Output Belfast 2020: Music Conference Roundup

By on Wednesday, 19th February 2020 at 11:00 am
 

For years, I had truly meant to visit Northern Ireland and specifically for Output Belfast. But it never quite worked out previously. Part of it had to do with the amount of previewing I would be doing here at TGTF for SXSW a month later, whether I was doing the work alone or with a team of TGTF writers. It somehow felt irresponsible to take a trip across the pond to attend this right before the global event of the year in Austin. And since I’m bandying around the word ‘irresponsible’ in this article, then there probably should be a mention here about the fact that I have thrown all caution to the wind to pursue a longtime dream of mine, and I feel like I had good fortune that Output Belfast would be the first event I covered as I take a giant step forward towards that dream.

Belfast, as some of my longtime friends from the city ‘warned’ me, is not a large city. For a girl of the suburbs, this is perfectly fine, and to be honest, the location made my first time attending Output a breeze and a pleasure. It is certainly a music town, with a series of interesting music shops, big and small. To have the opportunity to see both Tim Wheeler of Ash and local artist Arborist performing in two of them on the same Saturday afternoon is pretty neat. And even though the capital of Northern Ireland might be considered small by its own denizens, Output Belfast is a well-attended conference. So well attended that I was thwarted in getting into the opening keynotes sessions that began the proceedings on Thursday because it was already full up when I arrived. After consuming a consoling gluten-free flapjack from the MAC coffee bar, I settled into “A Biased History of Music in Advertising”, a talk by Josh Rabinowitz of Brooklyn Music Experience.

As we think about the ubiquity of advertising and syncs in today’s world, it’s easy to forget that around 35 to 40 years ago, sampling of music for the purpose of mass market advertising was just not a thing. From British Airways using a Beastie Boys’ clip without permission to the Beatles’ Apple Records siccing their lawyers on Nike for using ‘Revolution’ to sell fancy trainers, there was a time when music use and advertising did not go hand in hand and to the artist’s benefit. It should also be noted that sync placement has led to awareness of and increased popularity for an artist, probably best exemplified by Australian rockers Jet and their song ‘Are You Gonna Be My Girl’, used to great effect in an Apple iPod commercial that I can still hear playing in my head. Rabinowitz says there’s a reason why so many artists want in on an Apple music promotion, and it’s because Apple do a great job in highlighting the right kind of music that fits into their campaigns.

In next session “Music PR in the 24-Hour News Cycle”, we learned from several PRs about what it takes to keep artists ‘in’ within a crowded business that, like New York City, never really sleeps. I think one of the most interesting takeaways was from Bee Adamic of Liberty PR, who do press for Northern Irish artists ROE and Beauty Sleep. Adamic said that it was important to her and her colleagues that they truly understood an artist they represented and the image that they wanted to put out to the world. In an industry where image is king, I can see where trying to play up a certain image to target a particular demographic can lead to the detriment of the artist’s work, and where the artist may lose him/herself in a chase for what may be the Holy Grail of images to some Prs and management. If we talk about younger artists and emerging talent, they are the most vulnerable (if you will) and malleable to image pressure.

In contrast, the “PRS Foundation Presents: Funding Opportunities in Northern Ireland in 2020” session was interesting in that it had representatives from PPL (Davy Wales) and Arts Council NI (Jo Wright) talking about their roles in helping local artists secure much needed funding and why such funding is so important. Maybe I should stop being so surprised, but after years of attending various events like this, it is still gobsmacking to me that there’s quite a few bands who aren’t aware they are eligible to apply for grants to get them where they need to go. This is not to say that grants are for everyone: you must prove to the funders that you are at a certain level of your career and that you’ve thought through how you would use the funding if awarded it. But half the battle appears to understanding what is available and how to go about requesting help.

TGTF is familiar with artist manager Declan Legge, as he manages Jealous of the Birds (Naomi Hamilton), and I’ve watched Naomi and her band move from strength to strength over the years, playing some of their best shows ever at SXSW 2019. Legge made several very useful comments to the artist-heavy crowd, including truly considering what level of funding you actually need at your current level instead of asking for the moon and the stars.

For a brief time early on at my tenure at TGTF, I tried my hand at song syncing, submitting my pitches to briefs that came my way. It isn’t easy to get a song placement and there are many reasons, including the sheer volume of responses to a brief, finicky and fickle clients and the ability of clear a track for use. So when I heard there would be a live demonstration of how successful sync professionals in the music business work at Output Belfast, I definitely wanted to be there.

What ensued over the hour was five of these folks, cans on ears, working furiously through wifi to come up with an appropriate track for an Orange Theory fitness club advert. The five people had different career backgrounds, and when we listened to their selections against the visual backdrop of the fitness club brief, it was just amazing to see how each of the selections worked and in their own way. It just goes to show that there are different approaches to placement: there is no set formula or ‘right way’ that works every time, which means us the listeners will continue to be surprised as new music and new adverts pop up.

The final conference session of Output Belfast occurred on Friday morning. Entitled the “Deezer Optimisation Session” with Adam Read of the streaming service, I learned quite a lot on what Deezer can do for artists. Perhaps because it was the first time I’ve really had someone explain to me how these services can help break an artist, but I was really impressed, especially with the stone-cold examples of how Deezer’s commitment in 2018 to leverage Lewis Capaldi and Sam Fender have led to their mega success in the UK and beyond. As an American, I am much more familiar with Spotify, though I may dip my toes into the Deezer pond and see if I may want to switch allegiances.

As is the case whenever industry professionals attend events like this, you never get to see everything and talk to everyone you want to. It was oft repeated by many who attended this year’s event that it could easily go into a second day next year to decrease the clashes and increase the knowledge sharing. Time will tell if Output will indeed expand. In any event, it was a job well done to the organisers, panelists and moderators, and sponsors, and Output Belfast proved definitely to be a worthy event to attend for artists, management or really anyone in the UK or Europe interested in learning some major keys into how to roll with the punches in this ever-evolving industry.

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