Dive Into The Minds of Industry Players: A Review of the New Music Seminar

If you currently work in the music industry, or aspire to, the New Music Seminar deserves your attention. I had the privilege of being invited by the Workman Group to attend and cover the three-day conference which brought together music and entertainment leaders committed to exploring ways to expand and grow the business.

The New Music Seminar started with a bang with a red carpet and performance at Webster Hall on Sunday, with a line-up which included ASTR, Cardiknox, Mayaeni, Born Cages, and Meg Myers. On Tuesday night, at 11:15 pm at Tammany Hall with a performance by the winner of the Artist on the Verge Awards 2014, VanLadyLove.

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The three-day conference took place at the New Yorker Hotel in Midtown and occupied two floors with booths that for the following companies, Buzz Angle, GCA Entertainment, Showpitch, Music Times, Corbin Hillman Communications, ASCAP, Noise 4 Good, Steven Hero Productions and more. These firms offer services in royalties, publishing, digital distribution, data mining of online music consumption, music journalism, artistic representation, and artist and repertoire. In addition, the conference rooms on these two floors served as meeting places for panelists and discussions, and mini acoustic showcases with some of the artists selected for the Artists on the Verge Project 2014.

The New Music Seminar conference helps industry leaders and players better understand how consumerism and music is evolving and how they can continue to innovate. In addition, this same conference brings the New Music Seminar Music Festival. Musicians have the chance to perform for a large audience and industry players, and develop valuable partnerships with producers and managers.

While I have five full-length interview articles in the making with these five bands that were invited to the NMS Artists on the Verge Project – Juicebox, The Dirty Gems, Desert Sharks, Kim Logan and the Blackfoot Gypsies – I first want dive into what I learned from A&R representatives, music publishers and the staff of Pitchfork in some of the panels in the past three days. More specifically, I will take you through what label representatives look for in an artist before they invite them onboard, the types of criticisms new singer songwriters typically receive, and the dos and don’ts for publicists who work with musicians.

The A&R Movement: Where music is headed

Let me start backwards. On Tuesday, the last day of the seminar, David Massey, President of Island Records conducted a conversation between nine A&R representatives: Tayla Elitzer (Capitol Records); Alyssa Castiglia (Island Records); Brandon Davis (Atlantic Records); Jon Coombs, General Manager at Secretly Canadian Publishing; Jenna Rubenstein, Creative at Insieme Music Publishing within Glassnote Entertainment; Austin Rice (Columbia Records); Jessica Strassman (Startime International); Patch Culbertson (Republic Records); and Dylan Chenfeld (Razor & Tie). Here are the essentials that musicians and A&R representatives alike should know about music today.

Trends in Music

Panelists emphasized which particular styles currently excite label reps. Electronic, rhythm and blues, and emerging trend of world music, deep house music from the UK are among these genres. In addition, there is a cool cross between electronic and indie, better known as Indietronica. Avicii is one artist who accomplishes this by mixing electronic dance music with bluegrass. Another artist who combines guitar driven music with electronic dance beats is The Chain Gang of 1974, who recently performed at the Governors Ball Music Festival.

On the topic of guitar music, another speaker claimed there has been a significant void in guitar-driven alternative music, providing musicians within this genre to re-emerge. He added that bands like this who entered the scene more than 10 years ago, including The Strokes and Jack White, still drive large performance crowds. The way I see it, there is no reason why someone now cannot come out and do the same. An audience for this music still thankfully exists.

A&R, Musicians and Social Data – What works, and what does not

One of the most important pieces of information an A&R rep must keep in mind is the difference between data and buzz. When researching an artist, data is crucial. One must put their personal taste aside and understand the consumers’ tastes. While start-ups like Buzz Angle, who are currently in their beta-testing phase, record data of online music streaming and purchases; the other type of public data most A&R reps use is Twitter. Retweets of videos, hashtags of performances, and robust discussion about the artist serve as valuable data. Additional social metrics includes plays and followers on Spotify, and views on Youtube.

If you are an artist, please note that an A&R person wants to know you are going to sell records. One of the panelists signed the New York City-based Indie Rock band, Born Cages based on how many times the band’s songs and videos were retweeted. Although he had not seen the band play a single show before signing them, he believed in them. In addition, after speaking to the band in person at the red carpet event, this group claims performing is their favorite part of their career.

