Dmitri Vietze - Music Tectonics
Dmitri Vietze is the CEO of Music Tech PR company Rock Paper Scissors and the founder of music technology conference Music Tectonics. Starting from a background working right across global music forms, Dmitri has now gone deep into the technology - telling the stories and communicating the ideas that connect artists to audiences and to the new tools that help them create their art.
From the growth of ambient interfaces to the opportunities of mixed reality gatherings, Dmitri is an enthusiast, champion and communicator at the leading edge of what music can now become both as a cultural experience and as a commercial opportunity.
Dubber Hi, I’m Andrew Dubber. I’m Director of MTF Labs, and this is the podcast of the MTF Labs, the MTF Podcast. MTF Labs, of course, started life as Music Tech Fest. We established these experimental labs as part of the festival. These days, experimental labs have become the main thing. Our primary focus and purpose. And so Music Tech Fest, in probably quite a timely fashion, has become something that MTF Labs may or may not produce as a festival in the way that you might ordinarily understand. And at the same time, the scope of MTF - what it stands for and what it means - expands way beyond music technology. It’s about putting the arts, creativity, and cross-disciplinary collaboration at the centre of all kinds of hybrid innovation, from transportation to neuroscience, clean energy to fashion tech, accessibility to robotics. But that certainly doesn’t mean we’ve lost interest in music tech. Quite the contrary. And nor, of course, has the MTF community. And in that community, there are people who have gone deep on music tech. Boots and all.
So let me tell you about Dmitri Vietze. Dmitri is what you might call an enthusiast. He uses the phrase ‘high energy’. He’s all about music and tech, the connections between them, and the stories around that. He’s interested in providing personal experiences, connecting people, and gathering - cultural happenings - at a time when those things are being challenged by the way the world is these days. But where most see problems, Dmitri sees opportunities, like putting on Music Tectonics - a big music tech conference - that’s actually better because it’s no longer in person. And that’s just for starters.
Dubber Dmitri Vietze, thanks so much for joining us for the MTF Podcast. How are you doing?
Dmitri I’m great, thanks for having me. I’m excited to talk to you.
Dubber You’re very welcome. Congratulations. I understand you’ve just had a very successful conference.
Dmitri Yeah. The Music Tectonics Conference was just a few weeks back, and we moved online for our second year. Our first year was in person in LA in 2019. 2020, there’s a pandemic going on, so we decided to move online. And it turned out pretty well.
Dubber And what was the structure for that? Conferences are things, I think, people are still working out.
Dmitri Yeah. We had done a lot of online events leading up to it, starting on Friday the 13th, March, when we all heard that South by Southwest was getting cancelled. We decided to do the meetups we were going to do online. And so we did a bunch of stuff there and learned very quickly because our first one had Zoom bombers. We didn’t even know what Zoom bombers were, but all of a sudden there was all this weird profanity and people hitting on each other with fake names of each other’s names of people that are actually there. So we shut that down quickly and kept doing our meetups. But we always wanted more interactivity, and so we had lots of practice sessions leading up to it.
So our format was we had a combination of traditional keynotes and panels, but we used technology that allowed for lots of networking. It was basically a Chatroulette for speed networking. So people met seventy or eighty people each day of the conference.
Dubber That’s amazing. You can’t do that in an in-person conference.
Dmitri That’s the crazy thing. There’s things that you can do now that feel screwed up, but then you realise there’s some efficiencies as well that you wouldn’t have expected to happen. Certainly not online.
Dubber So just to give us the ballpark, what is the topic of conversation at Music Tectonics?
Dmitri So the whole concept with the conference - we also have a podcast - is about the seismic shifts that are changing things in music. We talk a lot about technology, but it’s really about any kind of innovation or any kind of shifts in society. And so you could take any top-level stuff but also break it into specific things that we’re all talking about and paying attention to. Everything from gaming and music, mixed reality and music, fitness and music, new concert models during the pandemic, social video and how that’s involved with music. Even things about music-making apps and instruments, and listening products and new streams of revenue. We just take all of those different slices of all the things that are changing and try to apply it to a lot of different sectors of the music industry and sectors outside of the music industry.
Dubber Right. And where do musicians fit into this? Is this something that they’re a natural part of, or is it everybody but?
Dmitri Well, I don’t call it ‘everybody but’, but we’ve also worked with… One of our PR clients at Rock Paper Scissors is CD Baby. We helped them launch and incubate their DIY Musician Conference. So I think of it as “There are great events for artists to help either artists with their career or with their mastery of their art, things like that. This one is more of an industry meets technology kind of feel to it.”. So artists that are very involved with technology or live-streaming or gaming could be involved, but it’s not really an artist-centric event. It’s really about a lot of the technological innovation type of things that are being built around that.
Dubber Right. So would you consider yourself a tech guy, or are you a music guy who got into tech?
