"They don't have an event like this in Atlanta" I was told by a friendly, spirited woman who had flown in to attend, acting in dual capacity as both excited attendee and company representative. Like innumerable more, our conversation came about from sheer proximity in brimming, bustling areas. We were in the Spring Room. "A Conversation with Funkmaster Flex" had just ended, and as Mr. Flex greeted on-comers in the adjacent hallway, others who were in his audience now formed small groups, typed notes, consulted their schedules, or bolted for the next panel.
The biggest mistake you could make at the SF MusicTech Summit is to think you know what's good for you. Or as someone must have once said, probably in reference to food, it's the not knowing that'll do you good. You can map out a plan of attack for the day, as I attempted, giving priority to specific panels and presenters. Certainly, if you're a nascent startup, you can and should connect with potential, deep-pocketed partners. As musicians should meet with managers. And gaming platforms with developers. And media outlets with content creators. Just don't clutch too rigidly your outlined course of action. Events, people and open bars are bound to sweep you off your preconceived path. Best to embrace this fact, as most of the time it places you midst the glory of chance discovery. The prevalence of these I believe to be one of the greatest appeals of an event that has many.
The Summit houses itself in Japantown's landmark Hotel Kabuki. Overlapping events take place in five different conference areas spread across two floors. The Spring Room is one of several that feature giant rectangular windows that look onto serene, exotic gardens. Seated directly in front of such a scene was where Funkmaster Flex gave his testimony to the development of rap music and culture over the last 30 years. Several times during his conversation, shouts came from the audience for Flex to indulge them his catchphrase and "Drop a bomb on it." These he either didn't hear or ignored. When the moderator asked him if he could still claim the #1 music show on terrestrial radio, his deadpan reply provoked laughter. "Yes. By far. It's not even close."
Towards the end of his segment, Flex paired of a couple of details that seemed to perfectly encapsulate a standard of success echoed by nearly every musician, producer, and music personality that spoke: the incorporation of newer technologies into one's art without the sacrifice of one's inherent sense of quality. The first detail he gave was that he is one of the only nationally heard DJs to choose all his own music for his program. The second was that he finds and curates his music using WordPress and Google Analytics.
In the morning I had attended another conversation with featured speaker Narada Michael Walden, the famed musician and producer of massive hits for Whitney Houston, Maria Carey, and Aretha Franklin. Since the 1980s he has also owned and operated Tarpan Studios in San Rafael. On all things he spoke with passion, almost defiance, and proved to be one of the most electric speakers of the day. Talking of his production philosophy, he said that his first job is to determine "what my artist can match with in the top ten. As a producer, you are hiring me to marry you to that destination." During the question and answer with the audience, a young woman in red and black leather, sporting at least a foot of spiked hair, stood up in the front row. She asked Narada if he would ever be open to working with someone who sings African songs. "Well why don't you sing something for us?" he said. And before the applause of encouragement had even gathered steam, she was launching acappella into song, delivering fluid, fast lines while arching her back like a mid-solo Miles Davis.
From the afternoon on, things started to blur together some. I caught the tail end of a music production workshop by Jack Conte. I stood in the back of a packed room for a glass and wearable tech forum that included demonstration of a "Glass Trombone"; by way of impressive light and touch sensors, you can make the headgear emit a synthetic gargle that slightly resembles a real trombone. At a digital marketing panel, I listened to Kathy Baker from Columbia/Sony explain how major artists will sometimes impulsively leak a record themselves, exasperating a label that devoted months of planning and resources towards a strategic release. And somewhere along the line I was roped into a freestyle rap session led by Erik Torenberg of Rapt.fm. Everyone in attendance was given a mandatory 30 seconds to improvise over a beatbox, the only rule being that you couldn't stop talking. Really, nothing invigorates like climbing the hill of humiliation together.
It's not lost on me, the irony of touting chance discovery at the epicenter of preference-based, meta-track means for connecting listeners to music. Of these my inclination towards less calculated methods -for better or worse, usually worse- makes me a natural cynic. But quite a few fledging music businesses are using today's technical methodologies in ways that offer obvious, substantial benefits to musicians and audiences. At a panel titled "Check-In and Play: Location Based Music", companies discussed their employment of "cartography", providing a regional context to played songs. DeliRadio, for example, streams music based on tour dates. People using the service can find music from acts that are coming through town, and consequently a leg up is given to working musicians on the road. This is much welcomed, considering that most of today's bigger streaming services ultimately reward long-standing acts that are often no longer working, or in need of no support (you're still the best, Paul). Along with another SF-based company called Soundtracking, DeliRadio demonstrates inventive ways of using online engagement to bring about a stronger live music community.
More than any narrative thread or theme you could read into the day's activity, what most ties together the sprawling activity of MusicTech is the omnipresence of founders Brian Zisk and his wife, Shoshana. Perpetually checking in on events, orchestrating, greeting, correcting glitches, they project an enthusiasm that sets the tone for the whole event. If the two decide to retire one day, I hope they give though to starting a cutting edge bed and breakfast.
On my way out, I passed by a greyed, suited gentleman half turned towards the wall. I could see him holding a drink and alternately tossing his arms forward. He was freestyling.