SXSW 2012: Day One: Crowdfunding, Paul Williams, Napster’s founders & more

March 14, 2012

AUSTIN, TX—With the crowds larger than ever—thanks to the burgeoning interactive soiree lingering as the music attendees arrive—and the corporate presence more ubiquitous and obnoxious than this blogger has witnessed in 20 years of covering this event—a temporary four-story tribute to/advertisement of snack chips rises just across Fourth Street from Pop N Stuff central at the Hilton—the 2012 South by Southwest Music Conference got underway today with the first full roster of daytime panel discussions.

Though fewer and fewer journalists and conference-goers seem to attend these panels in the Austin Convention Center, opting instead for the corporate day parties, they remain a useful tool to monitor the thinking, such as it is, in nearly every corner of the music industry as it desperately tries to reinvent itself or at least try to cope with the new digital world order. Occasionally, some viable answers emerge. But at the very least, many of these sessions can be amusing or revelatory in unexpected ways.

A panel rather pretentiously entitled “Beethoven + Social Media = Crowdfunding Patronage” suggested one of the rare answers for musicians in a post-record label future: turning to the fan base to raise the funds necessary for projects such as touring or recording. Jill Sobule famously raised more than $80,000 in two months several years ago to fund a new album, but since she and others hinted at the possibilities, several Websites has of course emerged to “facilitate” the process, and one of them, RocketHub, was represented on a panel that also included artists and managers.

“When I first attended SXSW 16 years ago, it was all about getting signed, but no magic Santa Claus in the sky is going to come down anymore and give you the power,” said Ariel Hyatt of Ariel Publicity and Cyber PR. But artists can connect more directly and significantly with fans than ever before. What’s more, “As long as you’re doing something and you’re passionate about it, they’ll want to be involved,” said manager Billy Zero. “But it’s not just spending 15 minutes a day online, having 300 people on your email list and 500 followers on Twitter. You have to have serious fan engagement.” At least if you want people to invest in your art.

The main insight to be gleaned from “Indies Going Mobile” was that independent labels and artists shouldn’t bother investing a lot of time and money to build a fancy app; maximizing a good Web site for access by mobile technology and doing the kind of interacting with fans talked about in the crowdfunding session is much more important. “There’s no point in having an app just to have it,” said Tricia Rice, director of digital media for the Vanguard and Sugar Hill labels.

The first sour notes of the day were struck in the next discussion I sampled, “Digital Musicologists: Online Music’s Tastemakers,” which featured representatives from sites such as All Music Guide, Pandora and eMusic. As a journalist, critic and fan, these sites can be a helpful reference tool, a useful first stop before digging deeper into an artist, and one that is much more reliable than Wikipedia or (one would think) the band’s own Web site, which obviously is biased. But several of the panelists, including Rhapsody contributor and former Village Voice music editor Chuck Eddy, made it distressingly clear that what they are doing is not criticism.

“Negative reviews have gone by the wayside,” Eddy said, explaining without apology that the writer can at best hope to “finesse” the fact that he or she dislikes an album while mostly just “describing” it. Why? The sites that are not explicitly about selling music still license reviews to retailers, as All Music Guide’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine noted, and any hint of negative criticism is edited out. “The Limp Bizkit reviews are pretty gutted,” he cracked.

This isn’t taste-making. It certainly isn’t criticism. It’s really just shilling, and the record-store staffers who pen those pithy mini-reviews on cards in the stacks at Reckless Records or Laurie’s Planet of Sound are more honest and reliable. (In the interest of disclosure, I should note that I wrote several reviews for Amazon.com in its early days of selling music, and contributed a Flaming Lips discography to eMusic; in neither case were my opinions restrained in any way, though I would not have accepted the assignments if that possibility had even been implied.)

Thankfully, some welcome soul and optimism were injected into the next talk I caught, “Adventures in Songwriting with Paul Williams,” spotlighting a man some would consider a consummate Hollywood hack. But, the theme from “The Love Boat” aside, much of the music written by Williams, subject of a documentary screening at the SXSW Film Festival, endures as brilliant and passionate pop music, including the tunes he penned for the original Muppets movies, those from Barbra Streisand’s “A Star Is Born” or my personal favorites, those from the 1976 film “Bugsy Malone” (which, sadly, he did not address).