Dmitri I grew up playing music. Playing acoustic instruments on the streets of New York City, in the subways of New York City. I was always intrigued with how sounds were made. And over time, I followed the path from hip-hop to jazz to African music. And then really interested in everything from what kind of materials were used to create instruments to make interesting, buzzy, weird sounds, or the hybrids of different genres, different cultures clashing into what created Afrobeat or Columbian cumbia rock or chicha. All these different sounds coming together. So, in a way, I never thought of myself as a technology person in my musical world, but I was also interested in the most rudimentary technology and how it impacted music.
And then as I developed a career post-school, I always liked efficiency. So I was into databases and automating stuff, but I never was a hacker. I never learned how to code or anything. It was more like I would push whatever consumer-ready products were available on the market until they didn’t work anymore, and that’s as far as I would get.
Dubber Right. I really love the phrase “I’m into efficiencies.”. My teachers used to just call me lazy, but I think that would have been a great comeback. Is that a synonym?
Dmitri No. I’ve got this very strange well of energy, and so it’s… I don’t think of myself as lazy. I think of myself as extremely high energy, exerting myself to exhaustion in almost everything I do. And it was more just about the intrigue of “There’s got to be a better way.”. You know, “There’s a cool technology that makes that weird sound. That buzzing sound on a balafon from Africa, it’s the membrane of a spider’s egg that’s attached to the hole of a gourd underneath this wooden xylophone. Well, there’s got to be a better way to do other stuff, too.”. So it’s really more about curiosity and intrigue than it is about what I would consider laziness. I hate to say that, but that’s really the orientation.
Dubber For sure. So what are the technologies that are, in inverted commas, pushing your buttons at the moment?
Dmitri In terms of music and tech or just my own workload?
Dubber Yeah. You’ve just had a music tech conference. There must have been something that passed your transom and you thought “Oh, that’s cool.”.
Dmitri Oh. One of the things we tried to do with Music Tectonics - to go back to your original question about the conference - was we didn’t just want to talk about the topics, we wanted people to have certain experiences.
And so I mentioned the Chatroulette-style thing - we used a platform called Hopin - which was a really great way to translate from a physical conference to an online conference because I really wanted people to connect as humans, one-on-one, even though we’re used to this buffered screen experience. I wanted to get through the screen.
And so we did that. That was one piece of it. But the other piece is we did an opening and closing party in an online venue which was an avatar-based metaverse type situation where your audio is on, you create your avatar, you can change your clothes and try to make it look as much like either who you are or who you want to be, and then you’re walking around a virtual venue that has stages and beaches and lighthouses and all sorts of stuff, and you’re actually networking with avatars.
So that was super fun because we had a session on mixed reality and how music and mixed reality are being used together and also another session on gaming that included conversations about Roblox and Minecraft and the way that those platforms are adopting and creating a new type of venue for a music experience. But I wanted to not just talk about it. I wanted people to actually step into it. There’s a lot of people in the music industry. A lot of them aren’t gamers. A lot of them are older. And they got to actually get dressed as an avatar for the first time, and that was a cool thing, for them to be able to experience it instead of just talking or hearing about it.
Dubber Right. So you’re from the world of music, but you would probably consider yourself pretty much a PR guy now.
Dubber You’ve joined the dark side, as it were.
Dubber Is that just through being an enthusiast, as somebody who could turn that into a profession?
Dmitri I got into PR first focussed on international music. I wasn’t going after PR. I was going after this interesting curiosity around music and culture. I was using music to teach workshops about different cultures and so forth, and I just loved that storytelling aspect, the ability to find a loose thread and just keep pulling on that curiosity just because it’s interesting. Not for any other reason. But then maybe use it for the good, first with just helping people in America try to understand other cultures and how it actually helps them understand themselves more, but then eventually getting recruited into a PR position and realising I could do the same exact cross-cultural storytelling to help artists all around the world get onto national public radio or in The New York Times or in Rolling Stone or Pitchfork. And so that storytelling is what drew me to PR.
I never thought of it as the dark side. I really always thought of it as the fun “How do you help people who are screwing around with soundwaves, doing cool stuff, and crossing oceans and borders and tell their story?”. So that was the crossover. It felt very smooth going from playing music to listening to music to telling the stories of music.
Dubber Right. In COVID times, is that a safe spot in the music industry to be, or does it have its own…? Obviously, the live industry’s struggling. Recorded music’s having difficulties. But it seems like PR, given the nature of the job, it’s built for work from home, isn’t it?
Dmitri Well, there’s two aspects to that question. One of them is “What does the day-to-day workload require in terms of working from home?”, but the other is “What’s happening in the market? What’s the demand for PR?”. And, actually, we made a huge pivot this year.
When I started the company - Rock Paper Scissors, my PR company - in 1999, we were focussed entirely on labels and eventually artists and festivals as well, and several years ago we started doing PR for music tech. Which we can talk about, because there was a reason for that pivot. But this year, in 2020, we actually shut down our entire artist, label, festival PR division because of COVID.
