South by Southwest (SXSW) is a music, film, and interactive festival and conference that is held annually in Austin, Texas. This most recent SXSW Music (March 14-21, 2011) had the highest attendance ever, with over 14,000 people flocking to the scheduled events. The music festival offers artists a chance to reach new ears, and it offers fans a chance to discover new music. SXSW Music, however, is not just about concerts and parties; it congregates the industry’s top CEOs and prospective entrepreneurs together for prosperous and productive industry discussion– creating an excellent opportunity for businesses to explore new ideas and expand their networks.
Allen Bargfrede and Chris Bavitz (the Berklee and Harvard minds behind the ReThink Music Conference) led a panel on how an artist’s experience in the music business informs their creative process, and vice versa. Typically, panel topics are strictly business, but this panel provided great insight to both the business and creative side of the equation. Holland songwriter, Sondre Lerche, discussed his career and the importance of having both a strong business and creative mind. He began his music career on a major label, and he admits that the label was a huge factor in launching his career; despite the bad reputation labels are given. After releasing a few records under the label, he parted ways to establish his own label and record on his own terms. He continued to use a major label for distribution, but his latest album will be self-released. The gradual evolution of his career led to increased profits, not only because he continued to make quality music, but also because he continued to make smart business decisions. Granted, every success story differs from artist to artist, but the panel did outline the fact that labels still have a role in the industry and that independent artists must have a strong business mind to be successful.
The topic of branding and licensing was also popular among panels, and one in particular discussed the possibility of brands becoming and/or replacing record labels altogether. Brands are beginning to take on the roles that labels typically fulfill. Once an artist establishes a joint venture with a brand, the brand becomes a tastemaker, providing international promotion, distribution, and even tour funding. Kerri Cockrill, the director of brand entertainment at Blackberry, explained that the artist benefits the brand by introducing new customers and giving a face and sound to the brand. For instance, Blackberry released the new Torch multimedia phone and they sought out DJ/Producer Diplo of Major Lazer to give a face and sound to the product. Blackberry sponsored Diplo’s latest tour, and both the artist and the brand received massive exposure from their travels. Diplo earned significant income through licensing and touring with Blackberry, none of which was required to be recouped, which would have been the case with a label. There are cases where branding has failed, however. Ron Faris, the head of brand marketing at Virgin Mobile, explained that recently, Honda and Tommy Hilfiger both ran campaigns with the Vampire Weekend song, “Holiday,” during the same months. Occasionally, the two commercials aired back to back and the song played twice, doing a disservice to both the brand and the song. All in all, artists and brands have to be selective when establishing joint ventures, but the collaboration could lead to a major payoff on both ends.
A Music Elder Speaks Out
Perhaps the most controversial speech was given by SXSW keynote speaker, Bob Geldof, who is best known for his help in organizing Live Aid in 1985. He is extremely passionate about music and utilizing music to bring communities together to help those in need, and his speech did not stray from those qualities. “People talk about the demise of the industry, and those within the industry are worried,” stated Geldof, “But the industry is only a function of the music, and the music is only successful when it’s relevant.”
His speech was based around the “end of relevance” for music. He talked about how rock and roll changed his life, because rock and roll demanded that the world adapt around it, rather than adapt to the world. He worries that songs are becoming trivial with no context; that the art is not being used to its full potential. He worries that music is not making a loud enough noise against politics and hunger. It’s not enough for an artist to be complacent with keeping their day job and playing the bars at night. He stated that artists and their songs don’t change the world and that their lyrics don’t have to literally demand change, but change must be suggested through feeling in music to give a push to a community.
“The fan club of 6,000 people of a community of interest is far more powerful than 6,000 friends. It’s an oxymoron… you cannot have 6,000 friends.” The attendance for this year’s SXSW Interactive surpassed the attendance for SXSW Music, and Geldof worries that it’s a testament to where people’s priorities lay. Human language cannot express the sensations and emotions that music can. He believes that the Internet and blogging craze is dumbing down the noise for change. He admitted blogs could lead to brilliant conversation, but they instead echo personal prejudices and make noise with no intent and no filter against it. Since the eighties, the most successful music has been made by superstars about material things. He believes new technology has potential, but it has instead given the illusion of talent, where everyone has the means to say something important and instead say nothing.
Geldof’s speech was met with a standing ovation, although not everyone may have agreed with his views. But such is the allure of SXSW. It offers an incredibly vast palette of showcases and panels, morphing Austin into a churning engine that monetizes people’s passion for music and encourages reflection upon the past and future of this industry.
By Nicholas Susi