"Your content is worthless."
With those words, Philadelphia producer Brian McTear threw down the gauntlet this morning as he addressed a sold-out crowd at TEDxPhiladelphia.
His challenge on the surface was directed to musicians: It's time to embrace a new business model. Unlike most well-intentioned folks who belabor that obvious point, McTear may have hit upon a workable plan. And the beauty of his prescription is that it could be adapted to other realms of publishing.
McTear, 41, is the co-founder of Weathervane Music, a new music incubator based in the city's Fishtown neighborhood. A non-profit organization, Weathervane provides a toe-hold and direction for independent musicians in a post-Napster world.
"Your content is worthless," McTear repeated. "Community is king."
McTear, was one of 20 TEDxPhiladelphia speakers whose presentations shook up assumptions during brisk 18-minute talks at Temple University's Performing Arts Center. Gathered together under the theme of "Philadelphia, the New Workshop of the World," the group included a diverse collection of doers and thinkers, educators and manufacturers, venture capitalists and visionaries all sharing a passionate love of the city and an optimistic view of its future.
Dahlgren, an industrial designer, had spoken earlier in the program about the need for community-centered manufacturing, at one point quipping that "It takes a village to raise an industry."
Several of Dahlgren's themes echoed through the TED Talks that followed, McTear's included.
On the minimally outfitted Temple stage, McTear described how he "accidentally backed-in" to his new business model.
One of Weathervane's most successful projects is Shaking Through, which takes a single artist through an intensive musical boot camp at McTear's Miner Street Studios. With Weathervane's professional producers and engineers, the musician records a song during the span of two days and also creates an HD video. The project has been heralded by IFC as "one of the very best online music series" and lauded as "inspired" by the online music site Pitchfork.
You can't eat praise, let alone fund new artistic ventures.
With few people left willing to pay for music, Weathervane would release the artist's song and video and hope for them to go viral.
"We'd close our eyes, waiting for lightning to strike," he said. It never really did.
Like news, the music industry was once the domain of a few mighty publishers. Music was valuable because few people could afford to record it, print it and ship it, he said. The cost barrier to entry collapsed with affordable home recording technology. But it was Internet services that allowed music to be shared for free that delivered the industry's coup de grace.
"The world is flooded with the stuff," McTear said.
Counterintuitively, he released a flood of his own, posting the recorded music tracks for anyone to remix and manipulate on a website called gearslutz.com.
The response, he said, was "something awesome." In just a few hours, conversations broke out about the songs. People posted dozens of remixes and offered friendly critiques.
"The coolest part was that people spent five or six hours working on a song, and then apologized they couldn't spend more time on it," he said.
He had stumbled on a new activity that deepened peoples' experience with music, a group activity that connected hundreds of people to others like themselves, McTear said.
Though the music was available in a "low-res" format for free, 2,000 fans worldwide have signed up for premium membership which gets them the "hi-res" music tracks.
But it's not the number of members he uses to gauge the project's success.
"We found our community and connect them to each other," he said. "We don't think of it as a subscription model. We don't need more content. What we do need are activities that allow people to make connections," he said. "It's new experiences that are in short supply."
The role of performance has also changed by necessity, McTear pointed out. During the record industry's big money years, star musicians played to hundreds or thousands of fans each night. Now savvy musicians like his buddy Alec Ounsworth, of the band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, are changing the musician's relationship with their audience. Instead of playing exclusively in clubs and other traditional concert venues, Ounsworth tours from living room to living room, house to house, playing to 50 people at a time.
"Why? Because Alec is smart. He could just as easily play to thousands and never meet more than the staff at the venue he's playing. But he's gone out and connected people to each other through his act. He's creating a more stable foundation for his career."
Music industry executives come and go, McTear said. But the most important relationship, the relationship with the most staying power is the connection built with a community.
"Your content is worthless," he repeated as if it were a song's motif. "What you want is real meaningful connections."
McTear's point underscored the desire of the TEDxPhiladelphia audience: to forge those meaningful connections with hundreds of other attendees similar to themselves.
And McTear's new theme resonated with them:
"Community is King."
Click here to find more TEDxPhiladelphia coverage and live streaming video from the conference on Philly.com.