In March, just all of a sudden, all of our clients started saying they needed to put a hold on things. They weren’t sure what was happening. Since we’re so focussed on international music, a lot of their revenue is based on live touring, not on recording or streaming and so forth, and when they couldn’t tour, it shut down their revenue. And so we made the tough decision that if we were going to make it through this year healthy, we just needed to shut down that division. So we actually made a strong pivot as a result of COVID as it relates to PR on the artist side.
Meanwhile, we’ve been growing this music tech PR practice, and that has… It had a bump in the early couple of months, but it’s started to recover and feels like it’s not really facing the same crisis that the live music side of the business is.
Dubber Right. So when you say PR for music tech, at what stage do you come into this? Is this new prototypes, or is this established businesses or people who have the investment behind them to go out and get PR companies working with them?
Dmitri We do a wide variety. It’s everything from pre-launch to a well-established brand that just needs to do something different with how they’re telling their story to the public through the media. And so it could be anything.
Our earliest music tech client - besides my own start-up - was CD Baby, and we still work with them to this day. And they were already well established by the time we started working with them about eight years ago, but people in the market didn’t really know what they were up to. They still have the name ‘CD’ in their title, and a lot of people thought they were still about physical distribution. And they’d built this entire stack of digital tools for monetisation. Now, they’re adding onto that stack tools around marketing and promotion as well. So that would be an example of being the well established, mature level as well.
But we also get approached by start-ups and get hired by start-ups. Sometimes they have money, or sometimes they’re very bootstrapped, but they just know that they have to accelerate getting the word out about what they’re up to.
Dubber What could people who aren’t quite at the level yet of employing a PR company do better, in your opinion?
Dmitri You can always do better at a million things, but I think being really clear about some of the basic stuff you’d hear if you were talking to a VC. Ask the same question in terms of product-market fit, differentiation, what your runway looks like to get from here to there. All that kind of stuff is really important. For us, PR is always tied to business strategy, as well. So there’s that basic business stuff that sometimes, if you’re a start-up for the first time, you almost have to live through to make enough mistakes to know what people are actually talking about. I know that from experience because I’ve got my own start-up.
The only other thing I would say in answer to that question is a lot of times - regardless of whether you’re working with a PR firm or not - giving yourself enough time and bandwidth to really understand what story, what narrative is going to move the needle for who your potential early adopters are is really important. Because a lot of times, people say they see a need or they see a cool innovation of something, but they haven’t really expressed to who the potential user base is in a way that’s compelling enough for them to sign up, get on the waiting list, or start using the product. Things like that. So that’s one.
I could talk about that for hours if you want, about things that people could do better in PR. But a lot of it, to me, really starts with having the bandwidth to really think about what the most compelling story is and having enough perspective outside of your own shoes - to be in the shoes of a potential partner, investor, user - to really look back at it with those third-party set of eyes to understand where the value proposition really is.
Dubber Who’s telling good stories at the moment that you could look at and go “Wow, I’m impressed by that.”?
Dmitri That’s a tough question to answer without really being sales-y. I don’t know if you really want me to answer that question because I can…
Dubber Other than your good self, are there…?
Dmitri And my clients?
Dubber And your clients. Are there campaigns that you’re seeing at the moment out in the world that seem to be really good ways of thinking about storytelling? Something I’m really interested in is storytelling, and this idea that it’s not just about “Convince me that your product is good.”, but actually build a narrative around that. Are there really good examples of that that you can think of?
Dmitri Well, there’s so much that’s specific to this moment in time. So a lot of the bandwidth that’s being taken up with storytelling right now has to do with COVID, the pandemic, and 2020.
I will say that we had on the Music Tectonics podcast the founder of StageIt, which is a self-serve live-streaming concert platform, and he basically said “Hey, I had pulled in the oars a few years back. We tried this thing, and there just wasn’t that much interest and traction. And right now, I cannot paddle to keep up with all the demand we have.”. And since then, he’s brought in a team and grown, and so they’re doing great. They’re having the best year. He came in and he said “We made in the last…”. I can’t remember. We had him pretty early in the pandemic, and he was like “In the last three weeks, we’ve made more money than we made all of last year.”. And so that’s a great story from a business perspective. Now, I think, Andrew, you like stories that are more on the human side.
Dubber I do like the human stories, I have to say. Yeah. For sure.
Dmitri I’ll give you a good human story. There’s a UK artist by the name of Emma McGann. I don’t know if you know her. But she actually was early on another live-streaming platform called YouNow, which is still around. It’s similar to Twitch, in a way, but it’s not as much focussed on gamers. It has a music community, it has a food community, and it has other types of communities beyond just music and gaming and stuff like that. But she told me a story… Well, first of all, she’s really good at explaining how live-streaming works and the social media, social network component of live-streaming that I think a lot of people think they can just translate a concert to “Oh, now I’m on Zoom doing the concert.”. But she actually has built the way that she performs around the actual structure of the… Through video, chat, interactivity process, which I think has been super helpful for her career.
