Is there life after disco? Will OPEC ruin the recording industry? Do the BeeGees cost more than they are worth? Is there a market for pop records in Outer Mongolia? Can the mass-market music pirates be stopped? And what about the small-scale, free-lance pirates, who make their own records at home using nothing but a radio and a tape recorder?
There were more questions than answers this week at the Hyatt Regency, where IMIC '80 has been trying since Wednesday to come to terms with a promising and terrifying new decade.
IMIC is The International Music Industry Conference, an annual event sponsored by Billboard magazine in which some 300 top executives of the music business (chiefly the recording business) get together to discuss their hopes and problems.
This year's meeting is especially tense because 1979 was The Year the Money Stopped -- the first really big slump in an industry that has been steadily booming since the development of long-playing hi-fi records in the late 1940s.
Unlike the Country Music Association, which filled the hotel earlier this week, the IMIC crowd is polyglot and varied in style. Conversations in German, French or Italian can be heard in the hotel lobby, and in one corner of the meeting room a small group of Japanese recording executives can be seen with ear-plugs, listening intently to a simultaneous translation of the discussions, which are held in English. Garb ranges from three-piece business suits to dashikis and djellabas, but California laid-back is the predominant trend.
There is no trend at all in pop music at the moment, and that is one of the major concerns of the executives at the conference. Another is the cost of petroleum, and the vinyl petroleum byproducts that are used for records and tapes.
Faced with its first serious financial crunch, the industry is looking for places to cut costs ("We may have to start trimming artists' royalties," said one executive) and new markets to open. "Not all the world is waiting for today's popular music," warned Lee Mendell of Warner-Elektra-Asylum.
Before going into a new country, suggested Irwin Robinson of Chappell Music, record exporters should check whether it has a stable government, whether copyrights are adequately protected and whether profits can be taken out of the country.
There was a consensus that "disco is dead," but no clear idea of what comes next. "Actually," said Nesuhi Ertegun, president of WEA International, "disco is dead as a name but not as a sound. They call it 'dance music' now, but they're still dancing to it."
Steve Gold of Far Out Productions and Lax Records believes that not only is disco dead, but so is the hot pursuit of trends, of which disco was a prime example.
Gold, who represents such artists as War; Blood, Sweat & Tears; Funkadelic, and blues-singer Jimmy Witherspoon, was scornful of colleagues who were looking for a new trend for music in the '80s.
"Music of the '80s is going to sound like the music of all time, only more so," he said. "It will be a time for artists rather than trends. The obsession with disco is why it died so quickly -- record companies focus on trends and lose sight of the artist. I stayed out of the scramble for trends, and managed to avoid the boom-and-bust cycle that's bothering so many others."
The worst worry of all at the meeting was the bootlegging and pirating industry, which is siphoning off some $1.5 billion worldwide in sales each year. "They're even pirating records that don't sell," said one small-company president.
Besides contributing to the anti-piracy efforts of the Recording Industry Association of America (budgeted at $1.75 million per year), the American giant of the industry, Warner Communications Inc., is launching its own anti-piracy campaign. Posters were circulating at the meeting trumpeting Warner's upcoming challenge to the pirates in bold, black letters against a bright yellow background: "Help us stop the theft of music, $100,000 in REWARDS."
Smaller print explains that part of the $100,000 (exact amount determined by "a select panel") will be given for "information leading to the arrest and conviction of any person involved in counterfeiting, bootlegging or pirating phonograph records or pre-recorded tapes." The offer will remain open through May 1 of 1981.
The motivation behind the campaign is simply "to make sure we're not getting hurt," explained Warner's executive vice president Stan Coryn, and he added a warning to other record companies:
"If a counterfeiter has all that expensive equipment and he knows we're protecting our product and you aren't protecting yours, where do you think he will turn? Hold on to your wallets, because we're protecting ourselves."
The rewards, aimed largely at record sales clerks, were developed following a recent survey by the National Association of Recording Merchandisers that found that 90 percent of the 500 shops surveyed were selling some form of counterfeit stock. Warner's is also developing "several non-duplicable technologies" to identify authentic records. Coryn said, "Some are so obvious that any dealer can notice them, some so subtle that only we can know."
Ideas were less clear-cut on what to do about the home recorder, whose economic impact is small individually but enormous collectively as the sales of black tape rise and professional recordings shrink. "It is so easy now to make good copies at home that people are buying less records," said Ertegun.
The industry is reluctant to try criminal prosecution of home recorders, who are not really criminals, Ertegun said, so it is trying instead to build a royalty system into the sales of blank tapes or to make it technically impossible to copy recordings at home. Under the royalty plan, a surcharge (perhaps 50 cents) would be added to the cost of each blank tape and put into a fund that would be divided among composers, performers, publishers and record companies.
The other main line of attack, he said, is "to develop some kind of technical device that would make the sound unpleasant on a tape copy of a recording -- but so far everything we have to come up with has been very easy to counteract."
No clear answers were offered on the problem of rising vinyl costs, but one recording executive at the meeting, Steve Gold, said that the industry will "probably" find a substitute for vinyl.
"It doesn't matter terribly," he added. "The cost of materials is only a small part of the reason for increased record prices. Much more important factors are the rise in marketing costs and -- most important of all -- corporate waste."