SF MusicTech Summit: Founder Brian Zisk Gives Conference Insights

SF MusicTech Summit: Founder Brian Zisk Gives Conference Insights

The SF MusicTech Summit provides a forum for leaders in music, business and technology to share ideas, network, attend some great parties and, ultimately, close some deals. It’s an opportunity for futurists in the space to knock elbows and move the industry forward. Past speakers run the gamut, from rock icons like Incubus to online music CEOs to business development managers from some of the world’s biggest music brands. The next installment of the SF MusicTech Summit will be held May 20 at Hotel Kabuki in San Francisco, and founder Brian Zisk describes the myriad influences that served as the conference’s impetus, while imparting advice on how attendees can maximize their time there.

Zisk’s connection to music spans decades, and he has always been an innovator in the space. “I’ve been a music lover my whole life, and have been around it and it was always stuff that I wanted to be involved with. So, we were lucky enough back in the dawn of the internet to develop a bunch of technologies for streaming music over the web.”

While it’s tough to imagine life these days without internet radio and other streaming services — even managing an iTunes music library seems outdated and arduous — the music industry wasn’t so keen on the idea back in the mid-2000s. Zisk was quick to caveat that his company’s activities were entirely above the board, but that technologies such as his company developed ignited a larger conversation around the future of the industry. A conversation that necessitated a gathering of legal experts, policy makers, music leaders and technologists to debate how this uncharted future would unfold, which coalesced into the Future of Music Policy Summit.

“We went to Washington [D.C.] and we started throwing these incredible conferences,” Zisk explains. “After awhile, though, I saw the legislative stuff just wasn’t really happening. And it became a lot of posturing, where [regulators] would say, ‘Crush those pirates!’ And then the people on the Internet, people like me would be like, ‘Yeaaaah…I have all my licenses and I’m buying half a million dollars worth of CDs every year and you call me a pirate…and I thought I was the best customer.’”

Zisk ponders the root problem some more. “These were getting to be really circular arguments over time, and what became of interest to me were these entrepreneurs and technologists and developers who were building interesting solutions. And the business folks who can help push this forward. The enlightened artists who can say, ‘I’m going to try this out. I’m going to try that out.’ [The artists] who can hop on these platforms when they’re starting.”

Zisk took a year off from the Future of Music Policy Summit in D.C. to focus his energies on producing a Bay Area event, and the SF MusicTech Summit has been off to the races since.

How are speakers chosen?

Many conferences have a set formula to create a killer program, and Zisk is no different. Though, perhaps his formula is a little…off-kilter. It’s simple, really. “If I meet someone and I find them to be incredibly interesting, I think that everyone else will, too.”

But surely there’s a bit more to it than that?

“I take suggestions through a speaker submission form,” Zisk elaborates. “There are clearly folks who are obvious leaders in the space whom I ask; some folks come all the time; some come half the time; some don’t ever come. It’s just kind of a feel for what would make the best and most interesting event.”

“Another thing we spend a huge amount of effort on is trying to figure out how to get diversity, because I get pitched 95% white males.”

Zisk also has a knack for getting to the heart of what makes a good conference, and oft times, that comes down to the people you put on stage. As he jokes, “There are a lot of really smart people who don’t have the most engaging personalities.”

So, you’ve got to find the right mix of intelligence plus pizazz? Zisk states his thought process in producing a panel quite clearly. He asks himself: “What’s the most interesting combination of people I can find to have an interesting conversation?”

Zisk’s largest nugget of advice to panelists — and therefore his contribution to a lively discussion — is to get all panelists together in the green room an hour before the panel and direct them to,“Have the most interesting panel you guys can have for yourself. If you play to audience or try to promote your own thing, it will dumb it down.’”

Alright. So, the sessions promise to be carefully curated, lively discussions. How does one go about deciding which sessions to attend?

Zisk has a solution for that. He repeatedly reiterates that attendees should come to do business first, and learn second, so he groups by affinity. “I can have a technical session, a legal session, a business session, an artist session. It’s all about getting people engaged.”

“That’s really what it’s all about. Coming together to do business.”

Are there topics Zisk is especially passionate about this year?

Zisk laughs when asked to choose a favorite subject or session. “It’s more about the people than the topics.” Which, to be frank, aligns with his overall philosophy that this conference exists to do business.

“In reality, what I get excited about more than the sessions is the energy in a room, where there’s 600 people in a room, and the buzz is there and you can just chew on the energy.”

When pressed on the subject, however, he relents and proceeds to describe the elevation pitch session he runs. The scene? 50 to 100 companies, each with 30 to 60 seconds to talk about who they are, what they’re doing, and what they’re looking for in people to work with.

“It’s neat to see people come in and go, ‘I don’t really know anyone here.’ And then, at the end of an hour, they’ll have met 30 people! And that carries forward. It’s neat how people build these long-term relationships.”

So, you’re a first-timer. What should your game plan be? Zisk has tips that novices and vets alike can benefit from.

First and foremost, remember that the primary goal isn’t to learn, but to connect. “What’s more important than learning when you get people together in a room — because they can access [most] information remotely — is connecting with each other. And finding the folks you want to build a relationship with. Finding the folks you want to do business with.”

The SF MusicTech Summit hones in on the networking aspect more than most conferences because, to Zisk’s point, you’re going to learn stuff anyway. “Why sit in a real-life version of what you can see on the Internet?” he asks.

His key tip is to maximize for who you know will be there that you want to connect with. Ask yourself:

  • “I’m looking for a job with this type of company”
  • “I’m looking to do a distribution deal”

  • “I’m looking to hire an on air personality”

  • “I’m an artist and interested in the licensing panel so I can get my music placed”

Then go in with a plan where you can say, “If any of these 10 things happen, then that would be great!”

What he doesn’t recommend is going in with a nebulous, pipe dream such as, “I need to meet a VC and get a lot of money!” Don’t set yourself up for failure; come with a plan, execute, and have fun. Rinse and repeat.

Attending this year’s summit?

View the current list of speakers and create your game plan. For more information and to attend, please visit http://www.sfmusictech.com. Use code “rwm” for $25 off your ticket.

About Lindsay Kohler

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