Back in my hotel room, I’m still geeking out on the fact that I spent half the day in the studio where Bob Dylan recorded Blonde on Blonde. This is a city rich in cultural history and we experienced some of that heritage today. But Day 2 of Curb Creative Connection was really a crash course in the music industry and the changes it has seen and is seeing now, with the student’s case exercise threaded in throughout. Since my background is in theatre, there was much to learn.
It began, as any primer on the music industry should, in a recording studio, Curb Studio A. The thematic thread that was woven in throughout the day was change, especially technological change, and the ways it has affected the industry, the artists and songwriters, the distribution, and even the recording technology. Liz Allen Fey, one of the event organizers, kicked off the day by asking us to consider whether we should be addressing the symptoms of a problem or making fundamental change to the system itself, and that there is a difference between the vertical integration of knowledge and its horizontal integration. The former inhibits innovation and the latter supports it. This is the philosophy underlying the organizers’ commitment to mixing students up across schools and interests to form horizontal networks for their short term work on a case study problem and, potentially, for long term positive effect on the creative industries.
A highlight of the day was observing as Jim Ed Norman, who has produced the likes of Anne Murray, Kenny Rogers, and Hank Williams Jr., record the group of 48 students laying down choral and percussion on “Way Past My Beer Time.” It was 9:15am and Norman seemed to be enjoying himself as much as the students were; there was a lot of joy in the room. We spent some time in the booth too. Jim Ed Norman talked extemporaneously and engagingly about the industry, what he loves about it and what he feels needs to change – including getting more women into the technical positions in the recording booth. (Unfortunately, the only low point in a great day occurred when Norman asked a colleague why he thought there were so few women and responded, “We’ve got the testosterone and that keeps us on top,” causing me and many of the students, both men and women, to be taken aback.) Quickly recovering, we went on to discuss everything from the camaraderie of the recording studio to the important role the musician’s union has played in protecting the rights of performing artists.
We walked around the block to Columbia Studio A, where not only Bob Dylan, but Johnny Cash, Simon & Garfunkel, and many others have recorded. The studio has since been renovated and is now used by Belmont University’s Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business. It’s heritage and provenance made it a fitting place to hear a lecture by Wes Bulla on the history of sound recording, which included passing around an Edison wax cylinder and a variety of other historically relevant artifacts.
Mike Curb joined us for an hour of Q&A before lunch. Curb is the longest serving founder/owner of a record label, a label he launched 50 years ago. He summed up some of the changes we’ve been seeing in the industry, noting that last year 75% of the company’s revenue came from its catalog and only 25% from new product. Although he said he wants to change that proportion, when you’ve been around for 50 years, you’re bound to have a pretty deep catalog! He noted too that he sold CDs for dollars, sold downloads for pennies, but streaming is sold for small fractions of pennies. To contrast this, however, there was an undercurrent in this session and throughout the day about renewed interest in vinyl; not as a mass-market item, but nevertheless as an artisan part of the industry that is resurging.
The afternoon was spent a little closer to my own wheelhouse, at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center, a co-working and education space made nationally famous when Google made its Google Fiber announcement from that location. While the students worked on their collaborative project, I and several colleagues got a tour of the facility, which includes 85 desk spaces, meetings rooms, offices, and whose over 125 start-up clients have created over 450 jobs.
We then heard a nuts and bolts presentation on music publishing and how the value pie of a song gets divided up depending on its use. We heard from a songwriter and an A&R coordinator about what it’s really like to keep writing and writing and writing, and seeing only a few songs actually get cut. Songwriter Tiffany Goss advised, “You’re going to be writing so many songs, if they don’t like one, just play them another.”
The theme of change continued with a panel consisting of a radio programming director and a spotify programming exec. But by then, I must admit, I was exhausted! I left the students in the basement of BB King’s Blues Club enjoying some barbecue to spend some time writing this post. More tomorrow…
Read about Day 1 here.