SXSW Panels: This Is Contemporary Music Industry and Culture

Jayson Harsin

The first day exceeded all expectations. Though several new unsigned, or recently signed artists, had been heard, the day started with the music industry conference.

I attended two panels. The first was "The Convergence of Music on TV and Online", and the second was on social networking and music. Both tended to repeat the general themes of viral marketing and branding, regardless of product. But the special case or problem of music as a cultural product and commodity did pop up from time to time. It featured marketers from major labels as well as branders and promoters. It's all about bands having a "project" said Mark Shimmel of Turner Entertainment Networks. "It's no longer about a band that comes to you and says, ‘Listen to my single.’” Now, one needs to have a vision of all sorts of tie-ins and long-term mileage: associating oneself with brands, cars, films, clothing, lifestyles, TV shows, websites, and just demographics in general. In addition, an often repeated, and accepted, marketing mantra was heard: These days no one wants email lists and Facebook bands/friends that constantly bombard you with calls to buy their album -- fans want to be part of a community. One should let them participate and embed your music and identity, your brand, in their community. Tell them about films you like as well as music. It should be "check this out," not "buy this, please!"

Also repeated ad nauseum: Times have changed. But it's not clear in any easy sense who are the winners and losers. Obviously new media technologies for reaching audiences and promoting have made it possible for artists to go directly to potential audiences and try to seduce them, to say nothing of radio stations that used to play nothing but material that was filtered by labels. Of course it's also made recording cheaper, eliminating the necessity of major label support. And while labels have been negatively affected by the flood of free content online, they have also benefitted from the fast and free means of viral promotion and data gathering.

Attention and quality gatekeeping were major themes. "I sell audiences" to bands and labels, said Andrew Bentley of But an audience member objected that music is not like other forms of marketing because people have adjusted to free music. Bentley responded that if you get them hooked in a community, you build their trust, money will follow. Bentley also emphasized that a drawback of the shift from labels' filtering capacity was that we are swimming in a sea of crap; with five million bands on Myspace, we are being inundated by legions of delusional amateur artists peddling their musical poop.

Welcome to vertiginous postmodern music culture, where everyone is trying to tell you they deserve your trust and devotion while at the same time celebrating your power of setting your own filter. It's the paradox of having a sea of choice and few signposts. Finally, given the industry's obsession with monitoring (or surveillance, as Gang of Four's Dave Allen put it more critically), we were privy to the latest statistics on Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, and email list use. Facebook is now the most popular means for bands and labels to organize and promote. Myspace's actual use is way down, despite the huge number of bands, fans, and myriad self-promoters and romance-seekers. In fact, email lists are on the rise as Myspace bulletins are falling. Two continue with the real-time stats produced in Q&A, half of the two hundred some audience members said they were packing two hand-held communication devices (cell and laptop), about a quarter had three (laptop, cell, and digital camera) while one luddite lone ranger admitted to going old skool pen and paper. The (obvious) lesson: If you're in this music culture you must constantly update with these rapid rollercoaster changes.

Oh snap! My computer and cell phone tell me I'm late for the Smokey Robinson keynote.

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