TOPICS > Arts

South by Southwest Festival Changes Music’s Tune

March 28, 2008 at 6:40 PM EST
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For about a week each year, hundreds of bands perform at more than 80 venues throughout Austin at the annual South by Southwest festival, which has become a major showcase for budding and established musicians, the music industry and music fans.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Take 1,800 bands of different styles in hundreds of clubs, tents, even a gift store. Add thousands of promoters, booking agents, journalists, bloggers, record company executives and fans, and you have the annual South-by-Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas.

Part rock ‘n’ roll party, part business convention for a multibillion dollar industry. All music, all the time.

Austin bills itself as the live-music capital of the world, and at least for four days every year that’s indisputable. This is the place to be for bands that want to be discovered and anyone looking for the next big thing in the music world. But that world has been going through enormous changes in the last years, brought by the internet and digital technology.

BERTIS DOWNS, Manager of the band R.E.M.: The availability of music for free has just become a fact of life.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bertis Downs is the manager of the band, R.E.M.

BERTIS DOWNS: It’s just part of our world. It’s a part of our life and people have to figure out, you know, business models and ways to adapt to that.

JEFFREY BROWN: R.E.M., which we watched during an afternoon sound check, was formed by four University of Georgia students in 1980. By the ’90s it was one of the biggest bands in the world, with CD sales in the millions and a reported $80 million contract with Warner Brothers, one of the big four record labels.

But in the four years since the band last released an album, overall industry CD sales have dropped dramatically — 15% last year alone — and Downs says the band and its label can no longer sit back and rely on sales to pile up.

Instead, they’re reaching out online, actually giving away a lot of material from R.E.M.’s recording sessions in Dublin last year, in the hopes of whetting fans’ appetites for more.

BERTIS DOWNS: So on our Web site right now, remdublin.com, you can go hear most of the songs that ended up making our record in their very rough form. In some cases they were still being written, in some cases they hadn’t made it, they actually changed quite a bit. But our feeling was we’re, we’re proud of the music, we’re excited about the music. If people want to hear the music, comment on it, you know, debate about it. It ended up being something I never in my wildest dreams two or three years ago would have thought, “Hmm, that’s a really good idea.”

New ways of reaching fans

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, everyone in the music business is looking for good ideas to reach fans and make money -- in a world where music can be downloaded song-by-song by the millions, legally and for a fee on a hugely popular online store like iTunes, and illegally and free on other sites.

Last year, Radiohead, another well-established band, went so far as to let fans online decide for themselves how much they wanted to pay for downloading a new album, including nothing.

Newer bands like Vampire Weekend -- four recent Columbia University grads -- have taken different routes, starting with making their own recordings - something that technology now allows almost anyone to do.

ROSTAM BATMANGLIJ, Vampire Weekend: By February 2007, we had these 10 songs recorded that we started to give friends and give people that were interested.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was really like, do it yourself? Do it yourself and give it to friends?

ROSTAM BATMANGLIJ: Yeah, everything we did in our band we did ourselves until pretty recently.

JEFFREY BROWN: Word spread fast, by bloggers, online chatter and videos. Only recently playing parties for friends, the group now had lines out the door, major magazine buzz and a frantic touring schedule -- all at Internet warp speed.

EZRA KOENIG, Vampire Weekend: I think that you build a following in the same way you always did, by playing shows, but instead of people having to see each other in person and passing a physical object to each other to spread your music, they can get it instantaneously. It just kind of speeds up the same old process.

Circumventing record labels

JEFFREY BROWN: A more unusual path to 'making it' has been taken by Ingrid Michaelson, who we caught up with during an appearance at radio station KGSR in Austin.

Radio DJ: All this attention is fairly new for you?

INGRID MICHAELSON, musician: Pretty much. For the past year things have kind of picked up in the attention department.

JEFFREY BROWN: Michaelson recorded several songs on her own and put them on MySpace, the popular social networking site.

