Music

Portia Sabin on This Year’s Music Biz Conference: ‘AI Is the Big One’ 

Music Business Association president Portia Sabin’s career has reached most of the corners of the music industry, including drumming under the stage name of P-Girl in all-female punk power-pop band The Hissyfits in the late 1990s.  

After studying for a doctorate in anthropology and education at Columbia University in the early 2000s, she worked intermittently for the indie label Kill Rock Stars (and married its founder Slim Moon in 2004). Around that time, she also founded Shotclock Management and in 2006 took the reins of Kill Rock Stars when Moon left to work at Nonesuch Records. She led the label — home of Bikini Kill, The Decemberists, Sleater-Kinney and Elliott Smith — for 13 years while serving on the boards of directors for both U.S. label trade associations — the American Association of Independent Music and the RIAA — and the Recording Academy’s Pacific Northwest chapter. “I made a lot of connections across the industry through them and got a good sense of what part trade associations play in the ecosystem, as well as ideas about board management,” she says.  

That experience has served Sabin well since she took over the Music Business Association, known colloquially as Music Biz, in 2019. Formerly called the National Association of Recording Merchandisers, the organization initially catered to retailers, wholesalers and labels’ sales divisions. But as the music industry limped through the Napster and digital download era and eventually reinvented itself around streaming, Music Biz took on a much broader mandate. It serves as a forum where all sectors of the industry can unite to discuss mutual problems and explore new opportunities. 

Despite that evolution, Sabin says, “I will always have a soft spot for retailers because I knew them from when I ran [Kill Rock Stars]. There were times when physical sales of Elliott Smith records were literally what kept my family with food on our table. It was very, very tough during those transition years of 2010 and 2011. There just wasn’t much money coming in, except for physical.”  

Ahead of Music Biz’s annual conference, which will take place next week (May 13-16) in Nashville, Sabin spoke to Billboard about how it has grown and what attendees can expect.  

How does this year’s convention compare with 2023?  

We had about 2,100 people last year, and we are now more than 50% further along in terms of registrations than last year at this point. I’m anticipating about 2,300. Our board wanted us to grow international attendance, so we have folks from over 30 countries.  

How many members does Music Biz have?  

We currently have 369 member companies. When I came on board in 2019, we had individual memberships and student memberships. We’ve done away with both of those categories. When we’d have great high-level panels, there’d be a hundred students there, and it was not a good match; it just didn’t work. We still do have some individual members who are grandfathered in because there are folks who are very critical to the music industry, who’ve always been very knowledgeable and helpful. They do a lot of moderating but nowadays, members mainly participate through company memberships. I think that’s important because that’s what we’re in the business of doing — putting companies together at our meetings.

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There seems to be a big international presence at this year’s conference compared to past gatherings.  

That’s been really growing. That’s part of the mandate that our board gave us. They really want us to grow international attendance and we’ve been doing it. We have folks from over 30 countries, which is exciting. 

Artificial intelligence is a big topic this year.   

Yes. AI is the big one that everyone’s talking about. We have TuneCore sponsoring our AI track, and [TuneCore CEO Andreea Gleeson] is going to be doing a keynote with Meng Ru Kuok, the CEO and founder of BandLab, which is on the cutting edge of everything that everybody wants to talk about. The programming is crowdsourced. Our call for proposals or presentations goes out about September; and then everybody has until the middle of December to get in their proposals. And then in January, we review every single proposal, and get a real sense of what the industry is interested in finding out more about. We choose the ones that we think are the best. Every year is different. Two years ago, we probably had 30 proposals on [non-fungible tokens]. This year, we had zero.  

I see the conference is still hosting a metadata track.  

I always say it’s our least sexy but most popular track. Its stuff that people really need to know — critical knowledge. And there are a lot of advancements in that area, like combining the ISRC [International Standard Recording Code] and ISCW [International Standard Musical Work Code] at creation, with rapid matching. There’s definitely going to be a lot of new things to learn. 

Any other programming you want to highlight?  

I love that we got so many submissions on social impact — doing good stuff in the world. So, we now have a whole track for this area. We have a streaming track, of course. We have a track on fraud, and we still have a physical track. In all, we have 17 tracks.  

The transformation from NARM to Music Biz occurred before you took the helm; and while the conference still has a big legacy physical business presence, overall the meeting’s scope is much larger.  

When [NARM] became the Music Business Association, it kind of fell off my radar; and I didn’t find out about it again until about 2017 when I went to the conference, and I was blown away. It was everybody that you would want to talk to and just so many different pieces of the industry in one place. That’s what they did really well when they transitioned. 

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How are you growing the association and the conference? 

We are pushing it even more; expanding [the organization and conference] and diversifying the types of companies that can be members. We still really focus on our core of retailers, labels and distributors. We want to celebrate them, support them and preserve them; and we do so with our physical programming, which happens at the conference but also throughout the year. 

In the past, the conference was a hotbed of dealmaking and private meetings between companies up in the hotel suites. Will that ingredient still be prevalent this year?   

The programming is important to the Music Biz conference, but networking is just as important. We believe that those deals still happen at Music Biz because when we look at attendance, it’s still like 27% C-suite attendees. A lot of decision-makers are at the conference, which makes a big difference. In order to accommodate private meetings, we created an hour and a half break in the middle of the day, where there’s no programming, and that is for people to have lunch and network. Also, we used to start programming earlier and go until six o’clock, but we decided that by five o’clock everybody’s ready to have a drink in the bar.   

What is the relationship between your organization and the RIAA nowadays? 

I think it’s great. I learned a lot from them when I was on their board for a couple of years. They are wonderful people and I love what they do, which is very different from what we do. They do so much advocacy work and we really don’t because we’re a Switzerland kind of trade association, with too many [members] with competing positions on the various issues. So, I try to do advocacy and collaboration and consensus building from the inside. For example, look at all of the efforts we’ve been making recently on fraud. That’s an issue where for a while it was very contentious and divisive in our industry. People were pointing fingers and saying, “oh, it’s not my problem; it’s your problem.” And now, I think people are sort of saying, “you know, we’ve got to figure this out, because fraudsters are going make life hard for everybody.” It’s been really, really cool to see the industry coming together around this issue. 

The conference goes to Atlanta next year.  

Yes, it’s going to be fun. We bought out the whole hotel. It’ll just be the music folks. I hope it feels like going to a sleepaway summer camp.

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