Is NARM Sucking On The Big Data Teet?





A hip new name and an App center? Has NARM, the oldest record biz conference, lost its way by pandering to Big Data, or are they just ahead of the curve in the new music space?

Moses Avalon

In the 80s it was big drums and big hair, but at NARM this year (now known as MusicBiz 2012), it was all about big data: more numbers, bigger numbers, deeper numbers.

No matter what panel you visited it seems ”metrics” was the subtext of most every comment. Where once at NARM members were miffed by inartistic terms like ”premium demographics”, this year’s prize for best jargon went to Alison Shaw of who over cocktails used the term, ”platform agnostic.” (Although in retrospect she might have been hitting on me.)

Twenty years ago the entire $12 billion a year music business ran off basically two statistics, one of which was fake: SoundScan and Billboard charts. (Oh, did I say only one was fake?)

Today, at roughly $9 Billion, according to Rob Bonstein, of The Creed Company (who manages Bruno Mars) said on a NARM panel “There are over 250,000 lines of royalty related data associated with each new release.” 250,000 metrics every time a record company releases a single and album– anything.

What is wrong with this picture? Are we hoping that data will save us or is the tail wagging the dog, yet again?

We’ll get to the math in second, first the juicy bits…


Last year my review of NARM got me in a flame war when I compared it to SF Music Tech whose founder, Brian Zisk slammed me for implying that NARM was the better value. In short, my comparison between the two was simply this: NARM was old-school and SF Music Tech was new school.

However, it seems to me that old school was still the place to be if you wanted to make a deal with in today’s music business, as opposed to the probable, hopeful, may-be tomorrow’s music business SF Music Tech.

And this year..?

Apparently, NARM took my review to heart and eyed some heavy upgrades. They blended the starchy key-notes on the state of the industry with tech-savvy smarticles like, Jim Griffin, and Ethan Kaplan, of Live Nation who used “data points” to posit a comment I thought was particularly dismissive to the traditional NARM crowd. Especially when you consider that if it were not for NARM’s charter members there would be no value in Live Nation. Kaplan said, “Basically ,any idea labels have had to improve refine and protect copyrights is not good for sales.”


Taking up the main lobby NARM added a very cool new feature called ”App Alley,” a gauntlet of booths representing music-related apps that will do… well, something related to music and make money somehow in the future.

(NARM wasn’t the only one who took my review to heart. Ironically, after all his nagging about my comparison, Zisk attended all three days of NARM this year, proving you never know who secretly respects you. Props to Zisk, you’re good in my book.)


No, actually she’s pretty down. Yeah, yeah, I got to hang with Katy Perry and a couple of other “heritage acts,” but mostly the thinning hair of NARM’S participants is indeed an interesting simile for NARM’S thinning membership. Each year there seems to be more red carpet visible under the feet of the participants.

NARM president, Jim Donio, told me that this year’s attendance was about the same as it was last year— roughly 1000. But it didn’t seem that way. I found myself saying that the mood was “calm” until another participant taught me a better adjective… ”cold..” The party atmosphere that NARM was famous for seemed more sedate.

Donio prefers the concept of “loyal community” rather than one of shrinkage to describe the core of people at NARM. He states that the number of “entities” has not changed much over the past 20 years, but you do not have to be a genius to read between his lines. Brick and mortar retail is on life support while the web and mobile is the clear future of distribution.

My guess, however, despite Donio’s affinity for discretion, is that within a few years, NARM, SF MusicTech and others, like Digital Music Forum will have a harder and harder time distinguishing themselves. Unless they come up with something cool and off the wall. And now that you mention itl…


Through the sea of gray-haired regulars it was impossible not to notice the disturbingly hot, post pubescent Asian girl wearing an PG-rated Catholic schoolgirl outfit. I asked myself is NARM that desperate for new members?

A+ Dropouts

”I’m an artist,” she told me, “I came to make connections.”

Her name is Cheska Zaide, the 14 year-old lead singer in the power/pop/punk band, A+ Dropouts. (Worth a click.)

