AUSTIN, Texas — The South by Southwest music festival and conference, now in its 27th year, was once a meeting ground for industry debates and indie artist showcases. Today the festival is a vehicle for promotion for the likes of Justin Timberlake, Prince and Green Day, and afternoon chats with artists are less about realities and more about compromises. Which brand are you willing to partner with and will the association with, say, Taco Bell take something away from your music?
But the artists are arguably not even the stars, as a stroll around the 100-plus stages that pepper Austin's 6th Street attests. The area around the venues is the modern-day equivalent of opening a Web browser and being flooded with pop-up ads.
A Doritos stage is built as a multi-story, interactive vending machine. Companies such as Myspace and StubHub have rebranded Austin establishments in their image. And to get to the stage at pop-up venue Viceland? One first must navigate around a makeshift Garnier beauty salon. Want a beverage? Hopefully you like free energy drinks.
There's lots of noise and increasingly little in the way of substance, even at the daytime panels. Housed in the Austin Convention Center and designed to disseminate information in a crowded festival with 2,500 bands, approximately 10,000 registrants and an untold number of college-age partiers, the encroaching power of brands often made the panels feel more like a pitch session than a mecca for career advice.
When an artist on Wednesday stood and asked representatives from streaming music services Spotify, Rdio and Xbox Live just how much money the companies pay artists per stream — believed to be fractions of a penny and the subject of industry debate for multiple years now — he was met with blank stares.
After a moment he got a pitch. Join the Rdio "artist program" he was told by the company's Adam Rabinovitz, and receive $10 for every new fan the act persuades to sign up. Simply put, he wasn't given an answer, he was given an advertisement.
During his keynote Thursday, Dave Grohl used singing competitions to get at the idea of who the gatekeepers of music and taste have become. "'The Voice'? Imagine Bob Dylan standing there singing 'Blowin' in the Wind' in front of Christina Aguilera: 'I think you sound a little nasally and sharp.' It's your voice. Cherish it, respect it."
Stephan Altman, a partner in Venice Beach-located commercial agency Mophonics, which helps connect artist and brands, had another way of looking at the current environment: "You have to sell out to play the game, but you don't sell out your authenticity."
Come nightfall, there were more than 100 stages filled with artists walking that fine line. Some are as well-known as Grohl and Stevie Nicks, some are up-and-comers such as rapid-fire rapper Angel Haze, and some are relative unknowns such as drama-filled electro-pop trio No Ceremony///.
An A&R executive for Sony was stopped briefly on 6th Street and asked, quickly, if he thought he could sign an artist at SXSW in 2013. While he wasn't being properly interviewed — and hence is being kept anonymous — he shrugged and said, "like a needle," and kept walking.
And yet, there was quality to be found.
Autre Ne Veut, the musical project of New York artist Arthur Ashin, was R&B at its most intense and bold. Having recently released sophomore album "Anxiety" on little-known indie Software Recording Co., Autre Ne Veut is primed to be one of the acts here that could walk away from Austin with a larger deal, and former Warner executive Lyor Cohen was spotted in the crowd.
Hip-hop effects, techno-snaps and live drums that pound in odd rhythms kept Ashin's songs off balance — these are the grooves of a heart racing rather than beating — and his lyrics were equally riveting. "I'm counting on you to stay alive" he sang in a love-letter-turned-breakup song, which was one of Ashin's many tunes that stopped just shy of where passion becomes something more dangerous.
Amid all the hullabaloo, an act such as Denmark's patiently low-key Indians could have easily been lost in the Austin craziness — so the fact that it made an impression speaks volumes. The product of Copenhagen's Søren Løkke Juul, Indians don't make noise so much as slow it down. Juul's music is quiet, calming and aims to soothe the senses rather than knock 'em out. At a place where first impressions are made in 30 seconds or less, Indians had the nerve to require pin-drop-silent attentiveness.
Stage patter was kept to a minimum. "This is a guitar song," Juul said and then performed "I Am Haunted," where the brisk strumming and echoing, lingering harmonies suggested slow-motion. Just how to classify Indians is a challenge. Juul's sounds, whether emanating from a guitar or one of three keyboards, all feel as if they were born inside of a reverie. Call it a dream world, a place outside of SXSW, where substance finally trumped the noise.
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