SXSW 2012: Day One: Crowdfunding, Paul Williams, Napster’s founders & more
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.
“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.)
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”)
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.
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).