I confirmed this with admissions and indeed NARM, preempted by a strong lobby from the girl’s mother, made an age exception, to set a record for NARM’s youngest member and participate in this year’s conference.



And now for the lead. What’s the deal with all this data-stuff? What kind of business are we really in?

One panel, hosted by Big Champagne (now owned by Live Nation) was arrogantly called, ”Why Most Music Start-ups Fail.” All panelists owned internet based companies that were data and service oriented. Nothing about music education, recording methods, instrument production etc. The not-so-subtle message being brought to us by the all-data, all the time company (who did not fail) is that music sales exist to create data, from which we will create more music. And of course if you need music data, what better place to get it than Big Champagne.

Now, I’m all for clever subliminal self-promotion. Most every panel is some version of this, but my fear is that NARM’s pandering to the tech-heads could go too far and start doing what many of their members have already learned is a mistake– chasing the data into a blind alley. You can spend years collating and interpreting data (and hiring lots and lots of consultants) only to find that none of this helps sell any more units– and perhaps even less units– than we did with only two metrics, one of which was fake.

I cannot blame NARM. Like many in the music space they are trying to stay relevant in a quickly changing landscape. For my vote they are doing a pretty darn good job. And, like most things, if you want a good hip meter, ask a 14 year old, like Cheska Zaide who told me in an email, ”The panels were really informative, and it was easy to network with industry people who gave me great advice.”

But there is a danger.

With all this emphasis on data it’s no wonder that we’ve stopped talking about music as a medium of chord structures, lyrics and the quality of a performance. If we did, we might just discover a very convenient truth, and one I hope NARM addressees next year– that focusing on music as art would actually have a greater effect on sales than figuring out new ways to count old beans.

All things considered whiles some other staples have slipped, NARM keeps its 8 ranking on my Chart of Best Music Business Conferences.

Mo out



5 responses to “Is NARM Sucking On The Big Data Teet?”

  1. John B says:

    What’s wrong with all this data is the increasing amount of accounting work that has to be carried out to deal with the thousands of lines of data coming in at a few pennies per line. Plus the further work to be done for performance and licensing organisations that insist on having all the data on tracks recorded up to 60 years ago and which earn these pennies. This is fine for the big-earning current download stars but for the lesser people, I could give up everything else and still struggle to get it all processed … so that someone can get a royalty statement for …. pennies.

    Oh for the happy days of selling significant amounts of real product, counting them up each half-year and calculating statements on paper for artists and writers!

  2. Chris Ashman says:

    Conferences are for the birds. Particularly those high in the pecking order.
    From the reports on conferences ove the past couple of years and recently released major company financial reports it looks like attendance will continue to drop as formerly profitable music businesses fail to do anything significant apart from lose money.

    Apart from the original personal performance from the master recording on, the whole industry is just data supporting the employment of many who have no interest in artists or people whilst they worry about having a job next year.

    As a small independent label and publisher, like others we enjoy the freedom to release products by artists we like, digitally and on CD. We all know that they may never reach their full potential without spending millions bending the opinion of the public or paying the controllers of the public ear.

    It is some time since I saw a report by Moses? where less than 5% of the officially released albums in UK and USA 2008 2009 (135,000) even sold a 1000 copies and approx 142? sold 10,000 or more. Along with a report that EMI only recouped on 5% of its album output that year. Does that mean 95% of it’s artists did not get paid? Will Warners artists get paid one day in Roubles?

    Small labels are the future for most artists where they are at least likely to get paid, even after fighting for a download against 21.5 Million others on Amazon.

    So what does data mean?. Nothing. It is just data and some of it says music conference are for the birds.

  3. Marvin says:

    I think you have it right. Following the data will tell you what was hot yesterday, but not what will be hot tomorrow. It will not predict breakout hits that don’t follow the current trend. It will not make your crappy knock off of last weeks hit a success. Great music will win the day in the end.

  4. Chris Martin says:

    “…focusing on music as art would actually have a greater effect on sales than figuring out new ways to count old beans.”

    SO TRUE! Thanks for that, Mo.

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