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MUSIC BIZ CHIEF LOOKS BACK, STRIDES FORWARD


Established in 1958 as the National Association of Recording Merchandisers—NARM for short—and renamed the Music Business Association in 2013, the music industry’s trade org was initially spearheaded by music distributors looking for ways to get their records into more retail outlets. At the time, the business was focused almost exclusively on singles, which were primarily sold in the backs of discount department stores and five-and-dimes.

“Distributors met with that organization, and then the labels joined in. So it was actually label distribution,” Music Business Association President Jim Donio explains. “That’s how it really began, because there were no specialty retail stores at that time.”

Things changed when the album format took off in the 1960s as artists began to release more comprehensive collections of their music. That decade saw the rise of retail giants such as Tower Records and Musicland. These music-specific retailers ultimately became the calling card for NARM, according to Donio. “The Music Business Association was known for being the music-retail organization, over and above the other things that the organization did.”

Then came the CD. When Donio joined the organization in 1988, “The CD boom was in full swing. Those were the years where the mass merchants, some of the book chains and other nontraditional types really came in like gangbusters. The initiatives during those years were very much focused on selling as much music as possible.”

Music sales reached their peak around the turn of the century, a time Donio recalls as being oddly schizophrenic. “The switch was flipped with Napster, and then things really began to change between 1999 and 2003,” he says. And yet, the industry reached its zenith in terms of CD sales during those years. Donio references NSYNC’s 2000 CD, No Strings Attached, which sold a then-record 2.4m copies in its first week, as a prime example. Around the same time, the introduction of digital music in the form of ripping and copying CDs gave way to file-sharing, a devastating blow to the business initiated by the Napster app. “On one hand,” Donio points out, “you had this new technology—the digital distribution of music—that was causing rampant file-sharing piracy, and intellectual theft of property, but at the same time, those were also the years when CD sales were peaking. So it was a very odd time, as I look back on it now.”

Fast-forward to 2018, and Donio sees a similar “seismic upending” of the music business. While the players are different, notably streaming providers such as Spotify and Apple Music, “The seismic nature of that shift is very much the same,” he says, referring to the day-to-day discovery, consumption, purchase or streaming of music.

As an indication that the Association is prepared to handle such a shift, Facebook, Spotify, Apple, Amazon, Google and Pandora all hold seats on its board. Others include wholesalers such as AEC and Baker and Taylor, retailers like Dimple and SchoolKids and, of course, the labels. “The board is very diverse, very eclectic,” Donio says with satisfaction. “It represents the widest spectrum of the types of companies that have a stake in the future of the business of music.”

Another sea change is the championing of diversity, a social phenomenon Donio is familiar with, in that he’s positioned the Association to champion the cause. Music Biz, the Association’s annual signature conference, will be held for the fourth consecutive year in Nashville. In 2016, facing discriminatory, anti-LGBT bills before the Tennessee legislature, Donio offered the Association’s support to “the city of Nashville that has been so welcoming to Music Biz, and applaud Mayor Barry’s fierce opposition to this legislation,” said Donio at the time. “If these bills become law in Tennessee, they will allow discrimination against people for what they believe, how they live or who they are — and especially penalize transgender youth at a time when they should be getting support. Music Biz’s goal is to hold its convention in a place that embraces diversity in its fullest form, and we want to see Tennessee be true to that ideal. I think that we’ve always created and been a trusted forum for different viewpoints to come together.”

To further illustrate Music Biz’s goal of inclusion, Donio points to an incident from the early years of the conference. “In the 1960s, the convention was booked at the Eden Rock Hotel in Miami. And at that moment in time, an African-American person was not allowed to come into that hotel. There was a gentleman named Ewart Abner, who was head of Motown—or subsequently became the head of Motown—and NARM at the time stood its ground and said, in effect, that ‘Either this gentleman is allowed to attend this event, or this event will not be at this hotel,’ drawing a line in the sand. When it comes to humanity, when it comes to respect for all people, for diversity, for inclusion, you know that is such an important part of what our organization has always been about.”

Ultimately, the two Tennessee bills were defeated. “You can go back many years to see that we’ve stood for what’s right,” said Donio. “I’m a very proud, openly gay man and executive of this organization, and certainly when some of these legislative initiatives in Tennessee cropped up just prior to us bringing our event there, it created a problem for me personally and also professionally as the leader of this organization. And fortunately, our entire board understood and agreed with that.”

Working with GLAAD, Music Biz has partnered this year for a presentation to include openly gay songwriter Justin Tranter (formerly of Semi Precious Weapons) and songwriter/pro-ducer/exec Shane McAnally, who will moderate, along with Sarah Ellis, President/CEO of GLAAD. Donio notes that this presentation will be the highest-profile LGBT programming of the convention and believes it will be an extremely important moment for the organization.

With the industry having been rocked by sobering revelations of sexual misconduct in the past year, Donio proudly points to the Music’s Leading Ladies Speak Out program, now in its third year. The panel will be moderated by Republic Records EVP of A&R Wendy Goldstein. “Her example,” says Donio, “is an inspiration to young women working their way up the music-industry ladder, and we know that she’ll leave our Music Biz 2018 attendees feeling ready to take on the world.”

Donio is conscious of the #MeToo and similar movements and acknowledges they will be part of the conversation—“and not just at the Leading Ladies event,” he asserts. “It’s going to come up organically, so I’m sure there will be a lot of heated conversations going on. We’re bringing people together [in the wake of] some very high-profile people from the music business who have been called to task—as they should be for these kinds of issues. It’s very important for the professionals in the business—particularly the next generation of professionals—to have us leading the way in terms of inclusion and acceptance and diversity.”

Check out Donio and Pat Daly's music-biz memories       

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