Erosion Nearly Complete, Music Industry Begins Reconstruction at SXSW 2010

In the face of an ongoing recession, and lingering concerns about the health of the music industry, the 2010 SXSW music conference focused on a broad set of themes that struck at the very viability of the traditional business model that has driven the music industry for fifty plus years: tour, promote, sell product. With revenues from physical sales cratering to new lows, the conference featured the usual levels of head-scratching and genuflecting. But unlike the last few years, in which these issues were discussed in a panic-stricken climate in which the very survival of the industry was viewed with great doubt, panelists this year seemed more resigned to their predicament. With some time to internalize the effects of the predominance of digital distribution of music, continued decline in sales of “physical product”, and the takeoff of new revenue streams, the 2010 conference took on a more constructive tone. In other words a workmanlike “how-to” search for new revenue streams replaced the “what do we do now?” tone of recent years.

Talks about dollars and cents took an immediate back seat, however, when word circulated about the sudden death of Alex Chilton. His unexpected passing—the first time a major SXSW participant passed during the show itself—seemed to remind attendees of their mortality, particularly significant for a profession grounded in the false notion of rock ‘n’ roll as a perpetual reservoir of youth. A planned panel discussion and subsequent showcase performance Saturday night at Antone’s immediately became make shift tributes, with all-star performances of musicians with a connection to the Memphis legend dedicating songs that evening and throughout the week.

The gallows-humor lows that the industry has sunk to have rendered the perceived revolutionary turmoil of Napster at the dawn of the last decade quaint in compare to the post-apocalyptic reality of the industry today. Panel discussions touched upon themes such as music syndication, licensing, and social networking with a matter of factness. The ubiquitous nature of music placement in films, television, and commercials added a particular urgency for applying lessons learned from modern day kingmakers like Alexandra Patsavas, the acclaimed music producer of the movie Twilight.

One panel focused on regulatory and legislative issues, specifically a royalty battle between artists and broadcasters. Central was the Performing Rights Act, new legislation that would improve clarity to music royalty concerns for emerging business models, like online music, while leveling the playing field between terrestrial and digital broadcasters by ensuring that both song writers and performers get paid for performances on both mediums. Some viewed it philosophically, eschewing the lobbyist notion of royalties as tax and more as a means of showing artists the hard earned respect they crave. The panel also touched upon the broader relevance of net neutrality, an issue not yet defined by the Obama administration, but whose resolution is destined to have a deep seated impact on the industry. Curiously, the recession has also highlighted the appeal of the DIY approach of artists taking control of their own futures through self-produced and self-released material (augmented by distribution deals), using social media as the means to debut new material, market their work, and communicate directly with fans.

As usual, SXSW sessions afforded numerous nostalgia trips as well. Informal Q&A sessions with speakers like Smokey Robinson, Cheap Trick, CBGB scenesters Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth and Clem Burke of Blondie, and Lemmy of Motorhead catered to the music veterans and fans in attendance. While these always seem to have an “Insider the Actors Studio” quality to them begging for a Will Ferrell as James Lipton parody, this year’s discussions took on a much more intimate air. This was partly due to Cheap Trick’s familiarity with the questioners, fellow Midwesterners and hosts of Chicago Public Radio’s Sound Opinion, or Smokey Robinson’s ability to captivate with “you-were-there” stories. Robinson entertained with stories about the music development academy of Hitsville, USA, in which artists were taught the ins and outs of music and the ladies were instructed in charm school (how to carry selves onstage, how to deport oneself when getting out of an automobile). He related how Motown founder Berry Gordy, upon seeing Smokey kicked upstairs into management, ordered his best friend to get the hell out of the building and to go back to doing what made him most happy, making music. Indie hipsters, who in years past might have shown indifference to the reminiscing of previous retrospectives, could now take pride in some of their own as Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance of Superchunk recalled Merge Records war stories.

The gulf between industry insiders and mainstream music fans appeared wider than usual. Ray Davies was one of many showcase artists that felt the need to goad reluctant conference attendees into action, reminding them that they were permitted to sing, dance, and show emotion. On the other hand, day parties like the Levi’s/FADER Fort and Mess with Texas—featuring lineups loaded with indie buzz bands like Japandroids, Local Natives, Neon Indian, Sleigh Bells, Morning Benders, YACHT, Avi Buffalo, Pivot, We Were Promised Jetpacks, and Frightened Rabbit—generated much more enthusiastic responses. Also, neither required wristbands.

With artists playing up to a dozen parties, the ability of artists to endure the vetting has typically been a point of conjecture. But the contrast between insider and outsider responses was particularly telling this year. The critical indifference of music insiders at the SPiN Party for Courtney Love’s return with Hole contrasted sharply with the moshing masses Hole inspired at Perez Hilton’s party. Even more telling than the contrast in audience responses was the exhaustive list of opportunities for fans to catch their favorite artists. Whereas past official conference events served as a grounds to officially mark the launch of buzz artists like Bloc Party, Kaiser Chiefs, Amy Winehouse, Mgmt and Vampire weekend, now the ubiquity of music bloggers and satellite outlets, like Sirius XMU, has inverted the conference dynamic. Now SXSW buzz happens “out there”, or in the field, not inside. Industry insiders could arguably glean more by ditching their badges, leaving the conference confines, and hitting the countless day parties that reflect what the masses are actually listening to.

