As the Convention Nears, Music Biz Association Chief Grants His Annual Interview

In 2018, the Music Business Association—formerly known as NARM—will celebrate its 60th anniversary. “That’s amazing for any entity, let alone a trade organization in a business as tumultuous and dramatic as this one has been,” Music Biz President Jim Donio points out with pride. “The way people discover, access, purchase and now stream music has changed through the decades, and the Music Business Association has been there through all of that to provide a trusted forum for all different types of entities that touch the music space.” The primary subject of this conversation is the 59th edition of the org’s annual convention, which is taking place for the third straight year in Nashville next week. So it seemed fitting to dispatch our 10-gallon hat-wearing Texas native and Music City habitué Todd Hensley to do the honors. Happily, Todd managed to follow his marching orders: Just ask the damn questions and get the hell out of the way.

What’s the purpose of Music Biz, and what are your goals?
I commence my 30th year next month, so I’ve seen it all through the ups and downs of the business. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, and it’s been critical that the organization has been able to remain nimble, flexible and not resistant to change. As the music marketplace has changed, so has the organization. Constituencies, the numbers, our leadership and our governance have all changed as well. We’re a direct reflection of what’s going on in the business around us, and we serve that, creating programs and events that inform and educate people on how they can do their business better and how they can improve their bottom line.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned from the membership in the last year?
I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s surprising, but 2016 was obviously a pivotal year in terms of how the business continues to evolve. We’ve reached a point now where the access model has become the dominant way in which people are consuming. All indicators were leading toward that over the last couple of years. Now that we’ve reached that point, it’s a milestone. What’s exciting and important now is, where does the business go from this point? There are still challenges and issues that need to be addressed and reconciled. It’s a changing time, but it’s an exciting time.

Do you foresee a next phase of music ownership, or is all just going to be access?
I’ve always steadfastly believed that there will always be a segment of fans who will want to own, to collect, and I don’t see that changing. We had an incredible Record Store Day a few weeks ago. Will there be a new format of ownership? That’s probably doubtful. I’m also an adjunct professor at Monmouth University, going into my fourth year, and I’ve been teaching an Introduction to the Music Business Ecosystem. For the past several years, we’ve been talking about streaming and subscription. What my students are now asking is, “What comes after streaming?” I don’t know that it would necessarily be limited to music. We’re part of a larger landscape of all the intellectual properties that were impacted by technology and the way people access and discover—television, film, print and more. And it would be timely to start really thinking about virtual reality and artificial intelligence, and asking how those technologies are going to change the experience. If we’ve turned the corner from predominantly sales and units to experience and access, it means that experience is probably going to evolve, and we have some sessions planned at Music Biz about virtual reality and about high-resolution audio as well. It’s incumbent upon any business to have an eye out for what the next big thing is going to be, and I’m excited about those opportunities.

There’s a consumer segment that for the most part is still steeped in retail—country, rock, Christian, etc. What will it take for the business to reach those audiences?
It’s interesting how the demographics for different genres are responding to the shift from ownership to access. In terms of the access model, what levels are we going to be looking at five or 10 years from now? We’re throwing out streaming numbers now from Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Ed Sheeran, for example, that are ridiculous. The country demographic continues to shift, but it will certainly be more attached to the physical model for a longer period of time than other genres; Latin could go into that category as well. But I think we’re starting to see the needle move in much more significant ways, even for those genres. That’s the direction, there’s no question.

Do you think independent retail is going to become an even more important incubator for developing artists?
That will always be the case. It’s hard to replicate that experience of a new artist or band bubbling up at the local or regional level: Performing at a store for a new audience who discover them, meet them and wait in line to get something autographed, take a selfie and post it on Instagram. Independent retail is critical for that experience. We may well get to the point where virtual reality puts you onstage or backstage, and those experiences will be amazing, and there will be people who will pay for that engagement. But it’s not quite the same as being face-to-face in real time. So I think that’s important, especially for new artists. There’s no debate that playlisting replicates the way people experience new music; it’s something that is flourishing, and the services will continue to provide opportunities for new artists to make their lists. The possibilities are endless. Obviously, it’s always challenging for artists who are just starting out, but all the biggest names were at one point new artists. That’s what makes this business exciting—you just don’t know where that next amazing hit will come from, as someone just blows up out of nowhere.

