CES 2008: Don Was talks digital music at Billboard Digital Music Live

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One of the events happening within CES is the Billboard Digital Music Live summit, which sees a bunch of music industry executives getting together to chew the fat about digital music: opportunities, threats, ways to screw Steve Jobs over. You know the kind of thing.

First speaker in the afternoon is music industry legend Don Was, who’s an artist and producer, and also active in the digital area, looking at advertising-funded music on his own site, My Damn Channel, giving away MP3s supported by advertising.

“It’s like network TV, just another way of doing it,” he says. “Hopefully it works. I’m a musician, so what’s important to me is to just make records…” I should say at this point that Don Was has marvellous trainers on, although they’re cancelled out by a slightly less marvellous hat.

Do we need record companies then? “Of course we do. It depends what your goal is. In theory, they’re the marketing experts. You could wish they were more creative, or did a better job of marketing and promoting, but if you really want to reach millions of people…”

He says we’re at the end of a cycle though, in terms of the recorded music business. “One way to figure the future out is maybe to go back and see what happened in history.” He cites Thomas Edison inventing the phonograph, and how it wasn’t really intended for music, until someone thought ‘I know, we should set up record labels and sign artists’.

It’s a bit of a ramble, but his point is that throughout history, people invent new musical technologies, which then become mainstream and result in big companies making money out of them. But then also that independent artists make use of it too, and become popular, and attract the attention of those big companies, who take over it.

Oh, and he’s talking about the cycle of music being watered down for mainstream consumption. “American Idol is the nadir of that cycle…” It gets an ‘ooh’ from the audience.

So, back to My Damn Channel, where Was went to Detroit to record 11 local artists, starting by listening to a bunch of bands on MySpace. He says he doesn’t know what business models will work for digital music – subscription, advertising, etc, but is really positive about the current state of affairs.

“I see it as being a really healthy time. I’m exhilarated to be making records right now. Once you accept the notion that you’re not aiming for the mainstream, you can just relax and do stuff, which is where a lot of good music comes from.”

It’s really interesting to get an artist’s perspective, compared to the industry people who are petrified of this kind of thing.

Now a question: with so much music out there to access, how can you cut through as a musician, if you’re not backed by a rich major label. “You can’t sort through the millions things out there, but if you can find someone whose tastes you like… That’s what I want to do with My Damn Channel.”

Has his role as a producer changed, given the way music can now be distributed? “In the end, it comes down to a good song, and a good, honest interpretation of the song by an artist. I don’t think thats changed.”

He talks about the “abyss” of ProTools, and a home studio that means you never stop working. “You can get involved in technology, but the core thing stays the same. But people are listening to music on their laptop computers, so you have to mix with that in mind. I grew up listening to the transistor radio, so I don’t actually mind that.”

Another question – how did he find those Detroit bands? He says he started with one he knew – The Go – and then looked at who their friends were, and explored the community that way. Right, now questions from the audience.

Someone’s asking about music education – teaching students how to make the most of current digital music technology. He thinks music schools are doing a good job, but he thinks one thing that’s becoming a lost art is what he did as a young musician – playing four or five sets a night in a bar, and not getting paid if the till wasn’t full at the end of the night.

“You had to learn to entertain,” he says. “Every music school should have a really good venue, and put their students on the stage.”

Another question: how can a little record label get mass distribution without spending pots of money? Was says you used to have a method for breaking a band, which doesn’t work any more. “Bands get discovered all the time. Four or five times a year, someone goes from obscurity to selling millions of records.”

He also tells an anecdote about how Was Not Was got signed back in the day – his partner David Was was working as jazz critic for a newspaper, and interviewed the boss of a record company they wanted to sign to – adding at the end ‘Oh, you should listen to this band…’ Cheeky, but a sign of the kind of suss you need to get ahead, even today. “It’s a combination of “desperation, fearlessness, goofiness and hustle,” he says.

Last question: what advertising model does My Damn Channel use? The site has banner advertising, and also sponsorship. The biggest day for the site was 175,000 hits, which he says is good, but not enough to demand big bucks from big advertisers. But because the site is operated quite cheaply, it can work by getting companies to underwrite its projects – such as travelling to Nashville to record a bunch of local artists.

Oh, more questions. What was it like working with the Rolling Stones, from Jerry Wexler, another music industry legend. And why was the album not successful? “It’s possible people don’t want to hear any new music from the Rolling Stones. They don’t have memories attached to it. Maybe they do just want to listen to Gimme Shelter. I suspect people just don’t care about new music from them, but they certainly haven’t lost interest in the Rolling Stones – they still buy tickets.”

And that’s it. There’s a huge scrum of people trying to talk to Don at the side of the stage following his talk, but I’m onto the next thing.

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Stuart Dredge