EMP Pop Conference 2011: A Brief Review


I got back from the 2011 EMP Pop Conference at UCLA late Sunday night, oblivious of who had won the Oscar statuettes being handed out just a few miles from where I spent the weekend. I've had a 15-year gradual slide away from movies, but that lack of interest felt particularly apropos relative to where I am with music, my interest there waxing as much as my interest in movies has waned.

I am not the typical presenter at the Pop Conference-- I'm not an academic, I'm not a professional musician, and I don't think about or write or sell music for a living. (Not much of one, anyway.) As Chuck Klosterman said during his presentation (and I'm paraphrasing here), Pop Conference folks do not have anything resembling a normal relationship to music. Despite the fact that I've been writing about family music here for 6 1/2 years, I think my relationship with music is mostly normal. On the upper edge of "normal," perhaps, but normal nonetheless. (My wife might disagree.) All in all, I might have been closer to the UCLA students registered for the conference than the other presenters in terms of knowledge.

But given that I have presented at SXSW and I'm going back to Kindiefest, I thought it might be useful to recap what I did this weekend so that my readers (many of whom I tend to think of as also being on that upper edge of "normal," if not beyond it) can see what it's like to be amongst a group of music obsessives for 48+ hours while listening to comparatively little music.

I arrived in Los Angeles early Friday afternoon, greeted by rain, a long line at the rental car counter, and traffic that can only be described as snarled. The combination of rain, poor highways, Oscar-swollen traffic, and early Friday rush hour meant that it took about an hour to drive the 13-14 miles from LAX to UCLA, which meant that I missed the first set of panels.

The basic structure of the panels remained the same throughout the weekend -- one moderator in charge of keeping time and asking questions in case the audience didn't have them, and three or four presenters who used Powerpoint or video or audio to help make their case. The moderators didn't always enforce time strictly, but there was rarely a time when I felt like the panel didn't have enough time. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect in putting together my own presentation, so I was glad to have the opportunity to hear (and see) others present their papers.

As for the presentations themselves, I'm guessing that YouTube clips and loud music aren't the typical audio-visual component of most academic presentations, but I don't think the Pop Conference really wants to be a traditional academic presentation.

The first panel I attended on Friday was titled "Of Music and Markets", and was a nice way to slide into the seminar. Some of the presentations were more theoretical, but some were definitely more practical, most notably that of David Lowery (who made his name playing in and writing songs for Camper Van Beethoven). Lowery has a math degree and a self-deprecating sense of humor, as when he noted that his skill level is middling but his luck is high, which is important because mathematically skill level is irrelevant - all the benefits accrue to the extremes. He talked about the book Black Swan, and emphasized a "long tail, long volatility" strategy in which success is the result of being inadvertently lucky on purpose. Meaning, you have place a lot of bets -- musicians place those bets by writing (and recording) songs, whose upside potential is unlimited. Music business success, Lowery said, is random -- it just appears to have occurred for specific reasons created after the fact.

One other point raised earlier in the panel by David Shank (after presenting an amusing slide listing about 40 bankrupt artists) is that consumers actually purchasing music is increasingly less important -- the "record" industry is definitely a misnomer. (See here the rise in sales of musical instruments.) He also noted that "no song will ever become a hit just because it's good - this isn't a free market."

Even though the conference theme was "Cash Rules Everything Around Me: Music and Money," that didn't mean that the conference was focused on the economic/market aspects of music-making. The next session was entitled "Panic in the City: Episodes from a History of Suburban Revolt", and while it had barely anything to do with money, it was was still an entertaining way to spend 90 minutes. I liked the presentations on Arcade Fire's The Suburbs and Los Angeles punk (it's not often you end a Powerpoint presentation with the presenter motioning to the A/V guy to crank up the volume even more), I really went to hear novelist Jonathan Lethem talk about Talking Heads' initially almost hostile view regarding anyplace not New York City. "I wouldnt live there / if you paid me to," David Byrne once sang, and Lethem traced Byrne's evolving attitude toward the heartland. Lethem, who's writing a book on the band's Fear of Music album, wasn't sure if the band's attitude was brashness, naïveté, or anxiety for open spaces / fear of nowhere.

After that presentation was a social hour, when it was brought home to me most powerfully that I didn't know a single person at the conference. Not even in an "I totally Internet-know that person" sense. Even if I knew what a writer whose output I'd admired (e.g., a number of them from the old Idolator website) looked like (thereby meaning I wouldn't have to peer at everyone's nametag), talking to somebody out of the blue like would have felt a little like stalking. (To me, at least.) Which isn't to say that people weren't completely and utterly nice all weekend. They were. Jonathan Lethem, for example, spent a few minutes talking with me about how it's possible to listen to one album -- the aforementioned Fear of Music over and over and over again. Once I actually had some point of common reference, the chatting was easier.

In any case, I was spending the weekend at a friend's who was leaving town the next day and letting me stay at his pad. I didn't feel bad at all skipping out to catch up with my friend.

Saturday morning came with a full list of panels to attend. One of the hard parts of the whole weekend was trying to decide which panels to see. It was a little bit like college -- do you choose the classes whose subjects most intrigue you or the professors who are most entertaining? And, as we've previously established, I had very little sense which speakers were most entertaining. Seeing someone like Robert Christgau or Ann Powers in the audience meant I felt better (in advance) that I'd guessed well.

For the 9:00 AM panel, I chose Rockonomics for multiple reasons. I was primarily interested in hearing author/journalist Holly George-Warren present on Alex Chilton and a presentation on Pearl Jam's mostly futile fight against Ticketmaster in the early '90s. Both presentations were very enjoyable (George-Warren's got a biography of Alex Chilton coming out next year), and the responses to Jasen Emmons' Ticketmaster presentation revealed that the entity may very well have turned off an entire generation from seeing live music on a regular basis. (There was a tie between Ticketmaster and record labels in terms of generating the most negative curse words for the weekend.)

But the presentation I may have found most useful all weekend was from Duke postdoctoral fellow Miles Grier. The presentation was titled "The Only Black Man at the Party: Joni Mitchell and the Race and Gender Codes of Musical Property" -- don't let the academic title scare you away. It was about Joni Mitchell establishing an alter ego, a black male jazz musician pimp by the name of Art Nouveau. Besides learning about a period of Mitchell's career I was wholly unaware of, I was particularly intrigued by the concept of economic and cultural capital, the idea that capital can be monetary but it can also be cultural -- prestige or respect, for example. More importantly for the purpose of the weekend, you can attempt to exchange the two, "trading profit for prestige," as Grier put it. In the case of Mitchell, she managed to accrue cultural capital at the cost of very little economic capital, while Pearl Jam couldn't convert its economic capital to cultural (or political) capital. And Chilton had comparatively little luck doing the conversion the other way -- converting his post-Box Tops cultural capital into economic capital. (That interpretation there is mine, not the panelists'.) In any case, that idea of the balance between the two reverberated in other discussions relative to financial and artistic success.

"Getting The Brand Back Together: Branding, Music, & Money in the Digital Age" was the next panel for me, a roundtable discussion on branding in the modern era. The panelists discussed how brands are beginning to support music, though more on a patronage basis than by starting actual record labels. As labels have waned, the power of brands have increased, to the point where one panelist (a DJ/producer/musician) said that sometimes artists have trouble getting attention if they don't have a label association. Given the importance of brands now, it was funny to hear one panelist say that the modern concept of branding began when Run-DMC told Adidas that they'd stop wearing them if they didn't get paid. From an artist's perspective the goal is not to sell product (music) but to become famous so they can sell a wider range of product - the song is a way to get something else, some wider degree of fame. Brands and labels are both selling products, but they're selling product, For brands, music is revenue-neutral, for labels, brands are a way to monetize their music. No record label will give promos for free because the incentive of record sales is gone. Everyone is fighting for attention (and trying to monetize that). And, importantly in a conference that saw the appearance of perhaps the last great A&R guy, Seymour Stein, one panelist said that all the experts in record labels are gone -- "they play corporate great but play social terrible."

After lunch at the food trucks brought in for the conference, it was time for "Paid in Full — How Artists Make Money Making Music (Past, Present and Future)", a panel moderated by former Too Much Joy member Tim Quirk. Former Blake Babies musician and current lawyer John P. Strohm recorded his presentation in advance (and participated in chat via Skype); he noted that recorded music revenues are half of their high point. He had nothing good to say about "360" deals. He felt that indie labels served as a brand (another form of using cultural capital to generate actual capital. Major labels have actual capital, but they can't afford to sign 10 bands in the hope of having 1 hit.

Quirk, who once wrote a memorable rant on major labels' failure to treat their (former) artists with even contract-mandated respect, provided an interesting perspective on the idea of selling out, starting with militant opposition when Too Much Joy was asked to record a Budweiser jingle in 1992. He was outvoted and told stories of his bandmates covering for him so he could participate as little as possible (he did not sing lead, for example). He gamely played before saying that he still hated that song, but was thankful because each band member earned enough to get health insurance through AFTRA, which led to him and his wife deciding it was OK to have a kid... who he introduced as the young woman sitting next to him. "Why are label advances good and brand advances bad?," Quirk asked as he ran through some musician-based ads -- an absolutely miserable Honda scooter ad with Lou Reed (who, if PopCon was a stock exchange of musician cultural capital, was approaching penny stock status), some ads showing the industry was getting better at pretending that they're about the music (Luscious Jackson/Gap. Feist/Apple), and by 1998 what mattered more was production value. (He then ended with a second, modern ad using Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" that was so bad that Quirk surmised that they spent all their money on the song rights so they had to get an intern to record Reed's vocals.)

After that, Charlie Bertsch talked about the merch table, noting that "people are looking for an experience, not something they can buy later online" -- they "don't want to buy a shrink-wrapped storage device." Microprofits on a lot of things better than expecting big profits from a few (echoes of David Lowery). Bertsch viewed the merch table as a way to maintain relationships (echoes of lots of folks). He also displayed lots of merch from the Melvins. Note to self: don't stop by the merch table at the Melvins show. (He also later noted: "nobody wants to buy a t-shirt with a guy's face on it; solo artists' merch sucks.")

The final panelist was musician Ben Lee, who, at Quirk's request, outlined how his sources of income roughly broke down in 1995 as compared to now. In 1995, it was roughly 75% publishing advances, 15% performing royalties, 10% touring revenues. In 2010, it was 35% publishing advances, 35% mechanical royalties for physical products, 20% mechanical royalties for digital products, and 10% split into 10 other streams such as synch licenses. He described oddnessess -- for example, he co-wrote a song with another musician, but decided not to sing on it and that ended up meaning the profits didn't go to his record company but to his fellow musician instead. He uses the barter system to get folks to share their talent. And because of the shifts in the industry, "it's possible to have a career based on mood and atmosphere."

David Lowery in the Q&A came up with what I thought was a very relevant response to the idea (or criticism) of "selling out" -- the "sellout argument is music industry's way of keeping musicians down -- you [the industry] make money off of music, why can't I?"

By the time I hit "Music About Money", I was beginning to tire. Or at least my brain was beginning to tire. Too much information. So while I really enjoyed the darkly humorous (and fictional) story Twin Cities musician/writer Dylan Hicks shared about a young producer hired to record a covers album by an aging Illinois amateur folksinger, and Greil Marcus' piece on a selected few songs about money, my notes on this panel are thin and not that illuminating. In fact, I found that with the non-financial panels, the panels where I didn't really know a lot about the topic heading into the room, I was much better off just listening.

There was a pre-keynote reception held on an outside porch. This must have sounded good to the conference organizers at one point -- and, really, who could blame them for thinking a late February twilight overlooking UCLA's gorgeous campus would be balmy and beautiful -- but Saturday night's temperatures hovered around 50 degrees and I did not bring a jacket. The reception was not one of the highlights of the weekend for me.

The evening keynote was titled "Career Possibilities: How Musicians Make Do and Keep their Souls Alive in a Changing Pop World" and featured three musician-hyphenates whose fanbases were pretty diverse -- Raphael Saadiq, Moby, and Dave Sitek from TV on the Radio. KCRW music director and "Morning Becomes Electric" host Jason Bentley moderated the discussion. (You can watch the first part here, more to follow.)

I'm not sure that I necessarily learned that much from the talk (other than based on the clips from all three artists' forthcoming albums, I'm very interested in hearing the whole Saadiq album when it's released in May), but all three artists were relaxed, open, and ready with a quip to be instantaneously transmitted through the ether via Twitter. Record labels drew the most ire (Sitek: "labels seem to be run by pedophiles trying to push the next ringtone"; Moby: "major labels should just die"). I was also amused by Sitek's praise for Das Racist's "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell." And by then, it was 9:30 PM, I'd been there for more than 13 hours, and it was time to get some sleep...

My first panel Sunday was "Regional Models and Strategies", and was one of those "only-at-EMP" panels, dealing with a new music and media conglomerate proferring music in the Middle East, the Czech indie scene, Russian rock, and trance dancing by the "Apache" subgroup in Turkey presented by a professor who had traveled all the way from Turkey to present it. I doubt that if a Turkish conference asked me to talk about new models in family music distribution -- in Turkish -- that I would sound 1% as good as her English presentation. Plus, she featured this mashup video of Thom Yorke dancing to an Apache anthem. I didn't take many notes on the panel, but it was a thoroughly absorbing 2-hour detour.

