A Left Brain Take on Music: The Rethink Conference

One of the silver linings of the current crisis is the recognition that cooperation between business, government, academics, and the creative community is needed to right the ills of the music industry. That such a gathering will soon be taking place in the US, however, is surprising.  In the US, music making is largely independent of government aid and continues to be a grass-root and street-smart effort.  In contrast, Europe is more used to government action in support of the music industry–either to promote its exports, like in Sweden, or to enforce broadcast quotas to protect the mother tongue, as in France. Moreover, European scholars tend to make more of the connection between music and culture than their American counterparts.

The “Rethink Music” conference that will take place in Boston on April 26-27 is an attempt to bring together bedfellows that, in the US, so far have been largely estranged from each other.  In fact, the conference could become a catalyst to consider fresh perspectives on common issues.  Never, for instance, have so many distinguished academics shared the podium with industry practitioners and government policy makers. Harvard, through its Berkman Center for Internet and Society and its Business School, will be present; and so will Berklee’s Music Business/Management Department, representing one the largest community of music students and teachers in the world. Rights’ stakeholders, top record label executives, public policy makers, and, of course, some of the talent without which the business could not exist, will also converge in Boston. The list of confirmed speakers can be found at www.rethink-music.com.

The involvement of the French MIDEM organization, a true primus inter pares in international music business building—especially known for its January flagship show in Cannes—is also remarkable. MIDEM has chosen to piggyback on the new Berklee-Harvard connection to attempt its first US show since putting up a Latin Music Conference in Miami back in 1997.

The MBJ interviewed the Executive Director of “Rethink Music”, Berklee’s Allen Bargfrede, who is Assistant Professor of Music Business/Management. Bargfrede is also a copyright and music lawyer and the author, with Cecily Mak, of Music Law in the Digital Age (Berklee Press, 2009). Additionally, we approached Christopher Bavitz, a close collaborator of Bargfrede and the Assistant Director of Harvard’s  Cyberlaw Clinic, a law school program at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

Bavitz is a Clinical Instructor and Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School. He currently teaches a seminar on Music & Digital Media and was an in-house lawyer at EMI North America for six years.

MBJ: What focus will the conference have?

Allen Bargfrede: Above all, it is a music industry event. Rethink’s focus is on copyright and recorded music, and on finding solutions to the current industry downturn.  It will consider ways to save and restore the recording industry by involving creators, academics, and industry professionals. On the copyright front, for example, it will have a broad spectrum of views. Examining the parties in attendance, we have the Berkman Center at Harvard, which is perceived to be on the left of the copyright scale, and the Recording Industry Association of America, which is clearly off to the right. I see Berklee as somewhat of a neutral party (think “Switzerland of music”), because our interest lies solely in promoting creativity in music and providing a market for our graduates.

Christopher Bavitz:  Yes, I think that an ideal outcome for Rethink would be to foster good, productive discussions at the event itself around legal rights, business models, challenges facing creators, and the like, then see those discussions become starting points for further conversations going forward. I know Allen Bargfrede and his team at Berklee have worked hard to ensure that a wide variety of stakeholders and viewpoints are represented at the conference.  My hope is that discussions that begin here will continue after the conference has come to a close.  It would be great to see the event have a real impact on the way people involved in the legal and business aspects of the music industry approach the challenges facing those who create and distribute music.

MBJ: Will Rethink work in a saturated conference market?

AB: It is a challenge, but Rethink has a lot of parts that will allow it to differentiate itself. This is the only conference that involves creators, academics, and industry executives. It is the only conference that has a business model competition (with a substantial $50K reward for the winner), and a competition for public policy papers organized by Harvard’s Berkman Center. As you know, this event also involves MIDEM, which is coming to the US for the first time in a long time. MIDEM is known for putting up the world’s best-known annual music conference. It is primarily providing logistical support and marketing for the event. MIDEM has a built in marketing database, and a lot of connections and resources that regular conference planners do not have.

Beyond that, the quality of the speakers and the programming is excellent, which is not always the case in pioneering events like this, and we’re also offering access to a pretty good lineup of exclusive concerts.

MBJ: Please tell us about it

AB: Berklee and the Berkman Center at Harvard are solely responsible for the content of the programming. We had a pre meeting in October at Harvard, with some key industry players to talk about what the issues really were that had to be discussed (with a view to find a solution). Rethink will feature about ten to thirteen different panel discussions a day, with topics including technology, licensing, new business models, and other professionals perspectives.

We have the number one or two executives from every major label coming, a United States Congressman, top managers, and heads of other successful startups. There have been at least two or three instances where we had a VP of a company saying he would attend, and the CEO stepped in and said, “there are so many CEO’s coming to this, I want to come instead of my VP.”

We also have a variety of artists scheduled to appear. The combination of Amanda Palmer, Ben Folds and Damian Kulash (Ok Go) is going to be really special–the three artists are going to go into a Berklee studio, do a collaboration, tape it, release it at Rethink the next morning, and then perform it live at night.

MBJ: What about the Public Policy Papers and the Business Plan Competition?

CB: The Berkman Center ran a Call for Papers in connection with the conference, seeking policy proposals that advance the interests of music creators, consumers, and entrepreneurs through changes in existing law.  We will select a paper, and Harvard Law School’s Journal of Sports & Entertainment Law will publish it this spring.  The author is expected to present at the conference as well.

In addition to the Berkman Center’s Call for Papers, we have put together a­­ briefing book collecting research and other resources for conference participants. The briefing book will identify key issues that relate to law and policy concerning music, and these issues will be addressed and expanded upon throughout the course of the event.

AB: The Business Plan Competition is meant to give everyone, globally, a voice about solutions for moving forward. It is an opportunity to speak out and say: “I think this is the path the music industry should take.” A generous gift of a Berklee trustee has made this part of the conference possible.

MBJ: So the intended audience of Rethink is broad-based?

AB: Yes. This is a question that has come up over and over, and I think that we don’t have one specific target audience. We are trying to cater to the music industry professional, but the conference is also appealing to academics. We also want students and musicians there, which is why we had a special student/working musician rate. Most other conferences have very wide discussion topics, i.e. marketing here and management there, whereas we have a dedicated focus but remain open-minded.

We are also incorporating audience participation and feedback technology.  Instead of passing around an open microphone at the end of a session, we are going to have SMS email, Twitter feedback, and displays on screen. The audience will be polled at the end of each session, and people can ask questions about something that was discussed. This will get the audience’s real feedback in an anonymous way. A record label employee, for instance, cannot raise his hand to support something against the interest of his label. I think this change is going to make things really interesting. If you put up a thought-provoking question, you may get 40% of the room to publicly agree—but 80% of the audience may agree or disagree anonymously. Rethink might show us a new and interesting dynamic here.

By Frederic Choquette  and Kerry Fee




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *