Digital Media at the Crossroads

An Annual Conference on the Future of Content in Digital Media

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DM@X: Digital Media at the Crossroads
by Juan Aja

On January 24, 2015, the inaugural "Digital Media at the Crossroads" conference took place in Toronto at U of T's Edward Johnson Building. The conference, colloquially referred to as "DM@X", focused on the future of content in digital media. It was an unprecedented joint effort organized by Schulich's Arts and Media Administration MBA Program, the Centre for Innovation Law and Policy at U of T's Faculty of Law, U of T's Faculty of Music, and Ryerson's School of Creative Industries. It was also supported by twelve other academic or not-for-profit institutions concerned with digital media. The all-day conference was attended by over 175 interested students and industry participants.

The conference opened with a keynote address by Mark Allen, Director of Research and Analysis at CBC/Radio Canada. Allen, who analyzed trends in digital media in Canada, presented a bucket list of need-to-know information regarding digital media, including the critical approach required when relying on data and the new driving forces in the business. People "aren't critical of data!" he noted, though "[data] doesn't get more reliable because there is more of it." Regarding YouTube's strength as a platform for music, he pointed out that, for 53% of Anglophone Canadians, it "is the most popular place to listen to music online" and "TV is hands down the most popular screen on which to watch Netflix."

The first panel session of the morning featured Greg McClary, a composer and student in the MA/MBA combined degree program in business and music at York University, who described the results of his research regarding consumer habits in the music industry. McLary offered a fascinating comparison between the more "download"-focused Canadian market, and the "stream"-focused Swedish market. Keith Rose followed, with a discussion of the role and impact of Canadian copyright tariffs.

The session focussed on the future of current business models, trends, and the challenges that the industry faces. "Users are going to keep content, but content they create," said Catherine Moore, Clinical Associate Professor and Director of the Music Business Program at NYU Steinhardt, commenting on the concept of owning digital content. "The industry differentiates between access and ownership; the people don't," she added.

Shelley Stein-Sacks, founder and Chief Strategic Officer of Group Praesentia, discussed the convenience of streaming digital content and services like Next Issue, Songza and Spotify. In the case of the latter, he criticized its business model: "the conversion rate [of free accounts to pay accounts] is 10% to 11%, which is pitiful." He added, "They are not great at anticipating how to convert that: They fail at making the argument that the money spent is well-spent."

In the second session of the morning, "Incubate, Accelerate and Launch," panellists discussed the development options for digital content and business models, analysing the stages that an idea could follow in order to transform itself from a shapeless draft to a successful start-up. Each of the participants offered evidence and examples of opportunities for would-be entrepreneurs to develop themselves and their media plans.

The keynote luncheon address by Liv Buli, journalist for Next Big Sound, focussed on the application of data to the development of talent and the effects of digital media campaigns. "Twitter remains the biggest platform for artists," Liv commented. Considering the current playing field for artists, she stated: "there is a new direction in brand-artist partnerships in 2014."

The final session of the day featured writer, activist and documentary filmmaker, Astra Taylor, author of The People's Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age. Taylor made the case that that the problems of old media: consolidation, centralization and commercialism, are still present in the so-called "new media".

Discussants, Raja Khanna, CEO of TV and Digital for Blue Ant Media, and Gary Maavara, Executive VP and General Counsel for Corus Entertainment, responded to Taylor's remarks. Khanna made the point that, today, "Creators have to be marketers … you still need skills, but now, to have a job, you need to be a marketer." Maavara warned: "We can't "efficientize" the creation of art … at the end of the day, the creation process is more unpredictable than [a scientific process]."

Common threads were woven throughout the rich and diverse discussions and debates. Central to the day were the significance of data and its use; the importance of acquiring human talent; the impact of technology, and the complexity of the ever-shifting environment that is the digital media industry today. It seems likely that, based on the response to this first conference, it is destined to become an annual event.

[Reprinted with permission from the Arts and Media Newsletter, Schulich School of Business, Volume 19, Issue 1, 2015. Juan Aja Aguinaco is an IMBA student.]