One of the more intriguing panels scheduled for the 2017 convention is “Music Policies in the Trump Era.” What do you view as the primary challenges and opportunities from the industry’s point of view in the current political climate?
Yeah, we’re dealing with an enormous amount of change, and that can be unsettling, because there are more questions than answers at this point on a daily basis. Music is a piece of that large puzzle, and one of the things our law conference is known for is addressing controversial issues in a timely way—bringing together the various sides of a debate. So we’ll be very interested to hear what Marsha Blackburn has to say. She’s been a fierce advocate for the music business during her tenure, and we’re pleased to have her on the program. I’m sure some tough questions are going to surface in the session about the bigger picture: the arts, funding for music education, the future of copyright and those kinds of things. And we’re dealing with a very competitive landscape. It’s incumbent upon us to include those kinds of discussions, which we’ve always done. I think a lot of people will be very interested in that program.

Can you give me an example of something tangible that the association has done this year?
We look several years into the future, and broadening the profile of the organization outside of the United States is one of the pillars of the current three-year plan. So, in partnership with MusicALLY, we created a new event that took place in London this year called NY:LON, or New York-London. It’s a high-level, exclusive executive conference that draws from the guild of business development folks from the music business. We’re well into our planning for the next one, which will be coming up in January of 2018. It’s something new that underscores a commitment to broaden the scope of our organization’s identity, and we have more than 30 delegates from 15 countries coming to Nashville for the flagship event. Either I or Vice President Bill Wilson will speak at events around the world. Bill was an architect of the program and spoke at the NY:LON event, as well as EuroSONIC in the Netherlands. But the most tangible thing we do at any moment in time is providing a trusted forum for people to get together, whether it’s NY:LON, the law conference or a webinar series where people are getting together virtually. We are the nexus point between commerce and content.

The initial mission of the organization was to bring the customers and the suppliers together to get business done. But by the time we changed our name to Music Business Association and moved the convention to Nashville, we’d triangulated that mission to be commerce, content and creators, because we now have more artists, managers, publishers and folks who are closely connected to the creative side of the business. So what we do is bring those voices together. Also, through our academic partnership program, we’ve got 20 colleges and universities across the country and one in Australia that have helped us to enhance the educational pillar of our organization. We now bring several hundred students to the Music Business event. We have a career day where 15 companies interview students for internships and potential jobs. Two young women from the University of Miami who participated last year were interviewed, and ended up with jobs at CAA, which is no small accomplishment. Those are some of the tangible things we do.

Have you considered making Nashville the permanent home for the convention?
My feeling is that it’s a marriage made in heaven. We wanted the convention to be there for a long time. It’s not that the idea didn’t surface over the 50-plus years before we brought it there, but for a variety of reasons, including timing or logistics, it just didn’t fit. Although we had many other events in Nashville—meetings and smaller conferences—getting the flagship event there took a village and all the planets to align. But now, finally, it’s Music Biz in Music City—how could anything be wrong with that?

It writes itself.
Of course, it’s the logical place for the convention to take place. The equidistance is also really important. We’ve held it in Florida on the East Coast, L.A. and San Francisco on the West Coast and Chicago in the middle, but there’s something magical about Nashville. And Nashville is obviously not just country music; it’s really a tapestry of musical genres. Nashville is a music-centric location, and there are many opportunities for our programs to blossom there. That’s the special sauce. There’s something about the combination of Music Biz, our constituency, the organizations that support us in Nashville; our sister entities that are headquartered there or have offices there. And the city itself has just demonstrated such strong support for us bringing the event there and keeping it there. I’m always loath to say anything is a permanent thing, because too many things change in our business every single day. But at this moment in time, there’s simply no reason to think we have any intention of moving it anywhere else.

Tell us about what you have planned for this year’s confab.
We’ve just got such an amazing program this year, with 100-plus sessions and 200-plus speakers—this unprecedented amalgamation of all the top music services presenting sequentially in one day. Apple, Amazon, Pandora, Spotify, Google, YouTube and SoundCloud are all conducting presentations and workshops one after another on the same day. And that’s unprecedented. I mean, there’s been no music industry event anywhere at any time that has been able to boast what we’re boasting about—to bring all that thought, leadership and excitement together and making sure that message is delivered. We’re so pleased that we’re able to do that. And most of these companies are on our board of directors, and we had a really robust brainstorming session late last summer about what could we do that was unique, exciting and different on this additional day, because we extended the event from three days to four days. When that idea surfaced, we ran with it, and it looks like it’s going to be amazing.

We’ve also brought back keynotes to the convention this year. We had them every year for decades, but then we reached a point where people were saying, “I don’t really know if I want keynotes anymore; let’s do other things.” But everything that goes around comes around, so the idea of bringing them back resurfaced, and we said if we’re gonna bring them back, we want them to be marquee-quality; we want them to be keynotes that everybody is going to be buzzing about. So I don’t think we could have done any better than getting Julie Greenwald, Kelly Clarkson, Troy Carter, as the most marquee of marquee names to be speaking at the event. We also have Richard Burgess from A2IM, two top agents from CAA, Barak Moffitt from Universal Music Group and Don Hoffman from Cracker Barrel.

And our awards lineup is truly exciting and stellar this year, with Terry Currier receiving our Independent Spirit Award for Music Millennium. With four decades in the business, devoting his life to independent music, no one is more deserving. Mike Dungan of Universal Music Nashville will be the Presidential Award recipient. He has an interesting background, moving from retail to the label side to what he’s done to transform the label in Nashville—building stars. Those are our business awards. Then, on the creative side, Lukas Graham and Maren Morris are our Breakthrough Artists. We chose them for these awards before they exploded on the Grammy stage, and they’re both amazing stories in terms of their breakthroughs, so we couldn’t be more excited about them.

We’re doing an Outstanding Achievement Award, which we’ve done in the past to highlight an exciting phenomenon that occurred in a given year, and the Hamilton original cast recording and mixtape are being recognized for that achievement. And then we have Paula Abdul for the Humanitarian Award, Adele is the Artist of The Year and Reba McEntire will receive our Chairman’s Award for Sustained Creative Achievement. So it’s quite a lineup. It’s great that we’re honoring so many female artists this year.

I’ll close on this point: It all comes back to the music—and live music—in the end. And our industry jam is taking place Monday evening, May 15, in its second year. It’s totally the brainchild of our Vice Chairman of the Board, Steve Harkins. What he did last year was to bring together iconic session musicians and musicians from classic bands and have them perform together with industry executives who are also performers—and it was an amazing success. It was designed to benefit our scholarship foundation, and we raised $5,000 from that event last year for our scholarship foundation. So we’re doing it again this year, and the lineup is even more incredible than it was in 2016. I think people are really going to enjoy that first day of the convention, with this amazing celebration of music and artistry. And we’re really happy about that, obviously.

Congratulations again on the run for the association and all that you guys do.
Thank You. Membership is up and attendance is up, so we’re happy. Busy, but happy.

Mestel walks like a man. (10/22a)
And Q3 figures look good as well. (10/21a)
A Swift return to #1. (10/21a)
The Rumours are true. (10/23a)
Could she be this year's left-field anointed one? (10/23a)
Bring your umbrella.
Mulling possible surprises.
Why not wear a mask indoors?
What drugs will help us get there?

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