They were heard by a woman who scouts for music to put on TV programs. And suddenly, Michaelson's songs were on "Grey's Anatomy." Next, Old Navy used her song, "The Way I Am," in an ad campaign.

All this before radio play and an album. Now she's a hot commodity and, she says, working her tail off on the road.

INGRID MICHAELSON: I haven't been home more than three days since the beginning of January. So I kind of have to catch up, you know, catch up to where I am because I am kind of going about this in a little bit of a backwards way.

JEFFREY BROWN: And with major record labels after her to sign with them, Michaelson is remaining on her own for now.

INGRID MICHAELSON: I don't like the idea of relying on something, owing anything to anybody. So I'm very happy that I am where I am, but I don't think it's for everybody.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you, you could have put your songs on MySpace and...

INGRID MICHAELSON: And nothing.

JEFFREY BROWN: And nothing.

INGRID MICHAELSON: Really, that's what I'm saying. I'm happy that didn't happen, but yeah, who knows what would have happened?

VENDOR: We are one of the leading providers of an e-commerce platform.

JEFFREY BROWN: As was clear on the South by Southwest Convention floor, "You don't need a record label." But, in addition to touring, a musician wanting to make a living has to look at a wide array of high tech approaches -- including cell phone ringtones, a major new market.

Roland Swenson co-founded South by Southwest 22 years ago.

ROLAND SWENSON: The big challenge is getting your name known and that's part of what we do by attracting all the media to come here and it's also a way for them to make connections, business connections around the states and all over the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, South by Southwest is now a global affair, with almost a quarter of the bands coming from abroad.

We saw the Shout Out Louds from Sweden, and who would have thought, a Farsi punk band called 1-2-7 from Iran.

Connecting musicians to listeners

JEFFREY BROWN: While record companies have lost some power, there are still gatekeepers in today's music, who sift through myriad online offerings and bring some to a wider audience.

BOB BOILEN: This is the venue where we at NPR spent a lot of time finding the bands that we wanted to present.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bob Boilen heads 'All Songs Considered' on NPR Music, which is now a full-fledged Web site streaming music 24 hours a day.

Boilen and his team broadcast a number of Austin performances live over the Web.

What I don't get is if there's many millions of songs out there on every social network, all over the internet, how does anybody get heard specially or specifically, or rise to the top?

BOB BOILEN: I think it's consensus. I listened last week before I came to this music festival, I listened to 800 songs. And I picked out 30 that I love and I will go and hear those 30 bands, or hopefully get to hear 30 of those bands, and then out of those, five or eight of them will be ones that we'll feature. And that's what's happening with a whole bunch of music industry people who are here. They look and find and then they start writing about them, and then people who are out there, they go and they type away and then they find these bands and they find this music. The band comes to their town, they go and they hear the band, they put their money down.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even more direct connections between musicians and fans are popping up now on the Internet.

ALI PARTOVI, iLike: So the software scans what I've got on my iTunes library, it knows what I have on my computer.

JEFFREY BROWN: One is called iLike, headed by Seattle-based entrepreneur Ali Partovi, who'd set up a four-day headquarters in Austin to promote his service.

Consumers link to iLike for free through iTunes and MySpace. They then get information, videos and more from their favorite bands, and suggestions for other music they might enjoy. They can also see what their friends are listening to.

iLike earns a commission when subscribers buy a CD, concert ticket or other merchandise.

ALI PARTOVI: When we make it a social function, then it enables people to spread things based on their friends. So I recommend something to you and because I'm your friend, you'll listen to it. So the gatekeeper is not the record label and not the radio station, but it's your community of your friends essentially and you discover new things based on what the people around you like.

JEFFREY BROWN: Where is all this leading? Well, Neil Young once famously sang, "Rock 'n roll will never die."

True or not, in Austin recently, it was clear that technology is taking the music in a whole new direction.