CMJ Marathon

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This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

Last week, the CMJ Marathon came to town. An annual music festival and convention, it runs four days throughout clubs and venues around the city. The festival is over 20 years old and built on an agenda of bringing college radio artists to music industry taste-makers at night, with a trade show running during the day. With over 700 bands performing, I thought I would find some great new gems. Though I didn't hear anything revolutionary this year, some of my most recent favorites, like Regina Spektor and Brazillian Girls gave buzzworthy performances.

The live shows are just one of the attractions to the festival. The convention also presents over 50 panel discussions about issues relating to developments in the business. Most recently, The Marathon has become home to several other related conferences, morphing multiple agendas under the Marathon umbrella. They include small film festival, a music video conference, a do it yourself musicians' conference, and a legal confab for entertainment attorneys. All and all, it's a real smoozefest.

With all these business professionals running around the panels during the day and clubs at night, you're bound to get into some interesting discussions. While I was standing in a crowded club waiting for the next band to perform, I ran into an old friend, who was a major label sales executive. He told me his company was doing OK, living on the sales of their artists' older CD's or catalog. The problem, he said, was that his company was having difficulty finding strong new artists to build careers for the catalog sales of tomorrow.

That got me thinking about some underlying concerns. The last 30 years of the music business has been based on the assumption that consumers would replenish their favorite records, several times over with the emergence of the cassette and cd formats. In addition, the industry's economic model has been based on selling an album's worth of music. Nowadays, digital consumers often only buy one or two of their favorite songs, which cuts into profit expectations substantially.

If the income is cut significantly with digital downloading, and digital distribution continues to grow exponentially, labels large and small will have to change the way they do business. One idea proffered is to require digital stores like I tunes to sell albums only, without offering the possibility of single song purchases. It's too early still to impose that on consumers, but with the rate of digital distribution growth, I think the model will have to change to adjust to this new economy.

Another hot topic around the watering hole was the recent announcement of the new incubators for indy labels at the major distributors. Incubadors are small marketing and promotion departments at the major distributors, organized to bring in indy labels for distribution. Most of the indy labels I spoke with are amused at this idea, They are convinced major distributors will never be satisfied with the small sales numbers that indy labels generate. They argue that this is just an opportunity for the majors to try and position themselves as indies, to attract hipper artists to their distribution business.

The music business is trying to pull through an incredibly difficult couple of years, but these kind of confabs actually do help.

Without them, folks are left to wander the playing field alone. And right now, the one thing the business needs is continuous communication to figure this out.

This is Celia Hirschman, with On the Beat for KCRW.