Warner Bros. Records IT exec charts Web changes

TORONTO – A senior technology executive with one of the world’s largest recording companies says the Internet has forced his company to re-evaluate what it’s producing, how it produces it, and the way it’s going to be consumed.

Speaking to a crowd of Canadian Web developers and marketers at the third annual Mesh Conference on Wednesday, Ethan Kaplan, vice-president of technology at Warner Bros. Records Inc., said record companies are moving away from the artifact – such as physical CDs and digital mp3s – and moving toward the experience its customers have with the artist.

“The benchmark of free used to be radio. The up-sell was the CD, concerts and fan clubs,” he said. “We need to move the baseline of what the up-sell is higher and higher and try to invent things that create the value of experience over the value of the artifact.”

Kaplan said that emphasizing the experience in the music industry has meant moving away from the record label and having the artist connect with their fans. He said similar lessons could be learned for companies looking to improve their online experience as well as emerging startups.

One trend that has been emerging in the technology industry has been the proliferation of official corporate blogs. According to Kaplan, one of the key things he does when setting up a blog for an artist is to make sure it’s as distinct as possible from the Warner label.

“They don’t see our logo. It’s very much the artist and the label’s behind the scene,” Kaplan said. “If you’re going to do a Web site, you can’t fake authenticity. You avoid that by having a good artist and having them interact with their audience.”

Michael Geist, research chair of Internet and e-commerce law at the University of Ottawa, has been the leading advocate against the Conservative government’s long-rumoured copyright reform bill. He said he was impressed with Kaplan’s talk and was pleased with the fact he never brought up some of the music industry standard talking points on digital media and the need for digital rights management, orDRM laws.

“If somebody like Ethan was leading the charge, we’d have a much better debate,” Geist said. “There was no talk of the need for any anti-legislation or the need to sue fans. If that’s where the music industry is moving, it’s a great thing, but it hasn’t been the thing we’ve been hearing about thus far.”

Geist followed up on Kaplan’s keynote with his own talk on how advocacy has moved into the digital world. Much like music, which is often referred to as a form of advocacy, Geist said individual citizens now have the ability to engage and empower the public in new and unique ways.

“The organizing power of the Internet has the ability to bring tens of thousands of people together – a power that was previously limited to a select few,” he said. “Sites like Usahahidi.com, which catalogue and map the violent incidents in Kenya down to the street corner, represents the changes in digital advocacy.”

And like Kaplan’s philosophy on the role of the Internet in the music industry, the changing role of digital advocacy can also help drive the initiatives of government and major enterprises. Geist outlined a government 2.0-like strategy from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s office, which he said most organizations should take note on.

“The Prime Minister’s site is running a video-based town hall and the he’s pledge to answer the video submissions he’s received,” Geist said. “The government also created an e-petition page, where anybody can start their own petition. This is to act as a barometer for the public’s interest on certain issues.”

The Mesh 2008 conference continues on Thursday from the MaRS Centre in Toronto.

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