In short, social media and staying relevant on the music scene is essential. A&R reps will also tell you that now, more than ever, musicians must create a marketing plan and build a fan base by themselves.

On the other hand, some social media presents a negative. The panelists mentioned a habit of some A&R reps adopt involves aimlessly following buzz about an artist on blogs. The problem with unsigned bands made ‘hot’ within the blogosphere is that these articles don’t help the A&R rep determine whether that band will be promising to sign. I agree with this claim. Unlike twitter, which marketers across the advertising industry have utilized to research the purchase intent of customers, blogging platforms do not provide this data or information about the consumer.

Key Performance Indicators – Play Live and Good Songs

Data has not entirely replaced a good ear for talent. Some of the reps on this panel claimed that a strong instinct about the artist must come before research. This might include the bands that one’s friends talk about. Most importantly, musical ability can be used to judge how well an artist performs live. As a rule of thumb, A&R reps do not think highly of a band that does not often perform.

If you love to play live but perhaps are not them strongest performer, there are ways A&R reps can find you help in establishing an excellent stage presence. In this case, the A&R rep might not sign you right away, but they might start developing a relationship with you, hopefully as partner on your journey. However, several panelists did agree that most of the time, the longer it takes a sign a deal with the artist, the better. There are A&R reps who have attended a musician’s performance 14 times and they regularly keep in touch.

What if you are an artist who loves playing live and plays well, but do not currently have any original music? A&R representatives will tell you, songs lead the way. Good songs have a way of rising to the top. If you don’t have any original songs, they do not feel compelled to bring you on board. Finally, selling singles and full albums still serve as an artist’s main source of revenue. This is one trend that has not changed.

So what has changed in A&R? The availability of information about the artist and their potential as an economically successful artist is now more public than it was 10 years ago. In addition, the competition on the musical landscape today escalates rapidly.

The Take Away

The most valuable advice this panel had to offer to the artist looking to make money with their music is this, always remember the music should be about your fans. Deliver the music your fans love. Thanks to social media, artists now have an excellent way to interact with fans and secure that base that is going to help the musician get attention from an A&R rep, and hopefully get signed.

Now, if you have always been musically inclined, enjoyed performing, but are just starting out as a songwriter, and might be looking to work with a label or music publishing group, keep reading this post. I am going to give you an idea of how it feels to have your music critiqued by A&R people and music publishers in the overview of this next panel.

Music XRAY Presents: A&R Live – Music Critique and Sound Selector Sessions

This panel was conducted by Mike McCready, Co-Founder and CEO of Music Xray. The players included Tayla Elitzer, Jenna Rubenstein, Alyssa Castiglia, Stephanie Karten, A&R from Robbins Entertainment, and Chloe Weise, A&R from RCA Records.

I arrived late to this discussion, but luckily, the guitarist from the Boston-based band The Venetia Fair, Mike Abiuso – who I had met at the opening night at Webster Hall on Sunday night – was able to fill me in on what I missed. He said that earlier in the program, “The critics assumed nobody would want to listen to a demo of a song because it is an unfinished product. When they [the critics] asked the audience however; many listeners said ‘yes,’ they would listen to a demo.”

Michael also explained the process of how this panel would critique music. They would read off the names of some of the Artists on the Verge, class of 2014, and then ask for a CD of their single and play it for the entire room to hear, and then publicly share their criticism. This type of workshop will help singer songwriters and performers in the early stages of their career in the following ways: 1) It will help aspiring musicians build a thick skin towards criticism; 2) This is a great opportunity to receive constructive criticism; and 3) They will learn what record labels search for in an artist who is looking to get signed.

Some of the Songs up for Critique

The first song I took notes on was “Insomniac” by The Dirty Gems. Upon listening to this track, the panelists said, “While the vocals were good and I liked the guitar in the forefront, I don’t see a lot of hit potential. Strengthen the verse a little bit.”

Afterwards, the panelists chose “Call on Me,” a Hip-Hop track by rapper Just So Smooth. The speakers pointed out, “No dynamics, the melody is static. The hook needs to be cleverer, along with lyrics. Also, the phrase “call on me” has been used before.”

The last song review I listened to was about the dance tune “Problem Boy” by Toni Atari. “The production is not great, and the vocals are a little bit muddled,” remarked the panelist. She also suggested the artist develop her lyrical content and the context in this song.

