Bold ideas for an iffy industry

Rethink Music asks: What happens next?

At the Rethink Music conference, an all-star group consisting of (clockwise from top left) Ben Folds, Amanda Palmer, Damian Kulash, and Neil Gaiman will write, record, and release eight songs over eight hours. At the Rethink Music conference, an all-star group consisting of (clockwise from top left) Ben Folds, Amanda Palmer, Damian Kulash, and Neil Gaiman will write, record, and release eight songs over eight hours. (Kiyoshi Ota (Top Left), Karl Walter (Top Right), Kevin Winter (Bottom Right)/Getty Images; Craig Lassig/Associated Press)
By Luke O’Neil
Globe Correspondent / April 25, 2011

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Making it in the world of music has always been an uncertain proposition for even the most talented of performers. Today it’s more confusing than ever before, particularly as the beleaguered industry continues to unfold in directions unforeseen even a few years ago. Prestigious institutions like the Berklee College of Music continue to graduate students well-versed in composition, theory, and performance, but who knows what sort of music industry they’ll enter into? (Or if there will even be one left to speak of?)

That’s one of the issues they hope to address at Rethink Music, says conference executive director and Berklee professor of music business and management Allen Bargfrede.

“At Berklee, part of our goal is to have a thriving industry so graduates have a place to survive and have real careers,’’ he says.

The conference, running today through Wednesday, will draw together music industry leaders like head of Warner Recorded Music Lyor Cohen, Pandora chief executive and president Joe Kennedy, R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills, U2 manager Paul McGuinness, US Representative John Conyers, the band Metric, and representatives of all four major labels for roughly 30 panels, interviews, lectures, and concerts.

“I think the mission is to talk about solutions to moving the music industry forward,’’ Bargfrede says. “Everyone has seen all the stories about the content industries being decimated by the Internet. Are there business models or changes to public policy that need to come about to breathe life back into the music industry, and particularly the recording industry?’’

It’s an idea born of frustration with the dialogue at other similar gatherings, which tend to focus on the negative side of the industry. “There’s a lot of discussions at conferences where people complain about things and they don’t talk about the future, our idea was to talk about what we can do to think about the future.’’

One of the highlights of the conference will be a hands-on attempt to buck the prevailing standards for how music is conventionally recorded and released. From 4 p.m. to midnight today, an all-star group consisting of Ben Folds, Amanda Palmer, author Neil Gaiman, and Damian Kulash of OK Go will write, record, and release eight songs over the course of those eight hours. It’s an experiment that will overlap with the conference’s overall mission: What happens next?

Traditionally, record labels have played three roles in the recording and releasing process, Bargfrede says: providing money, distribution, and marketing for musicians. “Money for recording is no longer as relevant as technology grows less expensive. You can record at home, alone, for a lot less than it used to cost.’’ Now, anyone can distribute their own music online as well. All that’s left for record companies is to become marketing companies, he says.

“They’re out to show that things don’t have to be done the way they used to be,’’ much like Radiohead, who announced the release of their last record days before it was to come out. “People don’t pay attention to release dates anymore, they download leaked tracks and don’t pay for them. Amanda’s group is saying, ‘Why do we have to announce release dates eight weeks in advance? Why can’t we put out our own music when we want to?’ Music is not normally made in this interactive way. It’s totally different than anything we’ve done before.’’

Their efforts will be shown streaming live on the Web, with fans having the opportunity to comment and offer ideas on the way the music is being made.

“We’re musicians and a writer who have all managed to find our own way and pretty stable paths for ourselves,’’ says Kulash, explaining how their attempt to shorten the life cycle of the album release to a single day ties into the overall mission of the conference.

“I think the idea is to try to do something rather than what feels like pontificating about business stuff, just unite the things we do in a fun and spontaneous way.’’

It’s the active version of what Rethink is all about, Palmer says. “Their fundamental mission is to talk about where to take music — we are the [people] that are actually doing it. . . . There’s nothing more terrible than a future-of-music conference where people sit around tables talking about it.’’

Whether or not the project will actually work remains to be seen, both musicians agree.

“I’m confident, but the process will be interesting,’’ Palmer says, echoing the overarching mindset of the music industry at large these days. “It’s kind of fun; it’s like jumping off a cliff, and we don’t really know what’s gonna happen.’’

Luke O’Neil can be reached at


At: Hynes Convention Center, Berklee College of Music, and Harvard University, April 25-27. Registration fee: $995.