By Bruce Britt
Never let it be said that The Recording Academy backs away from a good fight. Since 1998, the GRAMMY Foundation's the Entertainment Law Initiative Luncheon & Scholarship Presentation has served as a forum for The Academy to play congenial host to some of its tech "frenemies," including high-ranking executives from technology companies.
During the 16th annual luncheon on Jan. 24, it was YouTube's turn in the ELI hot seat. This year's keynote speaker was Robert Kyncl, YouTube's head of content and business operations. Ensuring that all parties observed Marquis of Queensberry rules, Recording Academy and GRAMMY Foundation President/CEO Neil Portnow set a cordial tone in his remarks.
"It's no secret that many of YouTube and Google's advocacy positions run counter to those that the recording industry takes," Portnow said, "but this is a forum for dialogue . ... Putting everyone together in a room is always a healthy way of finding common ground."
Rather than attempt to ignore the elephant in the room, Kyncl commendably began his speech by acknowledging the enigmatic relationship between his company and content owners that are represented by many of the attorneys in attendance. That probably explains why Kyncl took pains to illustrate just how his enormously popular video sharing website can empower the music industry.
"We're often pitted as adversaries," said Kyncl, "but I think we are better off with music, and we think music is better off with YouTube."
During a detailed presentation, Kyncl contended that YouTube is actually assisting the music industry in areas such as talent discovery, A&R/promotion and distribution. To illustrate his point, he pointed to an example of singing phenomenon Susan Boyle, whose "Britain's Got Talent" audition video went viral on YouTube, resulting in a major recording contract and global fame.
"YouTube has changed [talent discovery]," Kyncl said, "not to our advantage — it changed it to the label's advantage. It's now much more cost-efficient for labels to do."
Comparing today's music environment to the crowded and noisy streets of India, Kyncl contended that branding is all-important, whether it's major label artists or independent acts such as GRAMMY nominees Macklemore & Ryan Lewis.
"Brand-building A&R is the thing that will allow [artists] to break out in a world where there's a lot of mixed signals," Kyncl said. "If you build the brand properly, you build a long-lasting enterprise, which then creates a lot of library value for the future."
Kyncl's speech was just one of the day's highlights. Attorney Don Passman, who famously negotiated mega-deals for Janet Jackson and R.E.M., among others, received the 2014 ELI Service Award. Passman was introduced by GRAMMY-winning singer/songwriter Randy Newman, who delivered a speech that was equal parts Las Vegas roast and Elk's Club toast. In a heartfelt acceptance speech, Passman — whose All You Need To Know About The Music Business is in its eight edition — thanked his mentors and family, saving his most impassioned comments for his wife of 41 years.
"Shana, I don't think it's possible to love you any more, but every day I do," Passman said, to which a swooning female attendee uttered "jeez," a remark that itself elicited a laugh from the crowd.
This year's ELI Writing Competition winner was Ohio State University Moritz College of Law student Matt Borden. His essay, titled "The Day The Music Died: Digital Inheritance And The Music Industry," examines what happens to digital music collections when their owners die.
As Borden notes in his essay, "The biggest challenge involves digital music and the legal challenges of applying old law to a new medium."