Few music executives have worked in every industry of the Music Business Association members, but Portia Sabin comes close.
Sabin, who became chair of the industry trade group in September 2019, broke into the music business as an artist before founding Shotclock Management in 2004 and taking over esteemed independent label Kill Rock Stars in 2006. She has served on the boards of the American Association. of Independent Music (A2IM) and the RIAA, among other organizations, and also hosts a weekly podcast, The future of what.
Sabin’s diverse background helps her lead the Music Business Association, which was founded in 1958 and has its roots in retail, throughout the pandemic. Now, after a successful and substantial slate of virtual events, she’s leading the return of her flagship Music Biz conference as an in-person gathering, set to take place May 9-12 in Nashville.
Conference programming ranges from “Let’s Talk Physical”, where the association will present a new study on vinyl consumer behavior conducted in collaboration with the RIAA, to the NFT & Metaverse Summit, which will analyze the implications of Web3 technologies for the music industry. Sony Music Publishing President/CEO Jon Platt will deliver a keynote address, and Sony Music Entertainment Executive Vice President/General Counsel Julie Swidler will receive the Presidential Award at the organization’s first Bizzy Awards – a version revamped and expanded conference awards ceremony. Rising country artist Jimmie Allen will host the event, which will recognize excellence in marketing and diversity, among other business-related categories.
Sabin spoke to Billboard about the return of the conference as an in-person gathering, the progress the organization has made in its two and a half years of leadership, and the song that has carried it through the pandemic.
You have conducted many successful virtual sessions during the pandemic. Why is it important for the conference to resume as an in-person event?
Our industry is a strangely small industry, and people tend to know each other and like to connect. I think some of the best work is done through face-to-face networking at the conference. Virtual events used certain platforms that allowed for some networking, but nothing beats in-person interaction.
How has the association changed since its last in-person gathering in 2019?
I was hired in September 2019, so really, just before it all shut down. Weirdly, it was good, because I was able to sort of redo the whole organization [in terms] what the industry needed at the time. Virtual events were obviously a big part of that. We created a place where people could continue to meet and discuss what was going on.
I feel like Music Biz really embraced diversity, equity and inclusion issues in the music industry as soon as they surfaced in 2020. It’s something we keep talking about and make it a priority. The music industry has no excuse for not having great diversity in our executive structure because there are so many artists of color, queer artists and trans artists. The industry itself should represent that and reflect that. One of the prizes we give [at the Bizzy Awards] is the Agent of Change award for a leader or company that is truly leading the way in terms of DE&I. The entire awards show has been revamped with this in mind – to reward people and shine a light on their efforts to do good in the industry.
What changes have you implemented regarding diversity, equity and inclusion?
When I was hired, we had a 15-person board, made up of 13 white men and two white women. Now our board has 25 voting members, and it’s 70% women and 40% people of color. Business diversity is truly ubiquitous. We now have companies on our board like Clubhouse, Pandora, a few different retailers, independent distributors, independent labels and major labels. We really strive to be diverse in every sense of the word. In terms of our internal hiring practices, our last three hires were all people of color. We want to walk the walk and not just talk.
How did you conceptualize and decide to launch the Bizzy Awards?
I sat on the board of directors of A2IM, which is the professional association of independent labels, for 12 years. I led the development of the Libera Awards there, so I have some experience in award shows. We wanted to highlight some of the regular daily jobs that people do and do well. For example, the [Bizzy Awards’] Master of Metadata Award: I always say metadata is the least sexy but most important part of the whole music industry.
What programming highlights are you most excited about?
We outsource our conference. The first thing we do when we review the call for proposals is kind of separate them into categories. Unsurprisingly, the major centers of interest were [non-fungible tokens], Web3, the metaverse, gaming, catalog enhancement. We separated them and then created programming blocks around those topics that were popular enough to go along with our other programming blocks that we normally do, like metadata and #NextGen_Now, which is the program we launched during the pandemic to celebrate executives under 40.
The association has its roots in retail. How do you see your constituency today? Which stakeholders are you most trying to serve?
When I came to Music Biz, I came from an independent label background. Physical retailers and retail stores in direct contact with customers are our daily bread. I love them, I care about them. We’ve really worked through the pandemic to nurture that relationship with our retailers and distributors. The pandemic has allowed us to target different sectors of our members and give them equal love. We hosted events that targeted independent publishers, artists and independent songwriters. These people are not necessarily our members, but our members work with these people.
How has your experience leading an independent label influenced your approach to running this organization?
It was helpful because I understand how the business works. I already knew a lot of players and I had a good idea of what was at stake. Also, it’s always been useful to have been an artist because I also have the artist’s point of view. There are things I haven’t done in the music industry. I’ve never worked in publishing, for example, but I understand and understand the importance of publishing. I understand how important this is for the whole ecosystem. My background has given me an overview of the industry as a whole and [the ability to] make good decisions about how we can help our members.
What is the most pressing concern for the music industry in 2022?
We are overwhelmed by the technology industry. Technology is advancing, changes are happening, and the music industry needs to catch up. This intersection of technology and music is difficult for us – it always has been. But Music Biz is uniquely positioned to help in this space, as many of our members are early-stage tech companies coming to market with real-world solutions. Technology is taking the music industry more seriously these days, which is a good thing.
Is there a song that has helped you through the pandemic?
The name of the group is Avenue Beat and the song is called “F2020”. It’s an amazing song. The song that also brought me to life this year is “Chaise Longue” by Wet Leg.
What makes you optimistic about the music industry?
People are great. There are holes in every industry, and I’m sure there are a lot of holes in the music industry. But the vast majority of people I know are great people who love music and want to make it a better deal for each other and for the artists.
Main light price
- Kevin Liles, 300 Entertainment
- monster cat
- Warner Music Group
Agent of Change Award
- Made in Memphis Entertainment
- The Recording Academy
#NextGen_Now One To Watch Price
- Shauna Alexander, SoundCloud
- Jenna Gaudio, Vydia
- Tiffany Kerns, Country Music Association
- Geoff Ogunlesi, 300 Entertainment
- Jennifer Turnbow, National Association of International Songwriters
Metadata Masters Award
- Lindsay Conlin, Exactuals
- Britnee Foreman, Exceleration Music Jaxsta
- Music reports
Frontline Innovator Award
- Darkside Records (Poughkeepsie, NY)
- Music Millennium (Portland, Oregon)
- The Record Exchange (Boise, Idaho)
- Seasick Records (Birmingham, Alabama)
- The Sound Garden (Baltimore; Syracuse, NY)
Marketing Superstar Award
- All Time Low, Hopeless Records “It Was Never A Phase” Campaign
- Cleopatric, Thirty Tigers / The Orchard
- Donny Osmond 50th Anniversary Campaign “Puppy Love”, Crowd Surf
- Marketing Campaign Tenille Arts, EMPIRE
- WMX Black History Month Campaign