impassioned desire to build his life around music, I was excited to kick off the conference with a session entitled “Careers in the Music Industry.”  But my hopes fell as the five panelists took turns outlining the far-fetched niches that they had stumbled into through the course of their careers.  The guitarist Jeff Falkowski spoke first, describing how his instrument rental business grew from a series of loans to desperate colleagues around New York City.  Next to him sat Five Finger Death Punch’s marketing director, Chris Kurtz, who looked especially bulky in comparison to Falkowski’s slender, dreaded, Guitar-Hero aesthetic.  In addition to saying something about monster trucks (unsurprisingly), Kurtz ambiguously described his role as “the guy who fills voids,” but connotations notwithstanding, it was unclear what he meant by that.  The session took a sentimental turn with Mötley Crüe look-alike Chad Szeliga, who urged the audience to take hardships and dead ends in stride “as long as you can eat and do something you love.”  The final speaker, Carol Knisely, had the most conventional career path, having worked for two decades as a hotel lobby cocktail pianist before taking a teaching position.  Her final advice articulated the overall theme of the talk: if you want to make it in the music industry, be prepared to replace your preconceived dreams with fierce opportunism.  

This “take what you can get” ethos pervaded the entire conference.  Even the panel experts who “made it” had done so through bizarre strokes of luck, like particles fortuitously lodged in the nicks of a cliff face that grows smoother by the year.  However, being a musician is even less commercially viable than building a career around them.  For industry noobs like me, the conference was analogous to a Scared Straight prison visit, but most of the young musicians there were already thoroughly aware of the scale of the challenge that lay before them.  I felt like the one child in the room: I was mortified by the commercial conditions that were internalized facts of their lives.  

Each musician seemed to acknowledge the implicit premise that his or her name was a brand, and should be treated as such.   The keynote speaker, David Ivory, drove this point home by emphasizing the importance of holistic entrepreneurship.  The age old recipe of writing great songs and practicing until your fingers break no longer guarantees success in the music industry. Instead, musicianship is only one piece in the broader game of self-promotion.  

“Right now, you have to be everything,” he declared, “musical, smart, and good at business.”  Musicians can practice until dawn, but they’ll go nowhere until they understand publishing law and how to make deals.  

Though the conference mostly felt like a business symposium, certain oases harbored the music reverence that I was hoping to find.  Two producers, Lawrence Gelburd and Phil Nicolo, hosted a songwriting workshop reminiscent of NPR’s Car Talk.  About 50 musicians held their instruments poised as the hosts selected individuals to don the stage and perform an original number for the rest of the audience.  After the final applause, they each chimed in with insightful comments on the arrangement and performance.  Their motto was “dare to suck,” and with it they wove an atmosphere of mutual appreciation and artistic bravery that offered necessary relief from the harsh realities of the other workshops.  Sessions of this ilk reminded the attendants why they chose to be musicians in the first place (certainly not for the money).  At the end of each day, the musicians scattered to a myriad of local performance venues and gave short sets, grouped by genre.  These showcases were much-earned rewards for having made it through a day filled with an overwhelming dose of reality.  

My general feelings about the Millennium Music Conference are paradoxical.  I spent the drive back thanking God I wasn’t a member of the profession whose artistic labor I was presently enjoying for free, but as soon as I pulled into Ben West I couldn’t wait to get my hands on my guitar and start writing.  The songwriting impulse will never be mitigated, but it has also never been more difficult to make a living out of it.  The aforementioned professor, Jeff Snyder, provided a quantitative profile of America’s current music industry:  in 2011, album releases reached unprecedented heights with 6,406 records per month (or 228 per day).  Music is in greater demand than ever, with polls showing that 16-19 year olds would rather go a week without sex than a week without music.  Unfortunately, not all albums are created equal.  Of that multitude, only 11 sold over one million copies.  In fact, 94% of albums sold less than 1000 copies, and 80% sold less than 100.  Snyder suggested that musicians adopt more creative marketing strategies, like branding trendy objects such as tank-tops and vape pens.  

“You can always make money if you want to,” he assured us, “you just have to be a bit of a prostitute.”  Such closing lines don’t evoke tremendous optimism about the state of the art form, but the conference still left me feeling inspired and grateful to be living in this musical age.

Allow me to first wax cynical for the sake of argument: with heaps of commoditized nonsense dominating the charts, it’s easy to forget that music is first and foremost an art form.  And indeed, the musicians in the spotlight are hardly exemplars of artistic integrity.  Barely anyone since the Beatles has managed to achieve superstardom while preserving artistry as their prime motivation.  So with these figures as the spokespeople for the music industry, it’s tempting to view the whole affair as a pornographic molding of and catering to shallow public interests: most mainstream music is elaborately engineered candy, designed to sell.  We call pop music an art and even host decadent parties allegedly designed to celebrate the most aesthetically praiseworthy items of the annual crop.  But when it comes down to it, such efforts can come off as veiled attempts to mask the reality that the music industry traffics in products that are no higher in stature than products of food or fashion.

Fortunately, the Millennium Music Conference reminded me about the other 99.9% of musicians.  Disgusting amounts of attention and capital may be channeled to the wrong artists, but at the same time, our music scene has never been more vibrant.  Music touches more people today than it ever has before, and it comes in an unprecedented variety of forms and flavors.  Young artists don’t attend conferences like this one in order to get rich; they do so because their devotion to artistic expression leaves them no conceivable choice but to brave the vicious landscape of the 21st-century music industry.  Since the age of the record label “dinosaurs”, the role of the musician has grown less and less financially rewarding.  But as more music floods the market, more young people feel inspired to pick up an instrument and build their life around it.

Despite the occasionally depressing undertones of the conference, the attendants sat in defiant solidarity, unified by their love of music and the challenge that such a commitment entails.  The keynote speaker, tapping into that collective experience, closed with a sardonic quote from Hunter S. Thompson:

“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs.  There’s also a negative side.”


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