Technology the only star on display at lustreless Midem

The behemoth music industry bash threatens to metamorphose into a white elephant. By Matt Byrne

Another week, another music partner goes solo. Last week it was Davenport Lyons’ James Ware’s turn to leave. An industry stalwart for years, and a partner at the firm for almost 20 years, Ware is setting up his own music consultancy.

His exit coincided with the news that dyed-in-the-wool entertainment firm the Simkins Partnership was considering a split later this year.
Last week was also Midem week. The annual music industry bash down in Cannes has long been regarded as the place to be if you want to know what’s going on in the business.

Not any more.

According to many of the London-based music lawyers who made the trip (and whatever else may change, the business is still predominantly London-based), the main Midem event is past its best.

“Midem has had its day,” says one music partner. “Lots of lawyers go, but they tend to be the old school ones, or the ones that have a place in Cap Ferrat and need a good excuse to go.”

It may be ageing, but the procedure of the world’s biggest industry gathering remains the same. Midem begins on a Sunday (23 January this year) and ends the following Thursday. “There’s a direct correlation between the length of time you stay and how important you are,” says one music veteran. “The more important you are, the less time you stay.” According to many attendees this year, by Tuesday the event was thinning out.

During the day the action focuses on the famous Palais des Festivals, which is turned into a trade fair centre for the event. It’s the same place used by the Cannes Film Festival, so you’ve probably seen it even if you haven’t actually been there. There are lectures, panels and seminars from luminaries across the industry, although as Andrew Lewis of entertainment boutique Smiths puts it: “There’s nothing to touch or see as you traipse around. It’s a bit like the Boat Show without the boats.”

The action at Midem as a whole centres around three hotels: the Carlton, the Majestic and the Martinez. Delegates usually make it
to the Majestic around lunchtime and then it’s over to the Carlton at 6pm. At 8pm the place empties for dinner. “It’s an extraordinary phenomenon,” says Lewis. “You can set your watch by it.” At 11pm it’s back to the Carlton. The bar is full, the lobby too, and there’s matting on the lobby floor to catch the slops.

But if – like a lawyer who stayed too long in the bar – Midem proper may be flagging, that doesn’t mean the whole event is a waste of time. As Midem’s own blurb puts it: “Midem has evolved into the place to find out what’s next in the music industry. Pay attention to who is there this year and you will understand what the business will look like in five years’ time.” Meaning technology. The place to be this year was MidemNet, the technology cousin of Midem, which even until last year was seen as a young upstart.

“There was very little music at Midem this year, but a lot of technology,” said Nick Fitzpatrick, a Denton Wilde Sapte (DWS) partner who specialises in digital content. “One presentation I saw dealt with the online delivery of music, and all but one of the panel were from the major mobile companies.”

It is, of course, still early days for music downloads. Despite all the noise made about the boom this year (figures from the Inter-national Federation of the Phonographic Industry show that some 200 million tracks were downloaded legally worldwide in 2004, up from 20 million in 2003), the major record labels only derive between 1 and 2 per cent of total revenues this way – a total digital music revenue of some $330m (£175.3m). But as Charles Law, partner at entertainment boutique WGS and formerly of DWS, points out: “There’s a general excitement that online music is being monetised and is no longer just a pipe dream.”

The changes at Midem signify the future shape of the market and parallel neatly the issues facing music lawyers. With rates down, entertainment lawyers are becoming increasingly mobile with less of a home in the larger firms. And like the downloads, the trend is gathering pace. “The rates for a lot of music-related work have fallen through the floor and many of the deals aren’t there anymore,” says Clintons’ Peter Button. “If you’re a music partner at a City firm up against the corporate finance people who can bring in millions, the pressure must be on.”

It’s ironic that this development will be the cause of another change that attendees can expect to see at Midem next year. Until now, all the legal seminars at the event have been organised by the International Association of Entertainment Lawyers (Iael). Type IAEL into Google and up pops the email address Further investigation reveals that the current president of the Iael is Tara Donovan, a former DWS music partner now firmly ensconsed at Jamie Oliver’s company 15; the secretary is Duncan Taylor, a DWS senior associate; while one of the editors is DWS’s Fitzpatrick.

Next year both Fitzpatrick and Taylor will be at DLA, and chances are so will the Iael. Although whether DLA will be willing to invest in music is, according to Fitzpatrick, “yet to be decided”. That’s a no then.

Incidentally, this year there was one other change at Midem: for the first time, only accredited delegates were allowed into the hotel bars. Could this be the real reason the event has lost some of its shine?