Digital technology has made it easier than ever for artists of every talent level to record their own music, and online opportunities have given even the humblest of home recordings the chance to be discovered by an audience of millions. But a question — both philosophical and logistical — looms: If a song falls in the Internet forest, does anybody hear it?
This charged and topical riddle was explored head-on with You Got Your Music Online, Now What? at The Recording Academy headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif., on June 23. The lively panel discussion, presented by The Recording Academy Los Angeles Chapter and Producers & Engineers Wing, was moderated by Carmen Rizzo, musician, producer and two-time GRAMMY-nominated engineer. The broadly experienced and insightful panel featured Brad Barrish, head of operations, Topspin; Brooke Burt, co-founder and publicity and events director, Indigenous Promotions; Nathan Hoy, vice president, ReverbNation; Anne Litt, KCRW DJ and music supervisor; and Jeff Varner, artist manager, the Collective.
The event marked the first members-only live-streamed GRAMMY Professional Development Event The Academy has presented through its online member social network, GRAMMY365. Academy members were treated to a conversation that was spirited, wide-ranging and exceptionally informative.
Rizzo opened the discussion with a very specific question: Does Myspace still matter? The general consensus was that up-and-coming artists still need to make use of all the tools available but, as Barrish said, "Traffic doesn't lie, and traffic [there] is down." Panelists said they were much more likely to discover music through favorite blogs, links found in Twitter postings, band websites, and Facebook recommendations.
Responses were more varied to the question of whether the CD still mattered. Burt pointed out that, with all the digital pipelines out there, there is still a large mainstream audience that listens to music on CDs, and that the working press still prefers to receive music via CDs rather than downloads. But panelists countered that, for many artists, the CD has become not so much a means of music distribution but a form of souvenir.
"Fans still want to connect with a physical good, whether that's a CD or a T-shirt or a poster," said Varner. "Someone who's 5 or 10 years old right now may never buy a CD in their lifetime, so the CD will go away, but the nature of the relationship between fan and artist won't change."
One theme that was explored from several different angles was the notion of music's filters and gatekeepers. Not so long ago, the gates to commercial success were manned by a finite number of A&R representatives, radio stations and print outlets. Now, with the explosion of the online world, there are thousands of ways to be heard, and listeners — whether they're influential tastemakers or ordinary consumers — have to establish their own filters.
When Rizzo asked the panel for the best ways for artists to work through filters and get themselves heard, there was general agreement on the platforms to use, with SoundCloud, Tumblr, Facebook, and Bandcamp all getting mentions. YouTube also received a hearty endorsement, both for its ease of browsing and its affordability. Varner related that when his client the Plain White T's posted a YouTube video for "1, 2, 3, 4" that cost all of $30, it breathed a whole new life into a song that had flatlined at radio.
The importance of traditional radio was also debated, with Rizzo arguing that radio promotion was still vitally important, while other panelists felt that, for a new artist, money might be better spent on a new media outreach specialist, an independent publicist or top-quality website design.
During the panel's extensive question-and-answer portion, a question was asked about the importance of online image and "personality," which led to perhaps the most important takeaway of the discussion: As tempting as it may be for an artist to make use of every possible online tool and service they can find, it's crucial to use those tools in a way that makes sense for the particular artist and his or her particular music.
"Don't just use everything," cautioned Barrish. "Focus on things that matter. You don't need to be transparent to be relevant. Authenticity is much more important. If you're not doing things that feel natural, fans see right through it."
With that point, the discussion seemed to come full circle, from a new world of possibilities to traditional values. Even with so many new and novel ways for artists to launch a career and get their work heard, the work itself is still the bottom line.
As Burt succinctly said, "Ultimately, it still comes down to the music."