SXSW 2012: The music stories to watch
Rock 'n' roll brings the headliners, but the tech sector brings the registrants. The annual industry gathering, spring break party and brand bonanza that is South by Southwest is already underway in Austin, Texas, but it isn't until Tuesday that the one-time music business-oriented event will turn its attention toward the music community proper.
More than 2,000 bands will descend upon the Texas capital to perform on more than 90 stages, and that's just counting the official SXSW events. The full tally of partyers and hangers-on is more of a guessing game, but there's no doubt where the growth is among paying customers.
In 2011, SXSW counted 16,353 registrants for its music portion, and 19,364 registrants for its interactive programming. Superstar rapper Jay-Z knows where the action is, and he'll be performing Monday night in Austin at a party for those registered for SXSW Interactive.
This year, SXSW organizers are making an even greater effort to integrate those attending SXSW Music versus SXSW Interactive, the latter of which ends Tuesday. Last year was the first time SXSW began showcasing artists on Tuesday evening, so both audiences could partake, and programming has ramped up for this year's festival, with taste-making site Pitchfork beginning its SXSW events Tuesday and name acts, such as the multicultural, genre-hopping pop of Santigold, among the first out of the gate.
In terms of sheer presence, however, SXSW Music isn't going to lose its dominance anytime soon. Just shy of 11,000 bands applied for showcase slots at SXSW 2011, and almost 3,000 members of the media were there to document those that made the trek. The struggles of the mainstream music business have been well-documented, but when independent acts such as Arcade Fire and Bon Iver are winning Grammy Awards, this is increasingly a time when it feels like anything is possible.
Stay tuned to Pop & Hiss for updates from SXSW. What follows is a look at some plot lines to watch.
The local angle: One Los Angeles act was arguably the most talked-about group heading into SXSW last year, and another became one of the festival's biggest breakouts. The borderline-demented subject matter of hip-hop collective Odd Future had the press fixated, and the act seized the moment by storming out of its own official SXSW showcase. Meanwhile, electro-pop act Foster the People quietly built buzz by playing multiple times nearly every day and weeks after SXSW ended up with one of the biggest hits of the year in "Pumped Up Kicks."
Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar may be a SXSW veteran, but look for the forthright youngster -- and Dr. Dre protege -- to come home from this year's Austin shindig with a few more fans. He has three official showcases, and he'll also speak at a Thursday afternoon panel on the importance of branding. More pop, but also having numerous official showcases, is would-be-star Dev (that's her voice on Far East Movement's "Like a G6"). Her debut is finally arriving at the end of March.
Local nonprofit KCRW-FM (89.9) always has a massive presence in Austin, and the station will be championing rootsy rock act HoneyHoney, presenting it with an afternoon slot at the Austin Convention Center before soul scorchers the Alabama Shakes. On the more retro tip, Nick Waterhouse is poised for some Fitz & the Tantrums-like attention, and fuzzed-up power-pop band Bleached is evidence that there's room in this town for some vintage-minded rockers beyond Best Coast.
Punk rockers FIDLAR cause excitement everywhere they go; L.A. transplant John Tillman has Sub Pop backing for his spooked rock project Father John Misty; Magic Wands won't have a debut out until April, but early indications are that they know their way around a hook. For more, take a peak at the picks of Times pop critic Randall Roberts.
Thanks for playing, here's your pennies: Looking at the topics for this year's daytime music panels, it appears that a hotly contested subject will be streaming/subscription services and when, if and how they will be generating cash for artists -- or at least cash that actually gets into the hands of artists. Already, numerous acts have either withdrawn or refused to make new albums available on subscription services, including Coldplay, the Black Keys and, more recently, Paul McCartney.
No less than three music panels are planning to address the topic. A Wednesday discussion, with the likes of TuneCore's Jeff Price and Rhapsody executive Jon Maples, will address it head on: "Learn how you are earning royalties but not getting them from YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, Rhapsody and more." What a difference a year makes. At SXSW 2011, the big question was simply when Spotify would arrive on U.S. shores.
Also intriguing: Artist lobbying group the Future of Music Coalition has spent the last year collecting and studying data compiled from working musicians, hoping to better understand where artists of different levels are generating the bulk of their income. The in-progress findings will be presented Thursday.
The year SXSW stops pretending it isn't largely just a festival: It's no secret that the SXSW industry panels can be sparsely attended. With music happening nearly 24-7, and many of the shows promising free food and booze, most of those heading to Austin spend their days outside the Convention Center.
This year, SXSW organizers are no longer trying to fight the day parties; they're joining them. The off-site, largely afternoon celebration of music and commerce that is the annual Fader Fort, for instance, was gradually becoming a mini-festival within the festival, with a daily lineup that's ready to be hand-delivered to Pitchfork. In 2012, it's an official SXSW event, as are other major parties such as the PureVolume House and Hype Machine's Hype Hotel.
It's the first major public acknowledgement of what many have known for a long time: less and less business actually gets done at SXSW. It also positions SXSW to perhaps start persuading some of the partyers to pay up.
The social networks: Napster, as it was envisioned by founder Shawn Fanning and business partner Sean Parker, is long gone, but the effect of peer-to-peer file sharing continues to be felt. Digital sales and downloading have gradually shifted the industry away from one focused largely on a physical product. In the years since Napster, Parker went on to work for Facebook, and Fanning went on to start Snocap. The two have re-teamed for a new video site dubbed Airtime, and will take part in a SXSW interview Wednesday. Just don't hold your breath for lots of details on the latter.
Later in the week, SXSW attendees can take a closer look at Facebook. Even as the social network continues to dominate the free time of many a music fan, it hasn't necessarily become the go-to-destination for sampling artists. Some of the new companies hoping to find space on your Facebook "wall" will discuss the pros and cons of using the service for listening to music.
The state of the concert business: Ticketing giant Ticketmaster has long talked up the prospect of switching to "dynamic pricing," in which the cost of concert tickets would rise or fall based on demand. In short, it's modeled after the approach used by the airline industry. The media have raised some questions on flexible pricing, such as whether or not it could really result in lower ticket prices for hot shows when re-sellers gobble-up a number of tickets, as well as how to avoid a house being priced with extreme highs and lows (cheap seats in the back). While Ticketmaster won't be addressing the practice publicly this year, economist Barry Kahn will attempt to walk attendees through the pros and cons of dynamic pricing.
Also of note: Ticketmaster's dominance is no secret, but SXSW will be taking a deeper look at some of the smaller ticketing companies, including eTix and GrooveTickets. Agents and execs will look at whether or not the newcomers are indeed offering a viable challenge or just more of the same on a smaller scale. If that's not enough, some insightful tidbits may come out of a Wednesday afternoon discussion that will feature Bonnaroo principal Ashley Capps and Jared Siegel, who is in charge of digital marketing for Azoff Music Management. Promised is a discussion about how to improve the live music experience.
-- Todd Martens
Image: Kendrick Lamar at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, in 2011. Credit: Joey Maloney / For The Times