SXSW: The Magic Mountain


Peregrination, defined as travel from one place to another especially on foot, is often associated with a religious experience.  Not so the South by Southwest festival (SXSW). Yet there is a peregrination of sorts to SXSW by musicians, managers, filmmakers, brands, investors, startups, and music entrepreneurs in their many guises. This year, twenty thousand individuals attended.

Austin has becomes the mecca of independent artists – although over the years other participants have clearly joined the march. Moreover, SXSW started in 1987 as a local music festival but it has recently become a truly international event. This year’s SXSW lasted from March 9th to March 18th and offered a new and different approach, supplementing music-related themes with film and interactive media.

When thinking about SXSW, the general view is that it is a place where independent artists can pitch their music to A&R executives, managers, and record labels. Indeed, artists and bands such as Hanson, John Mayer and James Blunt were discovered at SXSW.

It’s all about branding

Hip-hop is becoming a larger and larger presence at SXSW every year. Several hip-hop artists have attended SXSW in the past and succeeded in getting major record deals. This year, many questioned why there was such a strong hip-hop presence, especially by an established artist like Eminem. One of the hypotheses is that there is a direct relationship between hip-hop and brand sponsorship. Brands are getting more involved with SXSW, and are funding all the big showcases for existing stars. Corporations like American Express, Doritos, Mountain Dew, Taco Bell, and Nike want to associate their image with the high-energy type of act that hip-hop music provides.

SXSW seems to embrace this type of marketing, even though it has nothing to do with discovering new talent, film, or interactive media. SXSW might reconsider going back to their initial mission of breaking new artists. Otherwise, it is in danger of appearing as merely a platform where brands use certain established acts to garner attention. There are other types of conventions for that purpose, and branding showcases might arguably distract attention from emerging talent.

Buzz and Noise

There were new ways of measuring the buzz that each event generated and keeping track of trending social media. Discovery apps were featured too. Some events generated more social media noise than others according to Radian6, a media monitoring company. Sessions featuring Google + were mentioned the most. For parties, the most popular was AT&T’s Mobile App Hackathon–showing how apps are becoming a product in high demand.

One of the hot topics at SXSW Interactive was “big data,” which refers to huge datasets. Paul Lamere, director of the developer platform at EchoNest, led a panel called “Data Mining Music” where he talked about how factoids can enhance “listening experiences, recommendations, and playlist creations.”

The biggest hit of the SXSW Interactive Festival was former Vice President Al Gore being interviewed by Sean Parker, the founder of Napster. Gore spoke about the power of social media and how there should be an online   “Occupy Democracy” movement; for Gore, social media was in danger of becoming an addictive time waster.

An (app)ulated world

One of the most popular new apps was Highlight, an application that notifies users about the presence of others nearby with similar connections and interests. More applications that were presented with that same function were GlanceeSonar, Kismet and Uberlife–hardly reassuring and even creepy in the opinion of your correspondent.

Giving SXSW Interactive a break after featuring so many social media discovery apps, Marvel Comics presented its own application. By pointing a camera at a programmed image printed on a comic book, the app allowed the comic to come to life by showing the characters in motion. Other featured apps were Zaarly, a Craiglist look-alike app; Instagram for Android, a photo sharing app –which Facebook would purchase a few weeks later for a staggering $1 billion– and Kinoma, a compendium of apps, such as Google+, all easily accessible from different dashboards.

Start It Up and Play

Not surprisingly, there were many music tech startups present at the show and an abundance of new company exhibits. SXSW is also as a place for the music industry to gather and discuss the future of the marketplace, so it was encouraging to see an all time record number of venture capitalists mentoring music entrepreneurs.  It is a testimony to the enduring power of SXSW that its early artist showcases ultimately triggered the success of the conference and brought in new industry players.

Indeed, when Smashing Pumpkins’ front man Billy Corgan suggested that performing income and its ancillary revenues, not recorded music sales, were key to the future, he was playing on the same theme. SXSW continues to reminds us that musicians, not the recording labels, will likely spearhead the necessary changes for an industry renewal.

By Mariana Migliore



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