Singles was probably the strongest panel I saw in terms of presentation quality across-the-board. Douglas Wolk's mile-a-minute discussion on the rise and fall of indie-rock vinyl 7" singles was funny and Tom Kipp's presentation on rockers' brief foray into disco in the late '70s was both funny (Lou Reed) and scary (Lou Reed, again, not to mention a photo of Rod Stewart in a pair of very tight rainbow-colored bikini shorts that I can't unsee. To call Chris Molanphy's presentation on singles and their relationship to the Billboard Hot 100 a "rant" would be a disservice to the incredibly well-organized materials he presented. But it would be mostly accurate, as he traced the record industry's utter disdain for its consumers, especially in the 1990s. He brilliantly made the argument that the record industry has mostly been singles-driven, not albums driven. He equated the impact of Rumours and Saturday Night Fever to that of Star Wars, huge albums that created the idea of a blockbuster album, a concept that degraded to the point that MC Hammer's huge hit only on a vinyl 12", which made that his album went 10 times platinum. It was a decade's-long attempt to bury the single, and it worked, even with one-hit wonders. He posited that the Napster-fueled rise of downloading around the turn of the century was just as much a backlash against ability to get singles as it was an attempt to get free stuff. If you're interested, you can download Molanphy's slides here.

And at this point, I'm getting tired. There was a conversation with Seymour Stein, the A&R main who founded Sire Records (and who signed, oh, Madonna, the Ramones, Talking Heads, and many many more). Yes, that's him in that picture wearing an elegant blank "Ramones" tie. My notes when he came into the room at the tail end of the "Singles" discussion were -- this is a direct quote -- "holy crap it's Seymour Stein." I don't know if I necessarily learned all that much from Stein's discussion, but it did serve as a nice counterbalance to the "major labels suck" narrative that pervaded the conference. While there are a lot of reasons why that concept is true, it's also true that occasionally major labels bring an artist to the masses who never would have had that exposure without them. Would the Talking Heads have become successful without Seymour Stein? Perhaps. Would random dorky kid in the suburbs (e.g.: me) have ever heard of them when I did without him? I doubt it.

I heard a fair amount of the discussion on hip-hop and LA pop radio and thought it was a very well-thought out roundtable discussion. But I had to step out midway through for a phone call and so don't have much in the way of notes from that session.

But it was nearly 4:00 PM and at long last, it was time for me to talk about kids music. My paper on Dan Zanes and They Might Be Giants and the resurgence of family music was scheduled as part of the My Music Business. I'm not going to get into too much detail on the panel, other than I enjoyed hearing fellow panelists jazz musician Sachal Vasandani and New Orleans musician and journalist Ben Sandmel present on their own little musical and financial niches and successes (and failures). The audience was small (being last on Sunday and scheduled against the Oscars, Chuck Klosterman, and Chuck D), but I did appreciate Holly George-Warren (who is also Robert Burke Warren's wife -- does that make her Aunt Rock?) sticking around for my presentation, last on the agenda, and asking a question. Somebody else even asked me for an address to send some music to. That accomplished, I skedaddled to the airport and headed home.

Even with the length of this entry -- I'm guessing it's the longest I've ever written -- there's stuff I haven't mentioned yet, like the memes that echoed through different presentation -- Ian MacKaye, Joni Mitchell's song "Furry Lewis Sings the Blues," the rapidly collapsing critical capital of Lou Reed.

And I really only saw maybe 20-25% of the conference. Besides Klosterman's well-received presentation and Chuck D (who was only in the audience), I sadly missed presentations from folks like Ann Powers and Michaelangelo Matos. I also missed Robert Christgau's presentation, though luckily he seemed to be everywhere all weekend and wasn't shy about asking questions. If you want to read his thoughts, you can do so here; the omnipresent Ned Raggett also Twittered up a storm -- you can read his collection of tweets here.

Whew. If you've made it this far, you: a) are insane, and b) have to attend one of these conferences. It is a glorious celebration of thinking about (and occasionally enjoying) music. Next year's conference will reportedly be held in New York as part of an expect 3-year rotation, so you curious East Coast-types can check it out. I doubt I'll make the trip out East for it next year, but, given the right theme and a little bit of inspiration, I could see myself throwing another presentation into the mix for another West Coast year. Thanks to conference organizer Eric Weisbard and the paper selection committee for picking my paper and asking me to join in. It was a blast.