Fast Talk: Sounds of the Future

Digital music is a many-splendored thing–and it’s more than just that white rectangle. Everyone from major labels to individual artists is experimenting. What’s next–and why is Madonna sure to be a part of it?

Van Toffler

MTV Networks Group
New York, New York

Toffler, 47, runs all of MTV’s networks, including its new iTunes competitor, Urge, which MTV developed with Microsoft. It’ll debut later this year.


“Urge, our new digital music service, is obviously not the first to market, but we think we can make it different. What the audience wants from us is to be a psychic concierge. For a lot of people, the Internet is a black hole, and you want someone to help you navigate it: ‘I like this kind of music. Who’s like these artists? Give me five artists like it. Design a playlist for me based on it. Create a radio station for me. Give me a device where I can take 100 songs like it and go.’ That’s the notion behind Urge.

If artists are open to reinventing the way they release and expose their music, that really benefits us because we offer a seamless connection of TV to online to wireless to digital music. That’s the best way to help the audience discover and ultimately buy music. For example, when Madonna released her new album, she did a movie with us that ran on TV; she did ring tones; she did exclusive broadband and dotcom content. It lived on all of our screens, and it helped her record reach No. 1 around the world. We have 25 years of relationships here with artists and record labels, so we’re talking to them now about exclusive content for Urge.

Technology also lets us rethink all of the complementary content that goes with the songs. I hope we can re-create the lost art form of album covers. Picture the Strokes putting out inexpensive Flash animation for each song on their new record. We’re talking to artists about it now. We can create a different album from what you would buy in the stores. If we do it right, people will want to spend time with this, not just buy a 99-cent single and leave.”


Michael Robertson

Founder and CEO
San Diego, California

Robertson, 39, founded, which he sold for nearly $400 million. His new company recently unveiled a service called Oboe, a digital locker that makes music accessible on multiple devices for a subscription fee.

“Our vision is, your music everywhere. We want you to live in a world where it’s possible to access your music on any device that has speakers on it. The consumer shouldn’t have to carry around an iPod and plug it into one place and plug it into another place. If you’re listening to music on your phone or in your car or on your PC, and you drag songs to a playlist, that should immediately ripple through your entire music-listening universe.

This idea came to me back in 1999. At that point, major record labels were turtles, hiding. They were afraid of digital. I started thinking about how to make music live online. The CDs you’ve already bought contain the music that’s most important to you. So we spent more than $1 million on CDs just as consumers would, and digitized them. The only way you could get music into your locker was to show you had the CD. Just like if you go to the bank and put in 20 bucks. If you go back a week later to take out 20 bucks, it’s not the same exact $20 bill, but it’s still $20. We were sued unmercifully.


A lot of people are going to pay more for the guarantee that their music will be in a digital locker forever and that they can play it on all their computers and whatever phone they buy. The industry can move from 99 cents in iTunes’ world to 10 times that amount. We just formed a partnership with Nokia for its Smartphones. We want to create a service that will work on any phone. I hope we don’t end up in court again, but I guess it’s a risk you take in this industry. Eventually these guys will get past this religious infatuation with security and get to the more meaningful question of how to make the most money.”

Elisa Wiefel

Director of marketing
Network Live
Beverly Hills, California

Wiefel, 27, educates customers and partners at Network Live, which produces and distributes live performances through its equity partners AOL, XM Satellite Radio, and Anschutz Entertainment Group.

“As a music fan, I watched Live 8 last summer. There were performances I wanted to see that weren’t on television, like Pink Floyd and Robbie Williams. I went to AOL and could click on any of the nine sites that were up and running for the show, at any time, for any performance, and it just worked. It was clear how far we’d come with video on demand on the Internet. Network Live was the company behind it, and I wanted to be part of it.


Appointment-based viewing is a thing of the past. We provide an opportunity for the consumer to connect with an exclusive event on her own terms. On DirecTV, you’re probably watching a concert in its entirety. On your mobile phone, it’s typically a three-minute viewing. Drivers will listen to the concert on XM for the duration that they’re in the car. We’re programming to digital enthusiasts who are also big music and pop-culture fans. They want to enjoy their content across devices, across platforms, and they’ll be able to use Internet and IP technology to do that.

Digital technology provides access in a way that’s never been available before. We produced and distributed Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor launch party live from Koko, a 1,500-person club in London. It’s live. Who knows what’s going to happen? It’s unexpected, unpredictable, and a little dangerous. There are no borders anymore–either by device or region–for entertainment. Live 8 showed that.”

Jason Fiber

Cordless Recordings
New York, New York

Fiber, 36, runs Warner Music Group’s newly formed digital label. It’s an incubator for ideas about how to develop, market, and promote emerging artists.


“Cordless wants to establish a new way of introducing artists into the marketplace. What we’re not doing is replicating the offline model and taking it online, hoping people will migrate their habits over from the physical world. We advance money to artists for recording–not a terribly substantial amount, but enough that we think they can deliver some interesting material to us. In return, we ask for a two-year license and retain the rights for roughly five years. If we aren’t able to generate the kind of interest we’d like, we give their masters back. That’s appealing to artists: It’s very little risk with a lot of upside if they’re successful.

We release music in three-song clusters, and our vision is to release several clusters during that two-year period. Typically, artists release new material every two years. We’re giving audiences a greater impression of the artist. Our marketing strategy is to use newer techniques, such as building e-lists and driving traffic to band Web sites, social-networking sites, and blogs. Let’s get that music heard by as many people as possible. Then we gauge the reaction to the band and its music. Unlike most labels, sales will be only one metric we use. At the moment, we have 10 artists signed to the label. We have released music from six of them and are still looking for additional talent.

If we’re successful with an act and there’s greater demand than our staff can handle, we can give the act the opportunity to record with our major-label brethren. By being small and sleek, we can try things that don’t cost a lot of money that the majors wouldn’t necessarily invest in. We don’t pay a huge penalty if it doesn’t work.”


Jenny Toomey

Executive director
Future of Music Coalition
Washington, DC

Toomey, 39, is a musician who helped create the Future of Music Coalition to educate artists about the world of digital music and to advocate for their rights.

“I’ve been involved in the punk music scene in DC since high school and ran an independent record label starting in my senior year at Georgetown. We actually put Dave Grohl’s first solo record out on cassette before he became Nirvana’s drummer. We were all part of a community. Our ideology was to put out friends’ records and not take their copyrights. But the moment Nirvana hit it big, it had a devastating effect on the independent music community. Musicians who had been countercultural suddenly wanted a retirement policy in place, radio promotion, and for us to get them into chain stores. The two bands that would’ve paid for all that left for major labels. We closed the label in 1998.

After that, I got involved in public advocacy. The idea behind Future of Music is to publicly document digital-music issues so independent labels and artists can have a trusted resource. We think artists shouldn’t be afraid of anything technical or political. We help them understand issues like digital-rights management, changes to the copyright act, and media consolidation. Musicians competing in a landscape of corporate control don’t have time to read up on 60 different business models for online music.


The Internet offers exposure that commercial radio hasn’t offered for the past 25 years. Artists should use the exposure to book as many tours as possible. The bigger the fan base, the more power artists will have in future negotiations. Major labels force artists into exclusive contracts that limit them. We try to educate artists and advocate for contract reform. Instead of signing permanent contracts, artists should license their copyrights for just a few years. It gives them more choices.”


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