In this report Nick Triani visits Slush – one of the world’s biggest tech and start-up fares – for the first time. He finds great minds at work, lots of men in suits, impressive stage designs and an avalanche of hollow market speak.
On the morning of Slush Music the hot news in Suomi was that the Finnish prime minister Juha Sipilä was exposed as having tried to silence the national broadcaster YLE. The story dominates my social media feeds. The week has been full of disturbing news: Kate Bush voiced her appreciation for British PM Theresa May, which led to a torrent of polarized commentary. Then there was a plane crash in Bolivia that wiped out an upcoming Brazilian football team, Chapecoense. Also, a steady stream of English ex-footballers have come out to say they have been sexually abused as children or teenagers. Gareth Bayley, the UK special representative to Syria, described Aleppo as a ‘coffin’. “You turn on the telly and every other story is tellin’ you somebody died” a purple imp once sang. Heading to a music seminar against this backdrop doesn’t feel so relevant.
Slush Music arrives with the wish to try and invigorate a seemingly decadent music business. The mission is to build bridges between tech companies and the music industry. I have been skeptical about this. The music business, certainly on the face of it (and at the mainstream end), is not struggling. You could argue that it finally got there with digital, despite some sticky moments. The transition from being a physical product industry to a digital product industry has actually materialized relatively painlessly. The Man has won, or is certainly winning. As usual, there are casualties with such radical ventures.
Controlling vast catalogs and rights is where the money is now (if we’re strictly talking recorded sound). Streaming pays even less to the musician than physical albums did, which means the age of making money from your recordings are over (for most). But I should have told Slush that the music business could survive perfectly well if all recorded music stopped today. It’s a nostalgia business at best; music veterans on never ending tours, back-catalogs dominating Spotify and old bands reforming. At the least the latest technology could help us experience exactly what it may have been like to be there when Hendrix set his strat on fire or The Beatles played Shea Stadium.
As I enter Kaapeli Tehdas for Slush Music, I admire the general atmosphere: there are walls of spinning turntables, iconic portraits, a Nordic Playlist bar, Putte‘s amazing korvapuustis and free coffee. Laser beams are shooting all over stages and audiences while the overall production values are impressive. I hear a couple of good –if brief– talks. An interesting discussion on lost metadata was the highlight (and most informative). Mostly I keep hearing stuff I am very familiar with. The music business is a global industry, Finland’s industry is as savvy and creative as anyone else’s.
It’s possible Slush Music could become the seminar event that the Finnish music industry lacks. Still, Slush Music offered a slightly patronizing attitude towards the business, a ‘we’ll show you how it’s done’ -vibe. A programme of more relevance would have made Slush better. Having a seminar with a bunch of tech heads talking is seriously unsexy. Where is the rock n roll attitude to go with this technical bonanza? For all the ‘Silicon Valley is crap’ spiel that was presented at the press conference to launch Slush, there was something stiff about Slush Music. Still, as always, these events work very well from a social aspect, and Slush Music delivered the opportunity to catch up with many. I also have to acknowledge that this was a ‘first attempt’ from Slush to engage with music, so we should afford them some teething problems.
It’s possible Slush Music could become the seminar event that the Finnish music industry lacks
As a music business professional my relationship to technology is ambivalent. The smartphone was ground zero and that’s about it. Technology has introduced a whole set of new problems. If Slush Music arrives again next year (and I hope it does), perhaps a seminar geared towards the people that actually – erm – create the music would be worthwhile. Let’s work out how to make that money more evenly distributed. Securing the plight and financial welfare of the creators of the magic that comes from our devices and super hi/fi headphones should be paramount for the industry, right? Sometimes I wonder. It’s often the ‘artist’ who is the last to be asked.
Slush Music did offer a possible glimpse of the future. Virtual Reality is seriously coming and will bring the next musical experience into our homes that will supercede streaming. As Astrid Swan mentions to me later, we won’t just be wanting to watch classic movies, we’ll want to appear in them and virtual reality will make this possible. Wanna share a stage with the Fab Four? I’m sure you’ll be able to with your magic headset. And so on, the possibilities are endless. Don’t say you haven’t been warned. And you thought Guitar Hero had exhausted all the avenues.
I’m not totally clued up on the concept of the startup. Entrepreneur, fast growing/expanding business, filling a gap in the market, possibly offering a variant or innovation. Something along those lines. What strikes me when I reach Messukeskus on Thursday is the size and scope of the production in the main hall. It’s vast. A chest thumping exercise, flaunting excellence in the face of anyone else thinking of putting on this kind of event. It’s also very dark in the mian hall. As I wander from booth to booth and platform to platform, a recurring collection of words drift in an out of my earshot: Investment, productivity, markets, pitch, monetize, customer, growth and so on. I realize I’ve landed in my own personal hell. The dim lighting means I’m confronted by a blur of white men; the gormless suited rushing around as if they’ve experienced their own Eureka moment. “The man from Google said maybe, definitely, who knows, who cares, I’m starstruck.”
I catch an interesting talk that discusses the phenomena of AI (artificial intelligence) and creativity. In theory, this could be the ultimate pay day for the music business, having robots write all the hits and you don’t have to pay any royalties. Genius. Cut out the human element. Who needs personality anyway, eh? The speaker tries to asure us that this doesn’t mean the end of art created by humans. No it doesn’t, but it could mean the end of a certain type of curation of art and how art in future is funded. I wonder what kind of robotic world my son will grow up in? And when do those robots literally cut out the middlemen – that human element?
As I wander from booth to booth and platform to platform, a recurring collection of words drift in an out of my earshot: Investment, productivity, markets, pitch, monetize, customer, growth and so on. I realize I’ve landed in my own personal hell.
I survive two hours at Slush. It’s admittedly not for me. 17,500 people roaming a large warehouse-like space looking for money. There are people trading on good causes; medical breakthroughs and so on. Ethics obviously dont stretch further than into the recycling bins littered throughout the space. The behaviour of some sexist big time Charlies isn’t Slush’s responsibility. However, they are tainted by the company they choose to keep.
Those early Wednesday morning thoughts come back to me. With the world in such turmoil right now, we need good communicators, good organizers, good motivators. The people behind Slush have very good intentions, there is so much potential for good within the whole Slush ethic – and good is what they want to do – for Finland and for new/small business’ and ideas.
So here’s my pitch
Forget trying to save the music business (really, it doesn’t need saving). Forget supporting new startups who are just developing ideas for our consumerist societies. Take a step out of the room and look at the big picture. What are we investing in? We should be investing in a better world for ourselves and for the future, a world within the reach of everyone regardless of where they are born and what their monetary means are. We should be looking at urgently saving the planet. I mean, what’s the point of having all this innovation if we’re fucked at the end of it in any case? I would love to see Slush focus all their considerable talent and energy to saving the planet. Now that would be something really special. And you know what? I think they could do it.