The Bandwidth music tech conference in San Francisco attracts folks from all corners of the music industry: from label owners and musicians, to Internet radio broadcasters and mobile phone software developers. This year, the conference featured panel discussions on topics such as the future of music gadgets (a subject dear to my nerd heart), developing music services for mobile phones, and the realities of running a label in today's fractured music industry.
One of the more popular themes drawing heated discussion across all panels was the idea of ditching the paid download model dominated by iTunes in favor of giving music away for free. Throughout the day I heard several compelling arguments for and against moving toward a free music download model, but my sense is that economic times will need to get a little tougher before the industry takes a serious look at a free music strategy. That said, with the decline in CD sales drastically outpacing the uptake of MP3 sales, a future of legitimate free music downloads may arrive sooner than you think.
As the nation's premier music phone, the iPhone and its App Store garnered plenty of discussion as well, with comments from Tom Conrad from Pandora connecting to an audience eager to leverage the iPhone's popularity and potential. During the same mobile music panel, Cindy Lundin Mesaros from Moderati spoke on the plateaued, yet profitable business of selling ringtones, software, and games for phones.
A discussion of emerging trends in consumer electronics was slow to gain momentum, but paid off handsomely with razor-sharp comments from Dave Goldberg, former VP of Yahoo Music, who stated with no uncertainty that MP3 player manufacturers competing with Apple are doing it all wrong (listen to an audio excerpt at the end of this article). CNET's own Kurt Wolff (Download.com Music) also used the panel as an opportunity to tease to Juke.com, a new CNET music Web site in development that has been veiled in secrecy (even to me).
One of the last panels of the evening brought together representatives from Rhapsody, Sony/BMG, and TAG Strategic to discuss the state of the music download sales model and its viability going forward. While never reaching a consensus, alternative models such as variable song pricing, flat-rate music subscriptions via ISP, high-fidelity downloads, and bundled incentives (concert tickets, T-shirts, etc.), were all thrown around. The only idea everyone agreed on was the suggestion that artists need to work on building unique, packaged experiences for their fans if they want to increase revenue through music sales (Metallica's Mission Metallica microsite was cited as a prime example).
Having just finished my review of the Edirol R-09HR portable recorder, I brought it along to capture a few great comments overheard at Bandwidth:
Ted Cohen on why the subscription music model is broken:
Tom Conrad on the appeal of internet radio: