NARM 2011 vs. SF MusicTech: Which Music Conference Matters Most?

With NARM attendance at an all-time low, SF MusicTech gaining in popularity, and so many other industry events to choose from, does this classic music conference still have the juice to keep it relevant?

Moses Avalon

Narm 2011 Los Angeles

It felt like California might just start tipping into the ocean. The Twitterverse was lit up last week with dueling posts about which West Coast music conference was “the place to be”: the time-honored NARM in Los Angeles, or the young n’ hip SF MusicTech in San Francisco.

As far as I could tell–based on the tweets–the best music conference to attend, depended largely on which one you were at. So, here’s my take.


The comparison of the two music conferences might easily be positioned as: the “New Music Business” versus the “Old Music Business.”

NARM had guests like, Brian Wilson, Annie Lenox and Barry Manilow, about as old school as it gets, combined with newer artists: David Cook, Tyrese, Matt Nathanson and awards for Nikki Minaj.

SF MusicTech on the other hand had folks of increasing relevance, with cooler haircuts and company names that don’t have spaces between the words. Its sponsors were websites like, Techdirt, Digital Music News and Mashable. Real lovers of the old guard music trade.

I was at NARM for two reasons: 1) It takes place in L.A. (I live in LA) And 2) frankly, while SF MusicTech showcases all the cool toys to push a career further up the ladder, NARM still represents the music business in earnest.

Yes, NARM is old school, but if you’re gong to a conference to network,who do you want to “bump” into: decision makers in the current industry, or the guy with the latest social media widget, selling hope and theoretical money from theoretical revenue streams. One attendee commented on Hypebot’s review of SF MusicTech with this summation: “$600 for ‘lots to think about?’ So frustrating, where are the solutions?”

So, my guess is that many of the exhibitors at this year’s SF MusicTech, will be at future NARM conferences. (If they survive to their next round of VC.)

My chart that ranks music conferences puts NARM close to the top in value, with an 8 rating. After this year, despite the seemingly low turnout, I stand by that ranking. Here’s why:


Several NARM staff I talked to bemoaned the fact that NARM 2011 attendance was half its former glory. They blamed the “shrinking music business.”

Ten years ago, NARM’s membership was about 2000. According to NARM’s registration table they had about 900 pre-registered for the 2011 event. Is this good news?

In 2001 you had less than half a dozen great music conferences to choose from, NMS, NARM, NAMM, and fledgling SXSW. Today there are over 50. Given this fact, it’s a miracle that any conference gets a good turnout.

So, while it’s true that ten years ago 2000 folks attended NARM, it is also true that only half of them were really earning a living with music, while the other half were merely looking to meet the first half. Thus this dilution thins the herd of wannabes. Now NARM is 1000 lean. Its 90% attendance, by people actually making mid-six-figure incomes in music, who still occupy the key positions in the music business, prove this conference’s relevance.

Here’s who you could approach in a casual setting at NARM:


–Well, where else but NARM can you actually sit at the bar with the CEO of the RIAA and confront him about the Limewire settlement?

I asked Cary Sherman why they settled for so little ($105 million). He was prepared for this question, using (and I’m paraphrasing) the bird-in-the-hand argument. Litigating further would allow CEO Mark Gorten, the Adolph Eichmann of the music space, to hide more of his assets over the next decade of trials. I unfortunately have to agree. Ill be saying more on this in another post.

Eric Garland ,CEO of Big Champagne, a company that monitors downloading and other digital activity, announced that the top 200 acts will generate over 1 billion views on YouTube. Rather eye-opening for those planning on a viral approach to their marketing.

–Attorneys on both sides of the “landmark” Eminem case argued in front of a room filled with influential music lawyers on the merits of the case. The case established iTunes as a “license” and not a “normal retail sale.” This decision resulted in a higher split of iTunes revenue in Eminem’s favor. What did we learn?

That if you pay a lawyer to believe in something, he will do it zealously to the fullest extent of your retainer.

We sort of knew that, but it was surprising to see Jay Cooper, normally the sane guy in the room, squirming as he took the side of Eminem with an argument that he had to know, only held up if you looked at the language of the contract, instead of its intent.

Funny, I always thought that a contract was a “meeting of the minds” and that litigation was to determine exactly what that was. Somehow that concept failed here.

Top Attorneys on the forefront of licensing also discussed in detail about how Europe is way ahead of the US in terms of an all-in solution for one-stop licensing of music.

Roger McNamee’s key note was riveting and yielded the most tweeted sound-bytes at NARM. His biggest tweet-hit was “Google doesn’t matter. Focus on Apple.” He was like a hi-tech mad scientist on a bender, making harsh and radical comments… something he is known for.

In the corridor, after his presentation, he held court for anyone who would listen.  This is where he really let his hair down. Some sound bytes:

“More drugs is the answer.”

“The Grateful Dead are assholes.”

“MySpace is digital Detroit. It doesn’t work.”

“Facebook is the platform. HTML5 is the platform of the future.”

You’ll have to do your own editing on those, my reader.

–Other folks in attendance were Jason Feinberg ,VP, digital strategy & development at Concord, Bruce Resnikoff, president of Universal Music Enterprises, and top level execs and founders of the big players in the D2F Space (Direct to Fan): Lou Plaia (co-founder of Reverbnation), Phil Antoniades (President of Nimbit), Bob Moczydlowsky (VP, Product and Marketing at TopSpin Media), Chris Wiltsee (Director of Business Dev for Rootmusic) and Alex White (Co-Founder and CEO of Next Big Sound).

All hanging at the bar and approachable.


While the OneWord widgets were up at SF MusicTech, NARM had a few, who I guess couldn’t get a plane ticket. Two that I spoke to were:


Tired of Harry Fox? Can’t always find the song you’re looking for there? RightsFlow offers a simplified turn key solution that competes with HFA for about $15 a track.  They find the copyright holders and escort the money into the proper hands.  No quarterly checks for you to write to be in compliance with the law. Check them out.


Want your music to be on Slacker or Pandora, but can’t seem to get on their database? This company offers a pay for play solution. I know, who needs another one of those? Well, this is a bit different. They claim they are less than a few months away from releasing the thing that Pandora and Slacker can’t seem to get it together to provide– a buy button that goes directly to the artist’s site or artist controlled store.

Meaning that when the listener hears a song he likes he can tap the screen and poof, he’s bought the song right there from the artist without having to go to a third party retailer. The artist gets the money without paying a bunch of middle men. We’ll see if that claim holds up, but they are definitely a company to watch.


There is no better value in the music association space than NARM. For $140 year you get a massive amount of benefits. When you offset the cost of going to NARM as a non-member it basically pays for itself in the first year. If you are serious about networking with the big-shots on the music space, who still have a job, NARM is a must.

If 900 powerful attendees, any of whom can make a difference in your career is a conference’s  “low point”  honestly, what does that tell you?


11 responses to “NARM 2011 vs. SF MusicTech: Which Music Conference Matters Most?”

  1. Bill Wilson says:

    Thank you for the great post. We’re happy you see the value the way we do as NARM staffers…

    • Brian Zisk says:

      Funny post Moses, but I expect nothing less. 🙂

      At this recent SF MusicTech Summit we were honored to amplify over 30 sponsors ranging from Universal Music Group to Getty Images to smaller companies which most people haven’t yet heard of. Techdirt? Sorry, they were not a sponsor. Where do you get your “facts”? 😉

      Similarly, the negative quote you purport to have been written by an attendee actually came from someone who in his follow up comment mentioned that his “post was way too negative”, was not present at the event, and didn’t even claim to be. 🙂

      Love how you also slant the article to mention 7 golden oldies and younger artists who were present at NARM, while leaving out the much more currently relevant creators (such as the guys from Incubus) who were interviewed at the SF MusicTech Summit. My hunch is that over the next year Incubus by themselves will vastly outsell all 7 of the artists whom you highlight combined.

      In any case, your newsletter and website are clearly your forums to control as you wish, and I will be a bit surprised if you even allow this comment to be posted. But I will agree with you on one thing. If you enjoyed what you experienced you are much more likely to think that the event you attended is better than the one you did not. So with your never having attended the SF MusicTech Summit, it is no surprise that you prefer NARM. 🙂

      Glad that I fished this email out of Google’s Spam filter…

      Best of luck with your future endeavors,

      -Brian Zisk

      SF MusicTech Summit

      • Bill Wilson says:

        To clarify, I see a tremendous amount of value in what Brian is doing. The startup world needs people and events to rally around, as does the “legacy” music business. While we overlap with some things, there’s plenty of room and need for both. The next step is how we help the entrepreneurs access the other segment in a meaningful and constructive way. Frankly, I wish I could have made both events.

      • Moses Avalon says:


        It’s funny you should make the slam about sifting my review of SF MusicTech out of your spam folder, because that is exactly where I found your response above. My webmaster comes to me yesterday and says, “I see you tossed Zisk’s response in the spam box.” “What?” I said, “I would never do that unless he was ranting profanity. I didn’t even see his response.” Now you have to also keep in mind that a day after my review of NARM/MusicTech, our site was hacked. Nothing we could not handle, but then, this mystery post ending up in spam from a guy who I know will exploit this to his advantage. So I now start getting really paranoid; thinking that you had some geek from your show set me up.

        But a logical theory forwarded by my tech revealed the far less sexy truth; your post was not ignored, nor was it censored, as you alleged on Twitter. (BTW in your Tweet you put a space between “@” and “mosesavalon” which means I didn’t get a notification. I’m surprised you didn’t know that since you run a technology conference.)

        Your response to my review was not seen at all by me because I moderate my response section. Meaning, responses are never automatically approved— I (or my moderator) read them first. I monitor for slander and profanity since I learned that many professors of music business like to direct their students to my blog.

        Your response was not submitted for approval because the half dozen-or-so smiley faces you used, triggered the auto-spam filter and shoved it out of sight.

        Now, I have no problem with smiley faces–my 11 year old uses them when talking to her class-mates, but it’s one of the common spam triggers, along with TOO MANY CAPITALS. But I was surprised to see such a communication from a guy who is a member of the bar, and who helped pull off what seems to be a very successful technology conference. It seems to me, you should know that using common spam techniques would shove a post out of site in most legitimate blogs. But now I’m really being paranoid. You’re not trying to set me up, you probably just really feel the smiley faces help emphasize your law-school level communication skills.

        Now, why you feel the need to personalize my review (which was not nearly as critical of your event as it could have been) is the new mystery. You’ve always had a hard-on for me and I guess this is just another chapter in your Moses is the devil drama.

        Believe me, I could have reposted the nit-picky negative comments people had to say about your presentation if my goal was to slam you personally. Instead I chose not to make it personal and focus only on the differences between the two events. Which is pure journalism; which is my job.

        I did that because pulling off any event of girth is a miracle that you should be proud of and I didn’t want to trivialize your efforts, by making a punch-line out of the comments of a few haters. But to be fair and balanced, I had to include at least one negative comment. And that is what I did. I included one comment. One.

        I don’t really know why you dislike me so intensely that it makes you forget your manners, or stoop to childish tactics, but may I offer an olive branch? Would you like to sit down face to face and air whatever it is you seem to think so objectionable about me and let’s see if we can work something out? I’d like to see if we can settle this. And I will take whatever you have to say to heart and give it every consideration as I hope you would do the same. The lines are open, it’s your move.

        Oh PS, a few points of fact:

        1) Sorry about mistaking TechDirt as a sponsor. They were listed as such on your site under “Our fabulous speakers, sponsors and attendees.” I think most reasonable people would have assumed they were a sponsor based on how you positioned them on the page.

        2) The guy you claim was not at the conference. Yah, I saw you slam him on Hypebot as well. As you can see from his comment below, he claims to have “experienced both events.” He represents that both below and in the Hypebot posts and I had no reason to think he was lying.

        3) In your re-slam to this fellow’s comments on Hypebot you wrote, “we had invited a number of folks who could or would not appear, ranging from Amazon’s Head of Music…” Yeah, the reason that Amazon’s folks could not appear at SF MusicTech is because they were at NARM.

        So, what’s it going to be? We make peace? Take it from someone who puts his opinions out there on a regular biases, people will take shots at you, often unfair ones. I thought my piece was balanced. If you think otherwise, you are entitled to that opinion. But to personalize everything and bully those that you disagree with seems kinda counter-productive.

        So, whatever your beef is with me, get over it. I’m not an organization, or a coalition. I’m just one guy trying to do the right thing by the people who create music.

        • Brian Zisk says:

          Hi Moses,

          You obviously have some major misimpressions.

          I would never hack nor cause your nor anyone else’s site to be hacked. Never have, never will.

          Nor did I intentionally have the notification about my first comment to your posting sent into your spam filter so you would not see it. As a point of fact, I submitted the comment in a way I expected and intended for you to see it, and in fact, someone on your team must have seen it. As the timestamp on the comment shows, it was approved and posted to your site a week ago, almost a week before you wrote your response implying I was trying to bury the comment, and that you had never seen it. 😉

          I have never “had a hard-on for” you, nor considered you the “devil”. Nor was I trying to “set you up”.

          But I do agree that you’re being paranoid. 😉

          There are many other items you mention in your post which I find to be incorrect and disagree with. But it really doen’t matter. My reading of your over 900 word response is that you seem to have a problem with me. And while you seem to think that my embedding lots of smiley faces is some sort of plot, it is actually to express that any thought you have that I’m looking for problems with you is mistaken. 🙂

          All the best,

          Brian Zisk

          • Moses Avalon says:

            Really? You’re using “expressions” to communicate that you have no problems with me, when everything else about your posts indicates otherwise? H’okay. whatever. I know you talk shit about me to others because the folks you’re trusting with your pejorative musings about me are not as loyal to you as you think.

            Now as to the week-I-took-to-respond-to-you thing. It’s true. I took a week to respond to you after I fished your post out of the spam folder. But the reason I took that long is nowhere near as nefarious as you suspect. It’s simply because, believe it or not, I do not consider responding to you a high priority and I had to spend this past week preparing to be deposed in a case that I am an Expert Witness on. Yes, it must surprise you that someone pays me to testify in court on maters of importance. But believe it or not there are those who think I know a thing or two about this business.

            The other reason I took a bit of time was to respond thoughtfully. Something you may take as a compliment an want to consider yourself when responding.

            Now, you say you have no problem with me and if fact it is the reverse. I’ll give you a chance to prove that. Let’s have a drink and see if we can make some lemon-aid, instead of lemons. We have lots of common ground and it has always stuck me as odd that you disparage me. So, I’m willing to hear you out and start a fresh slate. If you’re sincere about your comments above, then let’s set a date. My lines are open.

          • Brian Zisk says:

            This reply is to Moses’ follow on comment (so please read that first ;-)), as I do not see a reply button to that comment in my browser.

            Yes Moses, I use smileys to try to convey that I am not looking for problems with you. 🙂 But I have learned from long experience and observation that engaging with you massively raises the chances of your slamming that person publicly without any regards to the truth. This is why I had not engaged with you in many years until your latest fact twisting public slam.

            Nonetheless, I do think we have some common ground, and would vastly prefer to be shooting in the same direction, as opposed to firing back at your attacks.

            So yes Moses, I would like a clean slate, and in that spirit, I’m not even going to point out the obvious inconsistencies in your latest reply.

            How about an early lunch next Thursday at BStar in San Francisco? I’m up for getting together with you whenever I’m in town, and you make it up this way.

            You have my email, feel free to reach out in that manner to coordinate and/or confirm.

            Best of luck,


          • Moses Avalon says:

            (But I have learned from long experience and observation that engaging with you massively raises the chances of your slamming that person publicly without any regards to the truth. )

            WHAT!! Dude, you can NOT make a public statement like that and expect me to let it slide. As a lawyer you have to know that. I’ve been reporting and saying some pretty outrageous things regarding just about every entity in the industry since 1998, from the RIAA to ASCAP/BMI, HFA, AMF and others. Why have none of them sued me if you’re statement above is true?

            In fact, despite my intense criticism of many practices of the majors, and other powerful forces in our space, I maintain a relationship with them, such that they always return my requests for quotes. Why do that if I’m suck a muckraker? How could I receive and disseminate such inside information if those I reported on thought that I had “no regard for the truth.”

            Not only that, but as an Expert Witness I have been grilled by some of the toughest litigators on the planet– under oath. They review all my articles and previous testimony looking for errors and inconsistencies. And I have yet to be impeached. Every case I have testified for has resolved in the favor of the side that retained me. Let’s see what else. Oh…

            The CA State Bar allows me, a non lawyer, to distribute MCLE Ethics credits in my workshop– to attorneys. And I have reciprocity in just about every state. Why? Because I have “no regard for the truth”?

            Oh, I almost forgot the part about how my books are referenced reading in more schools than I can count, including that god-awful law school with that horrible reputation, Loyola. Not to mention Harvard and NYU.

            Brian, really. Whoever has been whispering in your ear about me is pulling your leg. And if you’ve been throwing my work in your spam box for years now, as you imply, then how can you really speak with authority on this matter.

            As for meeting you is SF next thursday, well that is not nearly enough notice. I propose the next time you are in LA that we plan a sit down and visa versa, when I come to SF, probably in the next few months, I’ll do the same.

            PS: I don’t know why you’re not seeing the the “reply” button. It seems to be available to others on this page. If you’re not seeing the “reply” button on your browser, then update your browser. For god-sakes man, you run a technology conference.

  2. Michael St. James says:

    Great Post. Having experienced both, here’s what struck me about your insight into each of them: The Music.
    For such a numbers-nimble guy, you make the case clearly and simply.
    Music first.

    It’s the one thing that is missing at most major music conferences. I’ve also noticed that the value of a ‘music-focused’ experience seems to track well with your excellent ’19 ranked conferences’ post. (find it on this site)

    I know, I know, it’s about the business right? Well, yes. And it’s about connections. True. But what will be the focus of that Music Business of yours? If it is ‘users,’ API and licensing as a means to drive ad engagement rates – then SF Music Tech is probably right for you.

    But what if you care about music and the people that listen to it, the people who create it, produce it, mix it and so on? No dry model will suffice that creative desire. It must be a mix, an honest conversation and not a sale.

    Connections to powerful people are not enough. It’s the kind of connections that help us all solve problems, not just talk about what they might be.The most “powerful” guy in the room may be a good person to know, but don’t we want to be connected to people who are connected to the struggle of music and not just those ‘associated’ with it? People who understand the muse because they’ve wrestled with it too.

    This is what makes NARM, and others like it, a wise choice. The conversations, meetings, keynotes, the shots, the tokes… they will all take place with music first, not debated over as a “licensing challenge” first.

    Thanks for another great post.

    By the way, Earbits is a gamechanger if they work with micro-paypal and bandcamp integration for variable independent pricing = charging more per song and EP with bonus material. We’ll see.

  3. […] 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 […]

  4. Stan Halaby II says:

    Ok.. after some review of this blog and entries.. All I gotta say is, “Atta Boy Moses!!” MAN, if I ever have to go to litigation regarding music business of any sort.. I want you on MY side Moses!! I thought I was sold before, but this blog entry (article? I’m not as up to date on terminology as I should, forgive me.) REALLY sold me! I’m buying the books, then study them and then figure out the next step of what to do here. I am VERY impressed that this website is a great ‘one-stop shop’ to learn virtually anything and everything I’ll need to pursue what I want! Thanks Moses!

    -Stan Halaby II

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