She told me a great story which is she uses smart devices to control her lights in her live-stream performances. And so she started getting half jokes, half complaints from her fans saying that… The fans were saying “You keep turning on and off my lights whenever you call on the smart speaker name.”. She’s trying to control her own lights, but there she is, ends up controlling her fans’ lights while they’re trying to watch her live-stream. She’s got a very sweet relationship with her fans, so it was very kind. But she flipped it on its head and she’s like “Wait, this isn’t a problem. My fans… Apparently a lot of them have smart speakers.”. So she started building Alexa skills for her music, her lyrics, trivia contests and so forth. So that, to me, is a cool, real story of an artist who is constantly learning and is adapting and being innovative, but also in this way that totally is connected to her fans. The human side of what she does. So there’s a story for you.
Dubber Absolutely. Well, voice AI seems to be a really, really natural progression for people accustomed to working with sound, so it makes a lot of sense.
Dmitri Yeah. Something that I’ve talked a lot about on the Music Tectonics podcast is this idea of “Music is like air.”, which is the idea that the on/off button on a radio is considered to be the best user interface for music. You press the button, you’re listening to music. You don’t have to do anything else. You turn it off, whatever. You could flip the station, whatever. Now, to listen to music, you have to take your phone out of your pocket or your purse, you have to unlock it, you have to look for the app, then you have to let the app load, and then you have to decide “Are you going to search? Are you going to browse?”, whatever. You’re doing twenty steps before you get to listen to music. But with smart speakers, like you said, with voice AI and what’s going on with voice-enabled devices, you now just talk to the air and the air gives you music back.
And so, to me, I think there’s a lot of cool stuff coming down the pipe with what you could call ‘ambient technology’. The physical interface disappears. It’s just around you. There’s sensors, there’s microphones, there’s things. On the one hand, it could be super creepy because then everyone’s tracking everything you do, and it’s predicting your behaviour and your personality and who you’re going to vote for and what they can do to get you to vote and all that stuff. That’s stuff we face in America right now.
But you look at something like the smart mirrors that are coming out now, and I can imagine… Right now, the application is mostly around exercise, where you can see on the mirror somebody who’s teaching you or modelling the athletic behaviour, and you’re doing it, and you could see yourself and them at the same time. You could also do video conferences with personal coaches and things like that. But I can imagine that if TikTok goes onto the smart mirror and all of a sudden you’re listening to the music, you can see yourself dance, you get even better at that creation.
And then where does it go from there? If the mirrors on the wall are the technology, you don’t even have to have a speaker. You just have mirrors or household items all around you. What becomes the musical experience where you don’t even have to ask for music anymore? You don’t have to say “Hey, I’m having a dinner party. Put on a Latin party play-mix.”, or something like that. Instead, it could literally know that you’re already cooking something spicy and start playing music that matches. Or it could know your heart rate or some other physical factors about you and start… Maybe calm you down. It knows when meditation music needs to come on or sleeping lullaby music or so forth. So, yeah, it’s creepy, and it has a lot of cool potential too.
Dubber It’s funny how often the ‘calm you down music’ thing comes up. Earlier podcast on the MTF Podcast, I was speaking with Vickie Nauman, who you probably know as 7Digital and so forth. But she’s working with… What are they called? Beat Saber, which is a VR game which basically turns pop music into the most stressful experience you could possibly imagine. And it’s really interesting that there are technologies being applied at the same time to just get you to calm down or just get you to extremely not calm down, and there doesn’t seem to be the equivalent of “No, I just want to have a glass of wine, put on a record, side one. When that finishes, I’ll put on side two.”. That kind of experiential interface with music. Is that being considered?
Dmitri It’s actually interesting… And, by the way, both Beat Saber’s founder, Jaroslav, and Vickie were both at the Music Tectonics conference, so we’re walking in the same circles here. But it’s interesting, as we’re talking about this, Andrew, I’m thinking a little that this concept of ambient technology and the interfaces you’re asking about, I think it goes back to the heartbeat - the original solar-powered ambient technology that didn’t require any other devices - and the relationship between music and the heartbeat. So if you’re talking about how apps or platforms or hardware are increasing your heart rate to get you excited or decreasing your heart rate to get you calm, it kind of goes back to that, which is ironic that we need such complex technology to do the same thing that a drum around a fire could do.
Dubber Yeah. It’s funny because… The one thing I keep coming back to - and this is showing my age, probably, more than anything - but the technology I most readily respond to when it comes to music experience is liner notes, and nobody seems to have cracked liner notes in the digital experience.
Dmitri Oh, no. I am with you, man. I was so into liner notes when I was in high school. And at that moment in the ‘80s, liner notes were getting thicker and thicker, and then it’s almost like they got so thick they exploded and disappeared completely. And it is kind of a metaphor for the physical product getting so expensive and all of a sudden having so much metadata and also just songs in it that people didn’t even want. You had these twenty-five song disks that were thirty/forty/fifty dollars, and people were just like “You know what? I just want the single. I don’t have time for the rest of this stuff.”, or “I don’t even like the rest of this stuff.”.
But I think you’re right. I don’t think that contextual information that was either in the liner notes or in the zines or eventually in the blogs has really translated into a unified experience in the digital world. And it’s interesting to see things like the Spotify investments in podcasting and Pandora also doing some stuff with podcasting, and everyone else. But it’s interesting to see that that starts to create another type of metadata, this cultural context of the music in audio form, and that’s what seems to be missing.
And the other thing is it’s probably not going to be static the way it was with liner notes. Everyone read the same notes in liner notes. But in this new audio customisation experience, one person might be interested in the lyrics, somebody else might be interested in the credits, somebody else might be interested in the biography, and you might be able to start to get that in audio form that’s customised to what your preferences are.
Dubber Yeah, it’s interesting. There’s a really popular podcast that’s actually recently been launched as a Netflix show, the ‘Song Exploder’.
Dmitri Yeah, it’s a great podcast.
Dubber Which is fantastic. It comes across to me, at least, as like Director’s commentary on a DVD.
Dubber It’s the extra content that you would want, in audio form, with the record itself. And I guess there’s an avenue there, and it’s the storytelling it comes back to again. People telling the story of the song and the context of the recording of the song and what they were thinking about, what they were doing, and those sorts of things. Is that part of what you consider when you’re thinking about PR around… Even if it’s music tech, that kind of contextualising story, is that important?
Dmitri I think it really is important. We’re working for businesses when we do PR at Rock Paper Scissors, and so it’s not the same kind of story as an artist’s story. Although, there are artists that now tell business story. You see Taylor Swift is always talking about her past business relationships and who she does and doesn’t want to do business with. That becomes part of her story. But for most artists, it’s not usually a business story. It’s usually a personal story. It’s usually a musical story. It’s usually that cultural context or something like that. But with businesses, I still think there is a story to tell.
So, for example, one of our clients is LyricFind that does legal licensing of lyrics in digital form. So if you are a search engine or a music streaming service or a lyric website, you’re using intellectual property every time you show lyrics. So they’ve set up a system so that the rights holders, the publishers, get paid every time those lyrics get displayed or fed to a music listener or web browser, person, or whatever it is. But one of the storytelling things we do with LyricFind is they have access to a lot of how lyrics are being used across the entire planet, so during a holiday - say, Halloween - we can do a piece with them about which candy gets referred to most in music.
Now, that doesn’t really help their business, necessarily, but it keeps lyrics at the forefront of people’s minds, and it gives them an excuse to say “Look, we really do have our finger on the pulse of everything lyrics, and it’s because we have these legal relationships and this licensing ability. And we’re building on this other layer of metadata about lyrics that then become additional interesting contextual information that anyone in the music world can add on, as well.”. So that storytelling piece of “How is the culture using lyrics and candy?”, or for Presidents’ Day in the US “Which presidents have been talked about most in music? And what genres of music talk about which presidents?”, it does get you to this other type of story that then eventually points back to what their value proposition is as a business.
Or with CD Baby, for example, we find artists that have really interesting career stories. And those career stories are very inspirational for anyone that’s trying to make it in music, and those can be really great resources for telling those stories, too.
Dubber Yeah. It’s interesting that mining the data for the stories becomes a really big part of that. It strikes me that four or five years ago, it seemed like blockchain was going to save the music industry, in inverted commas. Is it still even part of the story?
Dmitri It’s interesting because in our first conference in 2019, it was almost too late, but we did a blockchain cage match. We wanted to put advocates and naysayers on blockchain up against each other, and we set it up with an adversarial type of energy. We had Arabian Prince - one of the founding members of NWA - as our referee, and we had, again, some blockchain advocates and some naysayers about it. And it didn’t work out the way I had hoped, honestly, because we didn’t get deep enough into the issues, and coincidentally it turned out that the advocates were all male and the critics that we had all turned out to be female. Total coincidence. In fact, one person got pulled up from the audience. That shifted the balance because somebody couldn’t show up for health reasons. And so it was like “Oh, that’s not exactly what we’re going for.”.
But I think the big issue with blockchain is that the early advocates were saying “This is going to solve everything.”, but there was always that question of “Where is it going to start?” because if the bulk of the monetisation of recorded music and streaming is happening on, say, Spotify and Apple Music, and they’re not really doing anything with blockchain, especially on the pay-out side of it - let alone the tracking, metadata side of it - then how is it that blockchain’s going to fix everything in the music industry? It’s like you’re asking for an entire new plumbing system to save everything, but there’s literally no way to put the plumbing underneath the ground.
So now you see there’s a new phase of a much quieter blockchain infrastructure that’s not trying to say “We’re going to solve everything.”, but they’re trying to actually connect a lot of the dots. And I think once they reach critical mass with connecting enough of the dots then a major player will come in and be able to actually carry out transactions.
We had Scott Cohen from Warner Music, the chief innovation officer, do one of the keynotes. It was actually a fireside chat at our conference this year. And I always go back to what he told me several months back, which is “Blockchain is like self-driving cars. It’s not a matter of if it’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of when it’s going to happen.”. So I think the miscalculation by a lot of folks was the speed at which it would be implemented, and… I don’t actually know if it’s a matter of when it’s going to happen, but it sure seems like, on paper, it makes a lot of sense to figure out more efficient ways to have this peer checked, peer backed up data and all the great benefits that people talk about with blockchain. It’s really an issue of there’s got to be a tipping point at some point where there’s some player that’s big enough to get value from it to start to implement it, and then I think it’ll start to fall like dominoes.
Dubber Yeah. That’s really interesting. We did a blockchain lab at MTF in Berlin in 2016, and we brought together a bunch of different people from different areas. Record labels, rights organisations, artists - everybody who’s got any stake in it - and basically asked the question “For the next five days, let’s do a thing where we try and work out whether we can use blockchain to make the music industry more fair.”. And as soon as we said that, somebody said “What do you mean ‘fair’?”. And then that was the next five days, that group of people going “What do you mean when you say ‘fair’?”, because we don’t know what fair looks like, let alone how we’re going to implement it using blockchain.
Dmitri Oh, man. That is so true. And, to me, that’s one of the biggest things that really hasn’t been tackled. What is fair? What is the balance between artists and getting fair payment, streaming services taking risk, or user-generated content systems like YouTube and TikTok? Who’s the creator? The musician versus the video creator. And who owns what in terms of grabbing attention or augmenting the momentum of a particular artist’s career? There’s no easy answer to any of that stuff, so I can see why you guys got bogged down in ‘fair’. And I think that’s going to continue to play out for several years before… I don’t know. If it will settle down.
You talked about the data that can be mined. It’s almost like the data is forcing us to have more transparency, so at least there’s going to be more insights into how music is being used, whose music is being used, and maybe there’s a shifting of balance of power as a result of that. But there’s always that ability for you not to put your music up on services, too, which…
I was at another conference last week where I spoke, and an artist said something about “How do we get fair payment from streaming services?”, and I said “If you don’t like it, don’t put your music up.”, and he’s like “Oh, thank you.”. And I was surprised that his response was like that because I was being cheeky, just being like “Dude, if you don’t like the deal, don’t do the deal. If you don’t want access to that audience and you just want to set up your own website and sell direct-to-fan, more power to you.”. That’s where things are going to go over time, so it’s just a matter of how quiet it’s going to be for how long before you reach that tipping point where you can actually make enough money to make a living.
Dubber Yeah. It’s the sustainability thing that’s really interesting. I work a lot with Bandcamp - or at least have done - and, to me, that’s a thing where it’s built around the idea of “You can put the tools in the artist’s hand for their own sustainability.”. But it seems like something like Spotify or Deezer or YouTube or wherever the music is streaming from, that isn’t the logic behind it. The logic behind it is much more orientated towards aggregation and “Pile it high and make it cheap.”.
Dmitri Yeah. I still don’t know because from a fan experience, I still really enjoy Spotify. I really do. And I’m listening to more music and more diverse music than ever before. And as a father with an eleven-year-old and a twenty-one-year-old and the ability for us to all be making playlists together, it has removed a lot of barriers. But I don’t think we’ve solved the financial side for artists and songwriters.
However, I will say, I think a more difficult part of monetisation for artists these days is not the streaming services, it’s the quantity of music that’s out there. There’s more music out there than ever. And partly that’s because of a factor in society that I actually think has a net positive result, which is more people are making music. More people have access to the tools of production.
Dubber Yeah. Isn’t that great?
Dmitri And that makes it a much more competitive environment because there’s this huge surplus of things you can listen to, and a lot of it is not something you want to listen to. So it’s much harder as an individual, a supporter of artists, to wade through stuff. But on the other hand, you, as a listener, can now be a creator too. So I don’t know. There’s factors that are far beyond just what’s happening in the capitalist marketplace, these shifts in access to tools for creating stuff that I think is probably having a larger negative effect on the money-making side of being a recorded artist unless you’ve never recorded music before, and you’re recording music and you’re actually releasing it for the first time, and you’re making your first penny.
Dubber Yeah, for sure. I think in aggregate there’s probably more money changing hands than ever before. It’s just that the people who used to make a living out of it, they’re not seeing all of it.
Dmitri Well, the question is “Is there a bigger gap between the haves and the have-nots?”. That’s always the question, and I have no way of knowing the answer to that question.
Dubber Yeah. I think that’s a big data question that neither you or I have the tools or the resources to put together.
