By Jim McCarthy Dec 13, 2010 2 comments

Aspen Live, My Thoughts on the High Altitude Fun

Aspen Live isn’t really a conference.  It’s more of a gathering, and although Jim Lewi (the organizer and spiritual heart of the gathering) would love to see more people there, it’s not about growing it big or making money from it, based on what I learned this weekend.

I’ll back up a step or two.  For the last fifteen years or so, a group of people more or less associated with the music biz have been gathering in Aspen for a few days a week.  They get together and talk, they dine, they ski, and it’s all wonderfully free-form.  A couple months ago, Jim asked me to come and I was intrigued.  So I dug my cold weather gear out of my closet and headed to Aspen, Colorado.

One thing I generally despise about conferences is that while there’s a formality and planfulness to the conference itself, the content is usually, well, bad.  Panels are typically just an excuse not to plan anything and assume that something interesting will be said by putting a few people in front of an audience.  Presentations, unless they’re done by good speakers, tend to be little more than badly disguised sales pitches.  It makes you want to head straight to the bar in the hotel where the conference is being held and just have a good conversation with the people in attendance.

Aspen Live, brilliantly, is a lot like that.  Pushing a bunch of cozy chairs and sofas together, with drinks being served from the bar, this group of 30 or 40 engaged in long, open-ended conversations on whatever topics took the group’s fancy roughly related to music.  Not every single moment of the discussions were scintillating or even enlightening, but they were all interactive and based on the things that people really wanted to know from each other, and if you were listening, you could have learned an awful lot.  The group was composed mostly of concert promoters, musical agents, other ancillary service industries to live music (like insurance) and people like me, who fell into the ‘other’ category.  I won’t recap all the names for you, as you can certainly find out all you want from Bob Lefsetz about the ins and outs of who was there.    (Ok, I guess I am telling you that Bob Lefsetz was there.)

After three days of conversation, I have two or three takeaways that help me try to put the live music business into some perspective, as it’s clearly the genre of live entertainment I know the least about.

1.  People in the business KNOW that the paradigm has changed. As I’ve said many times, the future is a niche market, and don’t the people working to promote and sell music know it!  The definition of success is smaller.  Selling recorded music is darn near impossible in number sufficient to make a big dent.  The big hit acts are the freaky exceptions, and even they have shown no ability to sustain their power to generate commercial success for more than a year or two at this point.  No one, at least in this group, was under any self-delusion that the ‘good old days’ were about to return or ever to return.

But what they seem puzzled about is how to build these niches.  I think the formula is simpler than it sounds, though being simple doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Anyway, here it goes.  Whether it’s in music or anything else: be 3% bigger and better than you were last month.  That’s it.  Know what you’re doing, who you should be reaching, and be just 3% better at the end of December than you were at the end of November.  At that rate, you double in size every two years or so.  If you’ve got staying power, you might eventually speed up or “go viral” but even if you don’t, you’ll be something, and that’s what it’s all about.  To get the 3%, it’s all about blocking and tackling.  If you don’t want to do blocking and tackling, you’re not going to make it unless you’re very, very lucky.

2.  I’m surprised that online and social media hasn’t become the overwhelmingly dominant channel for live music marketing.  Since most of the people in Aspen market to very young adults (25 and younger), I assumed it would be all about social media or at least online search and/or display advertising.  I assumed wrong, because most people reported radio and print as the great majority of their advertising budgets.  This really baffles me, and although success can vary wildly from campaign to campaign, my very friendly advice to the folks at Aspen, and with all the respect in the world for the difficulty of their jobs, is you need to get with it.  Print and broadcast radio have become generally unresponsive media.  Note that I didn’t say “impossible to get results from,” but that’s the exception.  The rule is that no one pays attention to what Seth Godin calls ‘interruption marketing,’ even if it’s online, but online there are at least some half-way decent alternatives.

And it’s way past time to say you don’t understand how to make Google ad words work.  Spend four hours once and then spend an hour or two a day for a few weeks, and you’ll either have a good campaign running or know what the barrier to success is.  It’s just not that complicated, but you do have to devote time to it to make it work.

If I’m being harsh, I’d say it’s time to ditch the 20th century tools and join the rest of us in the 21st century, folks.  If I’m being less harsh, I’d say you need to reconsider your media mix based on results, not based on tinkering with a formula that’s been in place for a long time.

3.  These people really, really care about music.  You can be as cynical as you like about business or whatever, but the people in this room care very deeply about bringing the public great, important, wonderful music.  Not that they don’t have a profit motive or even aspirations of grandeur financially.  That’s pretty much human nature.  But I sense that they’d give that up to make a good living in support of great, culture-moving music.  It’s great to see because if you care about your work (as many of us, but not all of us, do), you know instantly when you’re in the presence of people who want to do something well, and it makes a difference.  It also shows in the warmth and openness of the people that I met there.  I understand why you want to come back and be a part of this special group.

At one point, Bob Lefsetz asked me what I thought the group should do or what they were doing wrong, something to that effect.  It was about an hour into the first session, and I didn’t feel qualified to say.  I hadn’t heard enough yet.  Frankly, I”m still underinformed on the specific issues of this part of the business, but I did get a better picture than I had before, so I would like to give answering that question another shot:

You have all the heart in the world, both in terms of caring about the music and in terms of the willingness to work hard.  That’s a good thing.  It’s a necessary thing.  But it’s not a SUFFICIENT thing.  Remember that:  necessary, but not sufficient.  Heart, head, guts.  Those are the things you’ve got to build into your business.  Investment bankers have head and guts, but no heart, so naturally, they destroy the country (or at least the economy) once or twice a generation.

But that’s not the problem with this group or the part of the business they represent.  The problem, perhaps and only if I’m asked, is that you believed the song when they said Love (or ‘heart’) Is All You Need.  It’s not, especially now.  Perhaps the best advice I could give this part of the business is that it should cultivate an intellectual curiosity to match its love of the music itself.

And maybe, after all, that’s what the Aspen Live vibe is really all about.

Anyway, I was delighted to be there, be a part of the group and I’m looking forward to going back next year.

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    • Dan Steinberg


      I am thrilled you took the time to come join us, and thanks for the drinks…looking forward to staying in touch!


    • Jim McCarthy

      Same here, Dan!