'A whole new starting-point': 2021 IAMA conference report

Andrew Green
Monday, October 4, 2021

The 2021 IAMA conference presented an opportunity for the music industry to take stock on the past year and explore the opportunities for new growth and change in the wake of the pandemic. Andrew Green reports

‘There was a feeling that this was a whole new starting point’, says Jacob Soelberg, Copenhagen-based artist manager and chairman/prime mover of the 2021 International Artist Managers’ Association conference, located in a newly declared ‘post-Covid’ Copenhagen. ‘For over 18 months, we’ve all been on a hamster wheel thanks to the crisis. But we’ve had time to stand back a little and reflect on how the music industry works and where it should be going. The conference sessions had plenty to do with this.’

Barely a mask to be seen, I hear, inside or outside the main conference venue, the light and airy HQ of Danish Radio on Ørestads Boulevard. ‘It took us a while to get used to that,’ says Janet Marsden, attending on behalf of the Association of British Orchestras but with the mindset of her many years as an artist manager. ‘It was all rather surreal, but an incredibly collegial atmosphere nonetheless. So much sharing of Covid experiences … and not a hint of the “them and us” behaviour which you can find at conferences when managers meet presenters.’

‘By the end,’ adds IAMA chief executive Atholl Swainston-Harrison, ‘things felt completely relaxed. Many individuals commented on what a joy it was to feel the music business as something fully human again – which justified our decision not to do a hybrid conference of in-person and online.’

It’s an eternal irony of IAMA conferences that panel sessions providing the structure for the event play second-fiddle to the myriad business meetings which make the venue hum. This time around those sessions were significantly better attended. ‘I think this was because most of them highlighted issues related to the Covid crisis,’ reckons Swainston-Harrison. ‘People needed to talk and think them through. It may also have been a by-product of the fact that over the past 18 months IAMA members have become more used to communicating with each other about matters of common concern thanks to our regular Zoom events.’

Few better examinations of how the classical music business can exploit the silver linings to the Covid cloud can be imagined than that provided by industry veteran Anthony Sargent in a paper for the University of Leeds Centre for Cultural Value released to conference attenders and discussed at a session. Sargent’s study examines everything from new thinking on touring and the ongoing future for online/digital offers to the re-incentivising of audiences and the need for a collaborative spirit within the industry. The business of pulling in audiences again, says Sargent, is ultimately in the hands of presenting organisations. ‘They will often be making very different kinds of business propositions to artist managers for engagements to be viable … like musicians being asked to give two concerts in a day. This calls for a spirit of generosity and open-mindedness on the part of artist managers used to different times.’

This calls for a spirit of generosity and open-mindedness on the part of artist managers used to different times

Elsewhere, sessions examined the lessons to be learnt by the opera community given its acute exposure to the implications of the pandemic, and reflections on how public broadcasters cannot afford to rest on the laurels of their much-lauded service to (often new) listeners/viewers during the crisis, in the face of ever-growing competition from commercial providers of digital/online content. More in the orbit of artist managers themselves, a session on competitions touched on their possibly revitalised relevance to young artists, who have often endured especially tough times through the crisis. What is clear, says Janet Marsden, is that ‘managers need to ensure that they offer sound advice to emerging talent when it comes to accepting the right repertoire at the right time with the right presenting organisations.’

There was also discussion around the notion that Covid-related restrictions have highlighted the sheer amount of travel musicians let themselves in for, flying in to a location for maybe a single concert then flying out again. ‘It makes sense for them to spend far more time really engaging with, say, an orchestra and especially the community it serves,’ Marsden observes. ‘Artist managers have a part to play in promoting this. After the time we’ve been through, performing organisations and artist managers need to see themselves more as partners than on opposite sides of a fence. Relationships matter.’

Which doubtless is music to the ears of Jacob Soelberg, given one aspiration he feels was met at the conference. ‘As Danes and Scandinavians, we showed I hope that we can create not just an atmosphere of welcome but can demonstrate the benefits that come from our model of living in this part of the world, which is focused on a common responsibility for making things work.’

Once again, HarrisonParrott/Polyarts defy the uncertain mood of the times with an eye-catching re-definition of the range of expertise artist managers can embrace. This time, a new music publishing wing —  by name, Birdsong (the HP cable address in times past, linking the concepts of music and communication). A new initiative, but the fulfilment of a long-held ambition on the part of HP founder and executive chairman, Jasper Parrott and company COO Lorna Aizlewood. ‘Jasper and I have felt there’s a gap in the market for this kind of bespoke publishing service for over fifteen years,’ says Aizlewood. The initial composer roster contains such names as Peru-born Jimmy López Bellido, Charlotte Bray from the UK and Finn, Sauli Zinovjev. Each will receive individual support from publishing and music management specialists within HP. ‘The aim is to alleviate the administrative burden on these composers,’ says Aizlewood, ’allowing them to focus on their music while giving access to new opportunities via the HarrisonParrott management network.’

Managing the Birdsong brief day-to-day is Milly Paine, once at Manners McDade Music Publishing and more recently a student of law in Hong Kong. Says Paine: ‘We’ve chosen to work with a small list so that each composer feels he or she can be in regular communication with us. The breadth of the HarrisonParrott/Polyarts operation means there’ll be plenty of opportunity for cross-fertilisation when it comes to promoting these composers. Everyone’s behind Birdsong.’