A Critique of the Artists on the Verge Awards 2014 Finalists

Fast forwarding to the final panel of the day The A&R Movement, I thought it was only fair to include the A&R rep’s point of view about the AoV Awards 2014 finalists – Garage Rock group from Philadelphia, June Divided; R&B singer from New York City, Kiah Victoria; and Pop Rock group from Provo, VanLadyLove. Although everyone now knows the winner is VanLadyLove, I wondered who the A&R reps thought would win.

One of the panelists gave Kiah their vote. Another panelist said, “Kiah commands a stage, but she would do well if she focused more on carrying her pre-choruses a little further.”

An A&R rep stated they would sign VanLadyLove. One of the reps then stated this band “has a cool sound and great stage presence.”

As for June Divided, one of the reps claimed he would put this band in the “to be watched” folder. Another panelist positively commented on the band’s energy, but claimed “Their style is a little dated,” and emphasized the group needs to focus on their audience.

The Take Away

All artist starting out on the music scene must listen to criticism in order to improve their chances of getting representation. Luckily, these critics do bring up a few valid points. For example, ask yourself, “Am I trying to be a writer or artist?” This question is important in dance music, a genre for which they suggest the following – “Focus more on sophisticated lyrics. In dance music, the lyrics are not very deep.

“The music also has to deliver the same magnitude as the vocals. This comes along with more songwriting practice.”

Additional advice they provide is this, “Think really well about where your song fits in this time period. A sound from six years ago will not fly now.”

They then offered this last piece of advice, which I found interesting, “There is a lot of risks these days, so you have a better chance with a radio-ready song.” While three of these panelists, Tayla, Jenna and Alyssa, would also agree with those A&R reps from The A&R Movement panel who claim that an artist does not need to be on the radio to be successful; they suggest a radio-ready song just so that a single has the best quality possible. A poor quality recording could turn off the A&R person and prevent them from giving a well-written song a chance.

So far, I have talked about the types of criticisms new artists on the independent music scene will likely receive from industry players. Now, I want to take you to the last segment of this review – advice for publicists working with musicians; the dos and don’ts they should apply to their practices.

Online Media Music Discovery

Jay Frank, Founder and CEO of DigSin served as conductor of this panel, which took place on Monday. The players included Mark Richardson, Editor-in-Chief of Pitchfork; Andrew Flanagan, Writer and Editor of Billboard; Joe Carozza, Senior Vice President of Publicity of Republic Records; and Andy Cohn, President and Publisher of The FADER. The discussions between panelists provide me with advice for what a publicist should do in order to increase coverage about their artist, and what to avoid.

Do Tell a Story to the Industry Player

As a publicist, when you pitch an artist to someone else in the industry, ask yourself what makes the artist different and why that industry player should care about them? The type of story you tell keep the reader interested. Although some artists might want to hold back on the story, encourage them to speak and share.

Don’t Blame Publications for not Creating Enough Attention

The publications tell the artist’s story behind their music. An artist must convince listeners to care about them through music. While I attest the writer has to care first about the artist and the music they create in order to tell a great story; the publicist must be a mover and shaker, the one who helps start a relationship between the writer and musician.

On this note, the writer’s job is to help present a face to a record label, one that shows the artist has potential to stay with a label on a long-term basis.

Do Use Social Media to Create Attention

Publicists should push this, especially since artists today are on the forefront of their social media, and this can be curtailed to create new stories. Focus on how to get people to pay attention to the artist’s social media.

Don’t Rely on a Viral Music Video to Create Attention

Joe says “Many artists come in my office and say, ‘I want to make a video [for my artist] and I want to know how to make it viral.’ This is the wrong mentality. You have to spot an elephant in the room and see how it is different from everything else that is out there.”

In other words, Joe means that publicists must not put so much faith in a music video that will tug at the heart strings of Youtube, Hulu or Google Play users. One of the reasons might be that the music video, like the written article, is a promotional tool; it does not define to the listeners why they should care about that artist. If the music does not stick, neither will the video.

