New Music Seminar: A Talk With Tom Silverman

In the ‘80s and early ‘90s, before SXSW and alongside CMJ Music Marathon, there was the New Music Seminar, which codified a lot of industry-standard industry things. Panels particularly, as well as giving bands the chance to play in front of “insiders” and all that.

It’s back, but it’s different. Now that there’s an industry panel for every day of the year spread across dozens of industry events across the country, New Music Seminar co-founder Tom Silverman decided to bring back the New Music Seminar, but with a different angle—make the seminar for bands.

It seems like a simple concept, considering that’s the focus of all music, but most seminars are for the industry and not for the artists. The New Music Seminar will have only four highly focused panels and a keynote, with opportunities for networking in-between. Intended to focus solely on the needs of the struggling musician, the seminar sets that against the changing music landscape. Silverman, who is the founder of Tommy Boy Records and sits on the boards of the RIAA and SoundExchange, outlines the state of the music business and some best practices to breaking through in an ever more crowded scene.

How are you doing?

I’m very excited. We’re in the middle of a revolution.

I thought it was a recession.

For the music business, our recession started in 2001. Normally, the music industry does better in a recession, but this isn’t a recession for us, it’s a transition, and we’re reaching a tipping point. There are 50 percent less people in the music business than there was in the year 2000, and record sales dropped close to 50 percent since then overall. And it doesn’t look like it’s slowing down, down again this year 18 or 20 percent, including digital. It’s a new business, and there are new ways that people are looking at monetizing. The reason why we’re doing the seminar now is that’s good news for artists.

Is that 50 percent down in recorded music?

Recorded music sales. I have the exact statistics. From 2000, for the Top Ten it’s down 68 percent. For albums selling over 250,000, it’s down 56 percent. The cumulative total of albums that sold fewer than 10,000 released in each year has only dropped three percent. The place where the industry is getting hammered the worst is the top end. That’s where the most thievery is going on, that’s where the most displacement is going on. But the local band that you love, that you’re a big fan of, you still buy their album.

Last year, there were 110 albums that sold over 250,000. Only 110. There were no three million sellers. The number one best selling record last year would have been the 15th or the 16th best selling record in the year 2000. But we’re not going to talk about that at the seminar. We’re gonna talk about why that’s good for new artists and developing artists and why the level playing field requires a different way to look at their business and to model their business for the future.

The big concern that the new artist has is the noise glut. The amount of releases every year has gone up. Last year alone, it went up from 79,000 releases to 105,000 releases; 99,600 didn’t even sell 1,000 units. That’s the glut I’m talking about.