It’s Nashville or Bust for the Music Biz Honcho

This will be the 57th year of the convention long known as NARM, now repurposed as Music Biz, and Jim Donio has been on hand for 27 of them, the last 11 as the org’s prexy. Donio is particularly psyched about his 12th go-round as convention host, because Music Biz 2015 is taking place in Nashville, one of his favorite cities. HITSJamie Mitchell learned of Donio’s fondness for Music City during the course of a conversation that touched on myriad topics, as Jamie won Jim’s trust by pulling on a pair of overalls and faking a Southern accent as he convincingly impersonated a reporter from Farmer’s Weekly.

What does Nashville bring to the convention this year that differentiates it from previous years?
The convention has never been in Nashville during the 57 years that we’ve been around. We’ve had lots of smaller meetings in Nashville—board meetings, committee meetings and small conferences—but the not the larger event until now. We wanted to go there when we were NARM, and obviously now, as Music Biz, being in Music City is a no-brainer. How could we not have considered it? In the past the problem was logistical—there just wasn’t an appropriate venue. Fortunately for us, there are now several hotels that could accommodate us, and we did our due diligence and ended up with the Sheraton in Downtown Nashville, which has just completed a $30 million top-to-bottom renovation, so it’s really like being in a brand new hotel. A lot of people who live in Nashville haven’t been seen the renovations yet, and it surprised us to learn that this will be the first time a lot of people within our membership will be visiting the city.

This will be my first time in Nashville, and I’m really looking forward to it.
There you go—so you’re part of that fraternity of newcomers. We had four great years in Los Angeles at the Century Plaza, and prior to 2011, we hadn’t had a convention in L.A. for almost 20 years. So we brought the convention back to L.A. and then we just rode the wave for four consecutive years, and we’d never had the event in the same city or at the same hotel for more than two consecutive years before that. So after that run, we thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we could finally bring it to Nashville? We spent the better part of two years working on it, and it’s one of the hottest cities in the country right now in terms of development, growth and entrepreneurship and there’s so many great reasons to bring it there. Mayor Dean and the Music City Music Council were some of the first folks to talk up the potential of us coming to Nashville, and that goes back probably four or five years. The city’s been very welcoming, very engaged and energized, as have all of our sister organizations and trade groups that reside there, like CMA, Americana, Gospel, BMI, SESAC, the Recording Academy—there are so many entities that are thrilled that we’re coming. So the planning and promotional process have given us a great feeling of warmth, collaboration and camaraderie.

I personally love Nashville, and bringing the convention there has fueled our energy and enthusiasm, because we’re able to make it about the city and do some new and different things.

Donio prepares to shred with Paul Rodgers and Dee Snider at Music Biz 2014.

And Nashville has such an exciting music scene; I can totally see how the convention could feed off that energy.
Yeah, live music will be definitely an important component. Universal will be presenting live music in the hotel on Tuesday night, and we have a band named Civil Twilight that’s performing on Wednesday morning at our breakfast. And then Wednesday evening, Universal, Warner and Sony, along with Red Eye, are each contributing a musical act for a show that’s sponsored by YouTube, which is going to take place at the Wild Horse Saloon. That will give those attendees who love the energy, the lights and the colors around Broadway a chance to enjoy all that—and for those who’ve never been there, it will place everyone right in the heart of what people think about when they think about Nashville and the music scene. So that’s a not-to-miss event.

Let’s shift gears and talk about streaming, which has become the big topic of discussion around the industry with the rise of the various services and the decline of digital downloads. What do you see is as the future for both categories, and how do you see digital retail and streaming services coexisting?
They will absolutely be able to coexist, and I would add another piece to that, which is the physical business. I see the choices that are being provided to music fans and consumers as a spectrum of different opportunities. Within that spectrum, we still have a CD business, despite the fact that there were those who felt CDs would not be around in 2015. And look at what has happened with vinyl. We still have a significant download business after a decline in 2014; digital albums are actually up in the first quarter of 2015. So I think you’re going to see those existing choices for music consumption continue.

And now, of course, the other model on the spectrum—the access model—is continuing to grow and to go in new directions. As with any business and business model, it’s going to continue to iterate and evolve, and as we head towards the midpoint of 2015, companies are taking stock of how everything fits together. And that conversation will take place both publicly and privately in the meetings during Music Biz in Nashville.

We’ve got a significant amount of programming that is going to focus on all the issues around the various streaming models: how they’re measured, how they’re managed, new players and what research is being done with consumer behavior. That’s why we exist—to bring all these ideas, opinions and perspectives to the forefront. To create a forum for that dialogue and debate, so that commerce continues to grow and develop and be healthy. To make sure all the creators and commercial partners are compensated. We’re here to create that forum.

“Music Biz in Music City is a no-brainer. How could we not have considered it?”

By offering a forum, you’re creating an opportunity for people to figure out how and where they’re gonna fit into these new models.
For sure. It’s very important to note that the companies and the people who work in those companies that are in the streaming and subscription part of the business will be attending the convention this year in greater numbers than they ever have before. That’s another testament to the value of the forum, to the importance of programs like our Metadata Summit, which is in its third year. As we’ve jokingly but affectionately said over the past couple of years, metadata may not be the most exciting topic, but guess what? That program and the topics that are included in it are a big part of what is fueling employees and professionals from our member companies to come to the convention and participate in the forum.

Because what underpins all these access models is managing the data and monetizing the various assets. The first year we had really no expectations; we just thought it was a good idea, and we wound up with 150 or 200 folks sitting in a room for a day and a half talking about metadata. And now it’s on the Tuesday, the first day of the convention.

There are for-profit events that are terrific, and we attend and support them, but we’re a membership organization with working groups that are talking about these issues and coming up with ideas and programs all year long. So we create this forum that takes place over three days, but when the convention is over on Thursday, it’s not a year later before these issues and dialogues and the forum that we create come back. It’s a 365-day forum, and that’s what sets us apart from virtually all of these other music events.

Record Store Day set a 12-year high this year with C&Ds, and John Kunz, who is one of your award recipients this year, said that Waterloo had its best day in the store’s three-decade history.
Wow. That’s great to hear; that’s so affirming and encouraging. Record Store Day is in its seventh year, and Music Biz—and NARM before that—has been a significant sponsor since the second year; we’ve also provided time and space at our event for the companies that support Record Store Day. The coalitions, the organizers and the labels have the opportunity to come together, and the timing is nice because it’s just after the event has taken place, so they can debrief face to face, and then they can begin planning. That program, that two-hour town hall, is really a pillar of our convention in terms of the importance of the physical business, for bringing all those folks together. John is getting the Independent Spirit Award this year, but the collective of Record Store Day received the award two years ago because they’ve accomplished something that at the outset no one thought was possible. Probably they themselves didn’t think it was possible that RSD could become this global phenomenon. A holiday, if you will, that is celebrated around the world and that generates, as you’ve articulated, numbers and sales stats that are almost mind-boggling in 2015. So we’re thrilled to have played a role in helping Record Store Day to become what it is today, and we’ll continue to provide that opportunity for great ideas to come to the surface for our independent retail community.

Your award recipients this year include the Doobie Brothers and Meghan Trainor. Can you talk about how you chose them?
It’s definitely not a head-scratcher why we would select Meghan for Breakthrough Artist of the Year. Her accomplishments in a relatively short period of time with “All About That Bass” and her subsequent singles have put her right at the top of the list in terms of breakthroughs for 2014-15. What’s really cool about Meghan is that she’s from New England but moved to Nashville at 17 to be among songwriters and started writing music. So for her to get this recognition from our organization in Nashville, where she began the work that has culminated in this breakthrough, is perfect.

The Doobie Brothers are receiving the Chairman’s Award for Sustained Creative Achievement—our version of a lifetime-achievement award—and their credentials are speak for themselves. Talk about sustained; looking back over their 40-year career and how they continue to entertain people around the world, we all stand in awe of these folks. The Chairman’s awards generally yield an amazing response from the audience.

Martina McBride is getting the Humanitarian Award, which is named for Harry Chapin. Martina’s done an amazing amount of work for a number of different charities and causes, and she rose to the top this year in terms of the work that she’s done on behalf of empowering young women as it relates to domestic violence, which is such an important issue and one that she feels so passionately about. Martina is a Nashville resident and an ambassador for the city, so to be able to recognize her with this award in Nashville is exciting for us.

Scooter Braun with Donio at Music Biz 2014. Braun accepted the
Breakthrough Artist of the Year Award on Ariana Grande’s behalf.

The same is true with Scott Borchetta, who’s getting the Presidential Award. He’s being recognized for his outstanding executive achievements in a 30-year career, in particular with Big Machine and Taylor Swift’s career, and now as the latest mentor on the pop-cultural juggernaut that is American Idol, makes him as well an ideal recipient for that recognition this year.

One of the biggest changes to come along in the industry this year is the upcoming move to a worldwide Friday release date. Apart from the potential to reduce piracy, what benefits do you see this bringing to the table?
The idea was brought to the forefront by the international label community not only in terms of the piracy issue, but also because it presents the opportunity to create big events around the release of music for more cohesive strategic marketing purposes. When a platform is cultivated among an artist, manager, label and their commercial partners, that platform becomes even more impactful, because it’s going to happen everywhere on the same day, and there’s an opportunity to create a lot of excitement around that.

What do you see for the future of the Music Business Association over the next few years?
We’ll continue to provide the opportunities, services, exposure, networking, education, information—all the things that we are able to provide. But the thing that I always come back to is that people join associations to associate. It’s bringing people together and providing a point of connection. The industry is evolving so rapidly that it’s vital for there to be a trusted organization where everyone knows that information and access are going to be there. And we will continue to change and respond to what the industry and our members need. We are a service organization, so we depend on the dialogue from our membership and from the industry, letting us know very clearly what they need and what’s going to help build the future of music commerce. That’s our mission, and that’s what we need to continue to deliver on.

Anything else you would like to tell us about the association or the convention?
We’re doing tours of United Record Pressing. I think that’s really going to be a fun thing for people to do, and it’s serendipitous for us because the vinyl business is so important in 2015. Also, the various meet-ups and events being done by Country Music and Americana and Gospel will bring songwriters and publishers into our event in a bigger way than ever before. This will probably end up being the biggest program we’ve ever had; we have more than 125 speakers. We’re looking forward to welcoming everybody, and I’m sure there will be plenty for everyone to do.