The (Un)lonely Crowd

[22 March 2009]

By Kevin Smokler

This month the South by Southwest Music Festival, the nation’s largest music event, converged on Austin, Texas, for the 22nd time. Nearly 2,000 artists, 60,000 music industry professionals and fans, and over $100 million arrived at the Texas state capitol. For bands, it’s an opportunity to vault from unknown to buzzworthy. For ardent music fans, it’s 5 days of beer, barbeque, and non-stop performances—a music lover’s heaven. Only these days, amid the gigantism, heaven comes with homework beforehand.

Long gone are SXSW’s early years, where fans shared a set of concerts along a few downtown streets. With 1,800 bands playing over the long weekend, even the greenest newcomer can do the numbers: with 50 bands playing different venues at the same time, it would take four festivals in a row to hear even half of them.

A festival pass no longer guarantees a communal experience any more than having the same cable package as your neighbor means you’ll both like Mad Men. Instead, the festival pre-experience is now where enthusiasm builds as lineups, band commitments parties are blogged, sampled, debated over, and scheduled on iPhone applications designed specifically for keeping it all straight. Out of town attendees use Dopplr, a social network for travelers, to coordinate meeting times and rides from the airport. Music services like curate festival playlists for pre-screening.

Despite brutal times for the music industry as a whole, festivals have become the bread and butter of the still-robust live concert business, with new festivals like Outside Lands, All Points West, and Rothberry launching in 2008 alone. Experts cite the appeal of festival-going as both economic (more bands for your ticket) and cultural (the isolation of one-download-at-a-time listening engenders longing for a shared musical experience). But whereas fan-centric festivals like Coachella resemble multi-stage Woodstocks, ostensibly for-the-trade events like SXSW and New York’s CMJ Marathon mimic the very technology that sent the industry into a tailspin in the first place—the iPod. Fans carefully select from a limitless playlist of choices, and no two listening experiences are alike. Yes, some ticket holders attend on shuffle-mode with few expectations. But to the dedicated fan—who a three-days-of-sunburn-and-sore-feet festival supposedly has in mind—this makes no sense. The risk of standing in the wrong line or wandering lost while your favorite acts play elsewhere is too great.

This certainly doesn’t resemble the spontaneity and “just-happy-to-be-here” tingle that came with our first concerts. But the shared cultural experience that we’ve largely confined to the thrift-bins of history—opening weekends, series finales, mud-filled music spectacles—hasn’t vanished, but changed forms. We now bond in meta: in anticipation on blogs and with clip sampling, afterwards in comments, photo pools, and discussion boards.

This collective digital archiving may sound a step removed from the real thing (and it is) but that makes it no less poignant or real. Instead, perhaps it’s a more challenging definition of cultural memory—subjective, pieced, an amalgam of difference that must seek connection rather than assume it.

Does this spell a future where the live experience itself is unnecessary, with differentially-priced tickets for concert attendance in person, at the multiplex, or on YouTube? That scenario complicates the proposed Ticketmaster/Live Nation merger, a multi-billion dollar bet on dominance of venue ownership, artist management, ticketing and concert promotions, if the live music business essentially stays as is. Or are their monopolistic urges as thorough as our nightmares may suggest, and include music social networks like and “twitter for music” services like as potential acquisition targets? Are there already plans in for the Ticketmaster/Live Nation colossus to have the same exclusive consumer-punishing contracts with future providers of access to the concert experience (streaming technology hosts, Next Gen TV products) as they have, separately, in their current model?

What Live Nation and Ticketmaster both probably realize—and at the moment consider small potatoes—is that the technologies exist for revolt. A pop-up ticketing service can be built with a bar code printer and PayPal. As any who has attended a house concert or free show in the park can tell you, a music venue can be anything from a living room, a corporate campus, or the mall in Washington. Take homebrewed venues and musicians in an eBay-style database and you have the humble beginnings of a peer-to-peer concert promotion business, exactly the kind trouble for the music industry that Napster created a decade ago.
It’s at festivals the size of SXSW that we already see this future rolling itself out. Although SXSW is now one of the premiere dates on the music industry’s calendar, ticketing is still done largely via a wristband system distributed first to area residents. Most of the venues in Austin are locally owned and outside the main concert areas downtown. Bands both hyped and unknown play day concerts at art galleries, in parking lots, and in hotel conference rooms. has its own music social network, but fans can also choose from a half dozen community-designed-and-maintained technologies to plan their show attendance, share music, and receive recommendations from friends.

With so many bands on the roster, it’s unlikely those friends wanted to hear all or even some of the same music as each other. And that’s important to remember. Supporting the shared live music experience of old was either a commercial music industry or an underground alternative. Now, those definitions no longer apply, and the crowd has thankfully become millions of individuals, working a little harder than before to celebrate not a genre of, but a love for music, together.

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