A recovering alcoholic who told us he would be 22 years sober tomorrow, Williams interspersed his stories with samples of tunes from his catalog, noting that there are three great gifts from songwriting. “The first is therapy,” he said, adding that even when a good songwriter is crafting the music for characters from a film, he or she really is sharing a piece of their own soul. “The second is you can make a reliable living” (and he’s been trying to assure that that continues via his work for the last two years with ASCAP, the songwriters and performers royalties organization). “The third is having someone approach you and say, ‘You know what? My little girl learned to play ‘The Rainbow Connection’ today.”

That attitude is what makes Williams still a relevant force at age 71, and why he mentioned, casually and in passing, that he recently collaborated with cutting-edge dance artists Daft Punk. (Strange but true, as Pitchfork has reported.)

Finally, one of the music fest’s marquee sessions, which could just as easily have fit in interactive, was a talk with the director of a forthcoming VH1 documentary about Napster and that controversial music-sharing site’s founders, Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning (who looks nothing like the Justin Timberlake who portrayed him in “The Social Network”)

Sean Fanning.Self-professed hackers who met via Internet Relay Chat and formed their first company together when they still were teens and before they’d ever met in person, Parker and Fanning fondly reminisced about the “good old days” of 1999 to 2000 when Napster exploded, forever changing the primary model of music distribution before just as quickly being shut down amid a flurry of legal challenges. Though this blogger adamantly disagrees with the nonsensical, no-exceptions notion that filesharing equals stealing, the revealing thing about hearing Parker and Fanning talk is that more than a decade later, they still never even consider artists’ rights when discussing the Pandora’s box they opened, just the inconvenience of legal issues having slammed it shut.

Shawn Parker.Parker bragged that another company he is involved with, Spotify, did things right by securing licenses from the major labels before its launch, though Spotify is by no means as useful or exciting a tool as Napster was (at least not yet), and it isn’t even as good as the iTunes store (which Parker and Fanning both mocked). The two spoke for about 10 minutes about a new company they are founding, though neither ever said what it really will do; it’s not at all like Facebook or a dating Website, they noted, but it does have something to do with “meeting people online.”

Far be it from this correspondent ever to side with the suits over the rebels, but after more than an hour of blather from these two early Internet giants, it is much easier to see why they were declared Public Enemy Number One and roundly despised by the old-school music industry.

After that, I really needed some great music (two words, incidentally, that Parker and Fanning never once mentioned). Often overlooked by the daytime partygoers who skip the Convention Center is the fact that several stages there provide a convenient place to see acts that will perform, often in much more unpleasant and poor-sounding locales, later in the evening.

A lo-fi, home-recording legend who could be considered the Wildman Fischer of the New Wave era, R. Stevie Moore performed solo acoustic at one of these day stages, sampling from his voluminous catalog (there literally are hundreds of entries, but my favorite is the 1984 double-album compilation Everything You Always Wanted To Know About R Stevie Moore But Were Afraid To Ask) as well as spontaneously improvising a bluesy ditty about the conference chaos surrounding him. “Why would anyone come to South by Southwest to see Lionel Richie?” he crooned (the former Commodore and Nicole’s dad is, indeed and rather inexplicably, playing here), though he quickly softened his criticism by adding, “I know if I had a choice between Lionel Richie and Sufjan Stevens, it would be a dead heat.”

Good to know the weirdness and the wit still are intact.

My last stop before filing this dispatch: The radio showcase stage, where KCRW sweetheart and star Annie Litt introduced “our most exciting day showcase ever,” the Alabama Shakes. Riding a tidal wave of buzz out of last fall’s CMJ Conference, and justifying it with a strong forthcoming album, the young Alabama band filled a cavernous room to overflowing several hours before it was sure to draw just as large and curious a crowd to Stubb’s (that giant dirt bowl that is my least favorite venue in Austin, with the worst sound and poorest sightlines).

The Alabama Shakes.Though at SXSW I generally try to avoid seeing acts I’ve seen before (or, in the case of Moore, in less than a decade or two), and the Alabama Shakes just taped a forthcoming performance and interview for Sound Opinions, I was eager to check out how their incredibly mature, totally unaffected, and deeply soulful update of classic Muscle Shoals sounds translated in front of a big audience. The answer: The group was nothing short of transcendent, and a great way to kick off what hopefully will be four nights of many more musical highlights.

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