SXSW 2011: The music stories to watch [UPDATED]
Part industry gathering and part spring break party, festival/conference South by Southwest Music will experience something of a growth spurt in 2011. For the first time in the 25-year history of the Austin, Texas, event, SXSW will stage showcases on Tuesday night, launching a day earlier than has been typical. Thrilling news it is not, but it could also be viewed as an indication as to where the music industry is heading.
With 2,000 artists ready to dive head-first into an industry in decline, SXSW has seen its music portion grow in turbulent times. There are more acts than ever, and no doubt SXSW Music draws more of a nonpaying crowd than SXSW Film or SXSW Interactive, but with corporate-sponsored parties day and night, one can go to Austin sans badge and see nearly every buzzed-about artist one could wish for -- and drink and eat for free to boot.
It's a party, sure, but not everything is rosy. Overall recorded music sales in the U.S. continue to suffer double-digit declines, and even SXSW gets the fun started with a Wednesday morning panel titled "Welcome to the Music Industry, You're ...."
Last year music registrants were a healthy 13,000, but in terms of paying customers, SXSW Music wasn't the biggest draw. SXSW Interactive, which wraps Tuesday this year, swelled to more 14,000 registrants, marking the first time SXSW Music wasn't out front. So when SXSW organizers added Tuesday night concerts, the move allowed for an interactive and music overlap. The Web, after all, is the industry's saviour -- or perhaps its partner, or perhaps its conqueror, depending on which speaker has the floor.
Austin hotel space likely makes it impossible that SXSW Music & Interactive could ever fully run concurrently, but with the number of acts getting cozy with sites and corporate sponsors, finding traces of the more traditional music business in Austin is like striking out on an old-fashioned A&R talent hunt. Yet the sheer number of artists, brands and parties on parade in Austin will make one thing clear: The allure of rock 'n' roll dreams remains as enticing as ever.
The local angle: SXSW was good to Best Coast and Fitz & the Tantrums last year, and the press corps are already lining at the starting gates to chase down SoCal rap collective Odd Future. The act, which falls somewhere between offensively entertaining and weirdly fascinating, is already the center of a media frenzy. With every music journalist, critic and blogger descending upon Austin, expect Odd Future to experience a full social-media life cycle in Austin -- the blowup, the backlash and then the backlash against the backlash.
Yet there's plenty more this fair city has to show off down in Texas. Local nonprofit KCRW-FM has its tastemaking paws all over folk-rock duo the Belle Brigade, granting the act a prime slot at the station's always well-attended showcase. Dance duo the Cataracs may not be the kind of act to win over jaded critics crawling around SXSW, but the hot production team (Far East Movement, Snoop Dogg) aren't going to need reviews. Closely aligned with the latter is would-be pop-star Dev, and the reference point there is Ke$ha, but Dev is out to prove she's a character of more depth.
Keep an eye on Voxhaul Broadcast, who with at least six SXSW shows should awaken many to its friendly and soulful power pop. More polished, yet also bringing some freshness to the power-pop formula are Saint Motel, whose music should be a gift to a number of music supervisors roaming SXSW. Garage-rocker Hanni El-Khatib is a high-energy must-see, and much-loved rapper Blu is finally on target to release his major label debut. Shamefully overlooked thus far is the Merge Records debut from Apex Manor, whose "The Year of Magical Drinking" is a sharp collection of jangly grown-up rock, while the spooked electronic soundscapes of Zola Jesus will no doubt attract more attention. Also worth monitoring is young female rapper Marz Lovejoy.
If the Arcade Fire can win a Grammy . . . SXSW has always been a celebration of the independent, the underground and the unknown, but the industry's decline in sales has allowed for the niche to share common ground with the mainstream. Witness the Arcade Fire having a No. 1 album and winning a Grammy for album of the year.
So while most everyone at SXSW spends their afternoons at corporate-sponsored day parties, the state of the independent label will be explored at numerous industry discussions at the Austin Convention Center. Expect some variation of the phrase "we live at a time when the Arcade Fire can win album of the year" to be overused to the point of big-in-Japan cliches. Yet an absolute must-attend panel is Friday's "Flying the Indie Flag," where outspoken and passionate label heads -- Sub Pop's Jonathan Poneman, Matador's Gerard Cosloy, Merge's Mac McCaughan, Warp's Priya Dewan and Glassnote's Daniel Glass -- will no doubt offer plenty of indie cheerleading, but can also be counted on for a more sobering look at the indie marketplace.
And speaking of indies . . . With about 2,000 bands armed and ready to play, the indie label brand has rarely seemed this important. One can do just fine by sticking to showcases for top-tier indies such as Sub Pop, Merge, Secretly Canadian and Domino, among many others. Sub Pop alone has an excitingly strong string of acts at SXSW, including rootsy rockers the Head and the Heart, the fuzzed-up moody off-kilter rock of Mister Heavenly, the dreamy U.K. pop of Still Corners and the lovely introspection of the Midwest's criminally overlooked Low. Of course, Pop & Hiss has nothing against majors, and those looking for something a bit more on the groove-based side should hit Warner Bros. act Theophilus London, who splits the difference between funk and hip-hop.