Do look at the writers’ past work before pitching them

Any public relations expert will tell you to research the media outlets that will have the most chance of showing interest in the person, service or product you represented. Would you send a press release of an album launch by an independent hip-hop musician to a magazine that covers strictly classical music? Probably not. On the other hand though, journalists sift through hundreds of press releases every day simply because they don’t feel the story fits with the publication’s brand identity.

Luckily, the agent will not need to examine each media outlet front-to-back and split hairs in order to decide whether or not to pitch the artist to this publication. Instead, they must judge whether the writer really thinks about music based on previous articles they have written. Can the writer generate new ideas about how to present a musician to a producer or record label? The publicist should ask this question.

Don’t think nobody will cover your artist because they are not big

Publications like Pitchfork will not solely cover bands that everyone knows. They recognize there is good music out there, but the artist might have a small audience. If you are publicizing an artist who writes memorable music and writes it well, then chances are someone will want to cover that musician.

Final Thoughts

The panels that I spoke of are the ones I attended. So many more took place at The New Music Seminar, I just couldn’t be present for all of those discussions. During the seminar, I also split my time between scheduling interviews with bands, researching their work for questions, having conversations with them, and traveling to their shows all over the Lower East Side. Indeed, the three-day conference kept me busy, and the experience is worth the effort.

Many believe investigating secondary resources like books, websites, television, newspapers, magazines and additional publications that talk about the evolving music industry is the most convenient way to learn about this business landscape. It is only convenient if you sit down and conduct all of the research. Based on personal experience, studying the most accurate information will take weeks. You can save time to learn about the best practices by attending a conference. The greatest benefit one can gain from the New Music Seminar includes the opportunity to network and mingle with additional industry experts, music entrepreneurs, and build new business relationships within one stop.

Tom Silverman, the Executive Director of the New Music Seminar writes, “It is surprising that something so essential to human happiness can be so undervalued. The purpose of the New Music Seminar is to bring people together to discuss new ways to increase the value of music.”

He adds, “The opportunity for music revenue growth is even bigger on a global scale. The largest growth potential exists in parts of the world that never had a meaningful music business. Now, billions of mobile phones can deliver music to music-loving people.

“As we change our paradigm from one of selling music to one of selling the attention that music drives, we will experience a doubling of the value of music within ten years – and another doubling in the following decade (New Music Seminar Guide Book, p. 84-86, 2014).”

Bibliography

New Music Seminar. The New Music Business: Guidebook NMS 2014. June 2014, New York, NY, USA. Unpublished Conference Paper, 2014. 84-86. Print.

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A Union of Bluegrass and Hip-Hop, Urban and Rural: an interview with Rench of Gangstagrass

Like many individuals, I initially questioned the thought of bluegrass and hip-hop in the same song. Then, I listened to the Brooklyn-based group Gangstagrass and became more confident and intrigued by this amalgam. When I watched Gangstagrass perform live at the Mercury Lounge earlier this year, I felt like I stumbled upon an exciting discovery on the New York City music scene.

“We get a tremendous amount of positive responses from people,” said Rench, the producer and guitar player of Gangstagrass, who also goes by the official title ‘Mastermind. “They say “Wow. I like hip-hop and I love bluegrass, and this is the kind of music I’ve been searching for my entire life.””

Gangstagrass Facebook Banner

In my full-length interview feature for the month of June, Rench talks about the events that helped Gangstagrass gain substantial attention from the public; how the union of bluegrass and hip-hop works; and why this union matters in today’s musical landscape. It’s my pleasure to welcome Gangstagrass to my blog on Music Historian, Hear; Don’t Listen.

From a one-man project, to a band, and to a theme song for a television show, and more!

According to Rench, Gangstagrass gradually evolved from a one-man project inside his own recording studios in 2006, Rench Audio studios, to a group composed of long-time musical collaborators and temporary instrumentalists in 2010.

“I met T.O.N.E.-z while working at a recording studio. We worked together in a few sessions, where I created beats for him, and we started talking from there,” said Rench. “I eventually recorded some of his albums in my studios.”

Rench arranged the beats and the instrumentation on T.O.N.E.-z’s latest solo album Hennessy and Moonshine released earlier this year.

“At the time I started Rench Audio Studios, I already had a band called B-Star which played honky-tonk hip-hop. Dolio the Sleuth was part of that group. I have been working with him for about a decade now.

“These are MC’s I already knew and I was able to draw on these existing relationships. I would call them up and say “Hey, can I put some of your hip-hop vocals with bluegrass music” and they said “sure man, go ahead.”

Rench, the group's Mastermind, performing with Gangstagrass at the Mercury Lounge on March 30, 2013 “Once I saw how many people were into this one particular project, I thought of making an actual band. I had been involved in the Brooklyn country scene and knew many musicians. I actually recruited people through word-of-mouth, and I was able to pick out a couple of them and bring them on board.”

Some of the bluegrass players that Rench originally recruited stayed in Gangstagrass for a while. The group also experiences a wave of musicians that frequently come and leave as they pursue separate projects or go into different directions.

The transformation of Gangstagrass from a project into an actual group opened the door to what would later be “a big stroke of luck.” In 2010, the band’s song “Long Hard Times to Come” featuring T.O.N.E.-z was selected as the opening theme for the television show on FX, Justified.

“They [the producers of the show] were looking for a bluegrass and hip-hop song, and we happened to be doing it,” enumerated Rench. “It was the perfect type of exposure for Ganstagrass.

“When we tried to explain our music, people tried to make sense of bluegrass and hip-hop mixed together and how that sounds. They don’t think that combination works well. Having people listen to what I make without explanation is the perfect exposure, and that’s what Justified has been doing by playing 30 seconds of Gangstagrass at the beginning of each episode.”

The positive reception of “Long Hard Times To Come” resulted in an Emmy Nomination in July 2010 for Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music. The public’s growing interest in Gangstagrass encouraged Rench to make a full album later that year titled Lightning on the Strings, Thunder on the Mic.

“After the theme song was picked up, I knew I definitely had to get some original Gangstagrass music out there. I made the songs on Lightning on the Strings, Thunder on the Mic to sound a lot like the Justified theme with the same rapper and players. That album mostly featured T.O.N.E.-z.”

Rench also states that he applied the compositional formula in “Long Hard Times To Come” to the other songs on Lightning on the Strings, Thunder on the Mic. The album that followed Lightning on the Strings… was Gangstagrass’ 2012 release, Rappalachia, a record that displayed more the band’s versatility.

Rappalachia… explores different ways of combining bluegrass and hip-hop and welcomes different techniques and rappers,” elaborates Rench.

“I wanted to branch out a little and not stick closely with the same [compositional] formula, so I took the production in different directions. Sometimes I would start with a hip-hop beat and build with a bluegrass clip. On other songs, I would start with a bluegrass sound, build a beat around that, and then have the rappers build their rhymes. Some songs involved a more organic approach, like having the bluegrass band play a whole song through while others had more of a sampling approach.

“Some highlights also included working with new high-profile rappers like Kool Keith, Dead Prez and Nitty Scott to bring out different elements.”

The introduction of new rappers and new songs excited Gangstagrass followers. One rapper that stands out in my mind is the female Brooklyn-based rapper, Tomasia, who appears on the Rappalachia track, “Big Branch.”

Tomasia rapping in "Big Branch" with Gangstagrass at the Mercury Lounge “The song “Big Branch” is based on actual events that happened,” explained Rench. “When I brought the song to Tomasia, she took it upon herself to research the rural mining issues that affect many communities in Kentucky. Tomasia put herself into that role and wrote from that perspective so well.

“She is brilliant at writing these narratives from different perspectives with a lot of depth and clarity. I was really thrilled, and that song is a great example of reaching different people and seeing their struggles in us and our struggles in them.”

Rench’s last statement about “Big Branch” helped me see that both bluegrass and hip-hop include topics about the average person’s everyday struggle. Of course, one genre pertains to the struggles of rural life while the other focuses on the struggles of urban life. Then started I wonder whether these two genres have more in common than just lyrical subjects. Rench observes the similarities and differences of these two genres while working in the studios and performing with Gansgtagrass.

The Union of Bluegrass and Hip-hop

(Left to Right) Rench, R-Son, and Jon West on the Fiddle “When I work with the rappers and bluegrass players, we find a lot of common ground musically. Both these genres share improvisational elements and each has a different word to describe these elements. For example, during a jam session, we stand around in a circle and take turns improvising. In hip-hop, this is called a cipher while in bluegrass, it’s called a pick. Basically, they are both the same thing.