Even celebrities like Rachael Ray and Perez Hilton have earned industry credit. As music fans they’ve utilized their popular status both to bring burgeoning artists to the forefront and to make well known artists more accessible to the public. In one of the more poignant moments of the week, Courtney Love, while headlining the Perez Hilton party, let down her defensive shield exposing her own vulnerability. After warning the audience of the fierce toll that songs such as “Violet” and “Doll Parts” play on her fragile psyche, she proceeded to rip through soul bearing versions of each. She capped off the emotionally charged set by collapsing into a bearhug with party emcee Perez Hilton.

SXSW deployed a host of new technologies, including a social media application that built upon previous efforts to facilitate pre-conference communication and embedding a chip in conference badges that allowed for seamless information exchange with other attendees with the compatible smart phone app. With the general audience clued in to special events and surprise appearances, and the overall rise in attendance, conference badges no longer proved a guarantee. SXSW debuted the SXXpress pass, that allowed badge holders the opportunity to jump even further ahead in line to get into must see shows (an innovation that would have helped me see Vampire Weekend and Grizzly Bear last year). As such, it was a great way to gauge demand—anything involving the XX or She and Him proved to be hot items. Despite the large number of attendees, the explosion in day parties, studio sessions, and showcases seemed to produce a tipping point where, for the first time, artists were chasing down fans, not the other way around.

For music aficionados, SESAC’s Day Stage Café and the IFC Roadhouse provided a much more intimate way for fans to interact with artists. (Gone from this year’s fest was the DirectTV stage, which gamely tried to create phony made-for-TV buzz, but in person, and had all the freshness of a sitcom taping). The IFC Roadhouse was a noticeable improvement over the boy-in-the-plastic-bubble feel of past studio setups in the conference hall. Featuring buzzed about artists like Crystal Antlers and She and Him engaging in amiable patter with peer hosts like Craig Finn of the Hold Steady, the Roadhouse proved an apt acoustic environment for an on-air recording. SXSW organizers also hit a home run in reengineering the Day Stage Café. In the past the Day Stage had kitsch. One could gloat to friends that you saw Lou Barlow cover of “Round and Round” in the middle of a food court. The new Day Stage featured high quality sound, long sets, and a darkened club environment in which attendees had the opportunity to cluster upfront or crash out on bean bag couches—which proved the best way to enjoy artists like Sondre Lerche, Jakob Dylan and Neko Case, and Middle East. The festival’s partnerships with revered indie radio stations like WXPN, KEXP, the Current, and KCRW also proved fruitful, save for the occasional nettlesome interruptions by radio hosts.

Parties stayed vibrant yet informal as in years past, aiming to catch artists in “unplugged” moments. The surge in day parties this year may have actually exceeded the number of formal showcases in terms of total hours. A savvy conference attendee could easily fill their planner with enough food, drink and music to put in 14-hour days. The disappearance of the Red Bull party tower of years past did enable fest-goers respite from the 24 hour party throttle of years past. Instead Vice kept the party going with a nice warehouse party in downtown Austin. Perez Hilton also moved his bash from an offsite industrial facility to a warehouse located steps from the convention hall. No Age popped in for a late night set, while rumors of a late night XX performance on a pedestrian walkway or a Soundgarden reunion proved fleeting.

Artists and management took an increasingly active role in controlling their environments.Brush park day parties, conveniently located across from the convention hall but rudimentary in terms of sound or layout, still remained a staple, but the more savvy music councils moved their parties off-premise. The British music embassy proved a success once again. Scores of sound guys and staff helped out emerging artists by providing professional production and avoiding technical glitches that in the past could torpedo showcase exposure. Also listeners would no longer have to be held hostage by interminable noodling and sound-checking.

At the end of the day, SXSW was also about the music. Notably…

Band Debuts

Broken Bells, the new collaboration between James Mercer of the Shins and producer-extraordinaire, Danger Mouse, began their whirlwind week with a parking lot performance.

Returns From Exile

Broken Social Scene returned with new material and Ray Davies launched his comeback with an acoustic set that was heavy on the back catalogue and featured an electronic encore with the 88.

Returns From Purgatory

Scott Weiland showed off his sobriety with a reunited Stone Temple Pilots, and Courtney Love began her much-anticipated comeback with Hole. Also, visa dodgers You Say Party We Say Die! were finally permitted to enter the US.

New Finds

YACHT, Smoke Fairies, Serena-Maneesh, Pivot and Those Darlins are all now strong bleeps on many radars.

Polished Gems

SXSW veterans like Metric and Estelle performed something like victory laps after years of hard touring paid off, while Muse relished its exalted status after a hugely successful year.

After most attendees have checked out, the heart and soul of SXSW lies in the end-of-week show at the Continental Hotel, traditionally hosted by Alejandro Escovedo & Friends. However, prom king this year wasn’t Escovedo (though he still curated) but rather Michael Monroe of Hanoi Rocks, who absolutely stole the show. While credit must go to Escovedo for booking bands great bands to complement the usual best-of-Austin showcase, it was Monroe showing hair-band enthusiasm, his kicking, screaming, and shouting demonstrating vitality of live performance. Talking with a buoyant Monroe later backstage, a recurring thought came to mind: “Long live rock. Be it dead or alive.”