The Airborne Toxic Event, all grown-up: It's been four years since these locals have released an album, but that's what happens when it unexpectedly becomes a slow-building success story. Initial hints at a new set, "All At Once," due in April, indicate it's one with bigger, shout-along choruses, all while attempting to meld the band's fanciful guitar work and left-of-center turns with more conventional pop arrangements. But a clearer picture should come after the band appears at large outdoor venue Stubb's on March 18. City-mates the Silversun Pickups exploded soon after their SXSW Stubb's appearance, so perhaps the Airborne Toxic Event can make a Stubb's SXSW slot something of a rite of passage for SoCal acts.
What is perhaps the most important music business story of the past decade will be explored at SXSW, so will the media show up this time? Ticketmaster recently declared on its blog that the company loves fans -- and they love fans with an adorable little heart-shaped image. Yet once again the ticketing/promotion/artist management and venue operator behemoth that is Live Nation Entertainment will not be making its case in Austin. A shame, as returning customers know labels have plenty o' concerns about the merger of Live Nation and Ticketmaster.
Last year, Live Nation Entertainment let the government speak on its behalf, as representatives from the Justice Department came to SXSW to defend their approval of the recent merger. Embarrassingly, the panel was far from packed. Hey--why do your job when the likes Rachael Ray, Pitchfork and NPR are throwing parties with free food and booze? Look over there -- Toro Y Moi! And quick! Tacos!
Let's hope for a better MEDIA showing this year, as those who wake before lunch time can attend Friday's sure-to-be-riveting discussion "Indie Davids Take On Goliath Ticketmaster-Live Nation." Spaceland Productions' own Mitchell Frank is tabbed to be one of the speakers, as is Jam Productions' Andrew Kaplan. And is anyone from Live Nation Entertainment on the panel? Naw, but the Justice Department is back.
[UPDATED MARCH 14, 3:00 P.M.: Ticketmaster CEO Nathan Hubbard has now been added to the panel.]
Spotify? Someone? Anything? When is the popular European subscription service coming to America and how long before it saves the music business? Probably not by the end of SXSW, as deals with all four majors have not yet been placed, and some are even up for sale. But CD sales are down, digital purchases are leveling off and yet overall music purchases -- everything from a music video to a ringtone -- are holding just fine at 1.5 billion, according to Nieslen SoundScan. So what will keep the business alive? While there will be plenty of conversations about ol' standbys ("the cloud," concert streaming, etc.), the Thursday afternoon panel "Music Deals and Artist Compensation of the Future" will largely do away with pipe dreams (hopefully). R.E.M. attorney Bertis Downs, Death Cab/She & Him manager Jordan Kurland and Jagjaguwar founder Darius Van Arman, among others, are slated to debate how artists can and should be paid in this evolving climate. And those who get bored can head across the hall for a look at how Web companies legally skirted the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to create popular platforms that offer little in the way of paychecks to artists.
Acts on the comeback trail: There are plenty of more well-known acts making their way to Austin, and some, like the Airborne Toxic Event and TV on the Radio will showcase new wares, others, such as the Strokes, will also return after a long absence. More veteran acts will look to capture some headlines, be it Duran Duran or Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, while others, such as Filter and Puddle of Mudd, will take the Stone Temple Pilots slot this year by simply trying to remind the world they exist. Other big names include Queens of the Stone Age, Cee Lo Green and Lupe Fiasco. But SXSW will also offer a chance for attendees to catch up on some lesser-known vets, such as pop-punk forebears Screeching Weasel. And though the band currently doesn't have an official showcase, the atmospheric guitar explorations of Eleventh Dream Day should be considered an absolute must-see, as it's rare to catch the act outside of Chicago (Eleventh Dream Day will appear Saturday afternoon at a party at Yard Dog art gallery.) Also of import: Charles Bradley isn't really making a comeback as he languished in obscurity for decades, but his hard-livin' soul has found a home with Daptone Records.
The foreigners: Of late, SXSW has become the place to get the first major glimpse of artists who reside beyond the U.S. borders, and this year is no different. Sadly, theatrical rocker Anna Calvi will no longer make the trip to Texas, but perhaps that's for the best, as the rock crit press was ready to name her the breakout artist of 2011 without even seeing her perform. Calvi records for Domino Records, and the label has other acts worth catching, chief among them the lush sounds of Austra. Mexico City-based indie rockers Chikita Violenta have a host of SXSW gigs, and Danish artist Oh Land is getting the pop-star push. Also from Denmark, however, is the intriguing electro-soul of Quadron, while the worldy Colombian dance of De Juepuchas should get people moving. Those who need a Brit-pop fix will find it with Brother, and those looking for something a bit harder to pin down should head to Esben & the Witch.
Stay tuned to Pop & Hiss for your SXSW updates.
Images from top left: Marz Lovejoy (ihiphop Distribution); Oh Land (Epic); Theophilus London (Warner Bros.); Hanni El-Khatib (Windish Agency); Still Corners (Sub Pop); The Airborne Toxic Event (Los Angeles Times); The Strokes (RCA); Quadron (Plug Research).