“Sometimes rappers will freestyle while the bluegrass players are improvising solos, and they will click. The artists from both genres approach improvisation with the same impulse – creating a dialogue within music and turning it into a conversation.

“As you mentioned,” added Rench, “both of these genres have a history of focusing on stories of outlaws, struggle, heartbreak, and hard things in life. Hip-hop and bluegrass help create a catharsis by singing or rapping about these stories.”

While the players in Gangstagrass have established a common ground musically and lyrically, the differences in performance within bluegrass and hip-hop balance each other nicely. Rench says:

R-Son performing with Gangstagrass“As a genre, Bluegrass is very virtuosic-focused and lacks an exciting performance element. Traditionally, it involves people fine-tuning their skills and ability to perform accurately and passionately. Bluegrass performers typically stand in one place and focus on their instrument and playing something amazing.

“We had to focus on the idea that our performance would be more like a party. So we asked the bluegrass players to move around more and interact more with the rappers.”

According to Rench, members of Gangstagrass “make sure to have fun on stage.” Rench adds, “It’s really exciting to perform and interact with these guys on stage.”

During a performance, the rapper often sings to the audience then turns his or her attention to the neighboring banjo player and says “take it away.” The instrumentalist can really focus on a solo and the rappers can freestyle a new verse.

When I went to see Gangstagrass perform for the first time back in March, I couldn’t remember the last time a room of 70 or more people had so much fun watching musicians that were also enjoying themselves. I believe this experience helps individuals with varying musical tastes accept and embrace the fusion of bluegrass and hip-hop. One question I do ask myself though is whether Gangstagrass’ union of bluegrass and hip-hop might help shrink the divide between rural and urban audiences. I ask Rench for his opinion on this thought.

Why this Union matters in today’s musical landscape

(Left to Right): Rench on Guitar, Landry McMeans on Dobro, and R-Son “I think the music industry has perpetuated this idea that there is white music and black music, rural music and urban music. Each style has a separate chart, separate radio stations, separate websites and separate everything, as though separate groups of people listened to these genres. That’s not the case.

“People have Johnny Cash and Jay-Z on their iPods on shuffle. They listen to all kinds of stuff and appreciate a variety of different music that comes from different places in the country.

“I sometimes do see our fans discussing how these two [bluegrass and hip-hop] can integrate so well. I’m happy to the extent that this happens. If Gangstagrass can bring this up in discussion or give people a little hint that we are not so divided, I think that would be fantastic.”

Gangstagrass’ music definitely generates discussion. Some listeners feel excited that Brooklyn-based rappers are talking about issues that affect rural communities. According to Rench, when listeners commented on Tomasia’s rap in “Big Branch,” they often expressed, “I can’t believe you found this incredible rapper from Kentucky.”

Sometimes, Gangstagrass stimulates debates among purist listeners. Rench explains:

“Sometimes, we receive responses from bluegrass purists who say “I don’t think you should have rap in here, the lyrics will be too violent.” In reality however many bluegrass songs were inspired by violent imagery, especially in the tradition of murder ballads that are far more violent than any of the subjects that the rappers describe.”

First-time listeners also exhibit amazement at the fact that bluegrass and hip-hop can work well together.

“Many people think bluegrass and hip-hop would not work well,” says Rench, “and it’s certainly true that it can turn out badly or come out wrong. It happens sometimes.

“I take the project of bringing out the best of both worlds very seriously. I don’t take this as a novelty. It’s a great thing to do – making a full project out of the idea that these two genres can be brought together and have something cool come out.”

Gangstagrass is currently on the road, touring in various cities on the mid-Atlantic coast and stirring conversations and discussions among hip-hop and bluegrass listeners. By the middle of July, the band plans to hit California and make a stop overseas in the Czech Republic, before hitting the road on the East coast again in August.

In addition to the on-and-off touring, Gansgtagrass plans to release another album either in the Fall or early next year.

“I don’t know what to call it [the album] yet, but we’re exploring ways of bringing together a lot of the same rappers and bluegrass players that we are working with now,” enumerates Rench.

The Mastermind is exploring whether something beyond bluegrass hip-hop exists. “We don’t necessarily need to be locked in being half bluegrass and half hip-hop,” claims Rench. “I’m using this album to explore whether this is not just bluegrass hip-hop, but blending them together into a new sound – something that does not have a name yet.”