Dmitri Hey, Andrew, just real quick. Going back to the blockchain question, live-streaming and VR were stepchildren of the music industry before COVID. I wouldn’t say they were laughing stocks the way that some music industry veterans felt about blockchain, but it is interesting to think that something like COVID and the pandemic could shift live-streaming from this stepchild status to this front, main-stage status. And, similarly, with some of the mixed-reality stuff, where it was like the hardware and the interoperability seemed to be a barrier. And now, all of a sudden, because we can’t go anywhere, we want to go someplace in our mind or in our headset. And the price has started to come down. So that’s another thing that could shift with blockchain. There’s going to be some tipping point, something that happens in society or with technology or the marketplace or something where all of a sudden it’s not going to look quite as extreme to implement.
Dubber We just need another humanitarian crisis to move the music industry to the next level.
Dmitri Hey, you know what they say about the mother of invention. So who knows? I don’t want any more humanitarian crises. Not in 2020, not in 2021. Please. We’ve had enough.
Dubber No. We’ve done our dash for a little while, I think. I think we’re due a few years off, to be honest with you.
Hey, I’m really interested in where you come at this from because you’re speaking, obviously, the language of PR and the language of music tech and cutting edge and all the rest of it. But you’ve made references to a lot of things that people in that world don’t have that experience of and a lot of things from so-called ‘world music’, and you were talking about acoustic guitar. You grew up in Nashville, I understand, so you were obviously immersed in music, I imagine. Humble beginnings. Let’s start with what did your parents do and how did that affect where you’ve ended up?
Dmitri Well, my father was a psychologist. He left when I was about three. Left the house and eventually left town. And my mother was a school teacher. She was actually a craftsperson. She was a weaver. She made weavings. We went to crafts fairs. I was the kid running around barefoot in Nashville at crafts fairs. And she was also an international folk dancer, so I would end up at churches and community centres where they would be playing Bulgarian and Greek and Israeli folk music, and we were just doing our thing running around in the background. But that was in my ears at that time.
That was in Nashville, Tennessee, and the music scene there was like a shadow of what it was before and after, and, really, the music industry did not have much impact on me. Except I did have to write a country song in fourth grade for a class.
Dubber That’s a good assignment.
Dmitri Yeah. I was sick that day, so I made up a song about my cat who died. It did not win any prizes. But I did move to New York City right as I was turning thirteen, and eventually went to a high school for music and the arts. The ‘Fame’ high school, if anyone’s ever seen that TV show or film.
Dmitri It was called LaGuardia High School by the time I got there. And grew up playing music.
Dubber You didn’t meet Leroy, by any chance?
Dmitri I didn’t. There was no Leroy there. He was just a character in the show.
Dubber Okay, that’s a shame.
Dmitri I met a lot of amazing people there. I was not really thrilled with the music programme there. It was very rigid, mostly classical. We didn’t have that much formal interaction with the other departments. The art, the theatre, the dance, and so forth. So I ended up spending a lot of my time and energy in the streets of New York, playing music.
Also very involved with activism. There was quite a lot of very in-your-face racism in New York City at the moment. And so I always say all my entrepreneurial skills came from activism. Organising demonstrations and workshops, learning how to do marketing through that direct contact with other folks in New York, trying to get them to take action. What was your question?
Dubber What was the journey? I was starting with your parents. And the psychology thing got skipped over lightly. Is there something about understanding the nature of human beings that plays into what you do now?
Dmitri Well, I don’t know. Sometimes I feel like I understand humans and sometimes I feel like I don’t, so I don’t know.
I remember my mom was always surprised because even in Nashville, in kind of a borderline rough neighbourhood, and I would… We’d be walking down the streets of Nashville in the neighbourhood and I would always know people. I knew adults in the neighbourhood. And she was always a little bit like “This is a little kid. How does he know these adults just from running around the neighbourhood?”. And so maybe there’s something there. A little bit of leaning towards that communication and human contact, but it certainly wasn’t from anything formal. It was really just that curiosity and that joy for what was around me.
Dubber Right. So would kids that you went to school with who saw you now, would they think “Oh, of course. That’s obviously what he was going to end up doing.”, or would this be a surprise?
Dmitri Certainly leading up to high school, it would probably be totally random. They had no idea by then. But by the time I was in high school, since I went to a music school, since I was very vocal, a colourful personality, I don’t think they would be surprised that I was in the music industry. But I don’t know that anyone would have thought that, A, I would be in PR, and, B, that I wouldn’t just be an activist for the rest of my life because I was pretty… I would get in trouble in school basically for doing demonstrations in front of the school or advocacy within the school. So I try to integrate that stuff into my daily life now, but it doesn’t look like that’s the same path that I was on at the time.
Dubber Was there a moment where you took a turn or did you just gradually shift from one thing to another?
Dmitri Well, it was probably my first music industry job that was a bit of a shift because prior to that, I was doing workshops using music to teach about cultural differences. I lived in Portland, Oregon, after school, and I worked for an educational non-profit. And I started doing these workshops, and just really wanted people to get excited about their place in global culture, even if they didn’t feel connected to it.
And that was one turning point, was just really knowing that my life was going to be about music. I grew up playing music, but since I wasn’t a stage performer or recording artist - I wasn’t going down that path - I never felt like I had the discipline to actually do all that stuff. There was this storytelling side, this interactivity in groups of people that I think was a turning point. Being able to talk about music and use music in that way was really one turning point.
And then the next turning point was my next job was working for a record distributor in Portland, Oregon, and realised that that form of storytelling actually had value in a commercial sense, in that I could help be a part of the story of these music careers as a result of really getting to the core of what made them interesting, unique, and different. What their contribution was to the world. That was the thing that I was always looking for when I was doing press releases for artists, was “What is your contribution to the world?”. And people would often walk away from our interview sessions feeling like they’d just gone through some therapy. So maybe there is some psychology stuff going on there that I wasn’t trained for, I probably shouldn’t be doing. But it was really helping people articulate what’s so unique about them, what is their voice, and what is their contribution to the world, and then helping them tie all the pieces together of their music to tell that story. And then eventually we translated that to music tech companies. So it’s a little different, but it’s…
Dubber Well, yeah, I was going to ask, is that now something that you do with music tech companies?
Dmitri Yeah, I think… Everyone that we work with has passion for what they’re doing. There’s some mission that’s behind what they’re doing. Of course, some of them are entrepreneurs, and they’re looking to find their own personal success in the world. And a lot of times, that has to do with - when they’re start-ups - their own sense of independence, which I’ve always felt is a great thing. When there’s somebody out there who can find their way to financial and career independence, that’s actually a good thing. It means that they’re able to shape their world instead of being shaped by their world. So there’s always that with the start-ups. But even the larger companies, I feel like a lot of the things that somehow land in our lap at Rock Paper Scissors are around transparency, access, equity, new ideas, innovation, bringing to light something that was not brought to light before.
So there’s this sense of progress in a lot of what people are doing. They’re mostly not not-for-profits, although we do end up getting hired by some of those as well. But they have this sense of mission that still feels like it’s relevant to “What is your contribution to the world?”. And then what’s interesting, as the companies grow, you get to see the psychological side or sociological side of what that means to be a team working together to get there, and you get this other interesting dynamic that comes from the stories there.
Dubber And does that make you an optimist?
Dmitri I am an optimist. People get pissed at me that I’m an optimist so much. There’s so many circumstances where… And it’s not like “Oh, I’m trying to spin a story to make you happy.” or because I want my head in the sand so that I don’t have to worry about the problems in the world, it’s just a natural disposition. So I am an optimist. You got me.
Dubber I don’t think that’s a bad thing to be, necessarily. But I imagine if you’ve got these companies coming to you going “We’ve come up with this new way of distributing music.”, or producing music or analysing music, “And, by the way, we want to save the world while we’re doing it.”, that must give you some hope for the future at some level.
Dmitri It’s so interesting. I’m sure you’re reading about America constantly right now. There’s just so much crazy stuff in our political world right now going on that it makes you think that Americans must be just totally batshit crazy and totally clueless about what’s going on in the rest of the world or what governments are for or anything else like that. But it’s very strange. In my world, I don’t interact with those people.
I feel like whether it’s in my day-to-day music industry, music tech world or in my community where I live, I just see lots of people who care for each other, and I see people who are wanting to make their life better but also make other people’s lives better. I see a lot of compassionate people, kind people, generous people, people who are concerned about the environment. So I see it in my work, but I see it lots of places, and I only read about those other Americans the same way you do. I don’t know them.
Dubber That sounds like a really good place to be. And Dmitri, it’s been really a pleasure talking to you. And it’s so nice to hear from somebody who is immersed in the world of PR so much about what’s good and positive and possible in the world. So thank you for that.
Dmitri Oh, it’s been a blast. Thanks for having me on, Andrew. Thanks for doing the work you do. You’re an inspiration. I’ve followed you for a long time, and it’s fun to actually have a conversation. And it’s also funny that the first real conversation we had was a podcast.
Dubber Of course. All right, well, thanks very much, Dmitri. We’ll talk soon.
Dmitri Sounds good. Thanks. Take care.
Dubber That was Dmitri Vietze, I was Andrew Dubber, and that was the MTF Podcast. You can find the Music Tectonics Conference at www.musictectonics.com and Rock Paper Scissors, the music tech PR firm of which Dmitri is CEO, at www.rockpaperscissors.biz. Links in the show notes. You can find MTF Labs at www.mtflabs.net and @mtflabs at most of the social networking places you might care to look. You’ll find me @dubber on Twitter, and you’ll also find me back here around the same time next week. This episode of the MTF Podcast was edited by Sergio Castillo, the music was by FASSounds and airtone, and the MTF audio logo by Run Dreamer. Don’t forget, you can share, like, rate, and review, and we’ll talk soon. You have a great week. Cheers.