Seattle’s Capitol Hill Block Party — a three-day neighborhood music festival — kicks off today with live music from acts such as Spoon, Robert DeLong and Man Or Astroman.
But earlier today, in the small underground reading room of the Elliott Bay Book Company, members of the Seattle music community gathered to look forward, not just to the next three days, but to the future of music itself.
The event, entitled Digital Technology and the Changing Face of Music Promotion, featured a panel of speakers, each from a different sector of the music industry. While the conversation ranged from the creative process, to music branding, to the rationale behind booking talent for the block party itself, one topic continued to come up — music curation.
“The idea of music curation has more value now than it ever has because of technology,” said Kevin Stapleford, senior director of programming at Slacker Radio. “Curating for the purpose of reaching a mass audience whether it’s consumers or via a brand I don’t think had the same value five years ago that it does now.”
Music curation, historically relegated to radio DJs, is now essential to every aspect of the business. As an old-school radio man, Stapleford occupies the most traditional curatorial role, but it’s a skill everyone in the music industry is adopting. Artists (particularly electronic musicians) sample, remix, and mash-up music from classic hip-hop tracks to bootlegs made in college dorm rooms. Brands hire experts to find artists that represent their messages. Talent bookers are expected to scour all the resources available to them to find the next big act. Each of the other panelists spoke to the importance of curation in their success.
Reed Juenger, co-founder and producer of Beat Connection, a Seattle electronic band slotted to play the main stage on Saturday night, recounted the painstaking process of searching the far corners of online platforms like SoundCloud and Spotify to find dynamic and interesting choices for a DJ set.
Curation clearly plays a major role in the creation and distribution of music, but it’s also instrumental in music commerce. Panelist John Crooke, Vice President of Global Brand Development at PlayNetwork, is acutely aware of this as he helps brands create identities through music. Crooke works with companies like Starbucks and Victoria’s Secret, selecting music that not only fits with the brand’s image but creates brand associations for consumers.
Although Crooke has been successful in commercializing music for brands, it seems there’s no sure-fire path to success in today’s music industry. In fact, when asked by an audience member how musicians are expected to make money in an age where the public refuses to pay for music, the panelists faltered a bit.
Eli Anderson, the talent buyer for the CHBP, explained that touring is the main revenue source for musicians but also said “that’s tough because you can’t tour 10 months out of the year.”
As Matt Ashworth, the panel moderator and Vice President of Porter Novelli, put it, “I think the recipe that seems to work is make something good you care about; figure out the right way to get that thing to people who care about it.”
When Ashworth opened up the discussion to the audience, the topic turned to a different sort of progress in the music industry.
Jonathan Cunningham, an audience member and manager of youth programs and community outreach at EMP Museum, asked why the panel was made up entirely of white men.
“Since we’re talking about the evolution of music and the future of music getting away from when it was a bunch of white dudes telling us what we should do and listen to, why, in 2014, is it just a panel of white dudes telling us what we should listen to?”
The question elicited applause from much of the audience and the panelists responded gracefully. Ashworth noted that he pursued a more diverse group of participants, but those available happened to be white males.
“I’m just the mouthpiece. I’m the one who didn’t have to be on site right now,” said CHBP talent booker Anderson. “I think about that too. Looking at my main stage lineup I don’t wanna end up with a bunch of white guys with guitars. That’s not what the music world looks like. That’s not what people are into. At the block party the white male is the least important, I’m the guy that didn’t need to be there right now.”
Anderson’s cheeky response resonated. Some aspects of the music industry are antiquated, but it’s a diverse and ever-evolving world — and conversations like today’s keep it moving forward.