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SXSW 2014: Experts fret over future, Kelela lets music play on

SXSW 2014: Experts fret over future, Kelela lets music play on
The L.A.-based electro-soul singer Kelela performed Wednesday afternoon at South by Southwest. (Nate Walton)

AUSTIN, Texas -- A great many of the panel discussions at this year's South by Southwest conference offer variations on a question that goes right to the heart of our digital age: How are musicians supposed to get paid when music is so readily had for free?

On Wednesday afternoon, experts including Mike Herring, CFO of the Internet streaming service Pandora, examined the matter in a conversation titled "Will Artists Make Money on Big Music Platforms?"

The verdict? It's unclear.

Last month 76 million people used Pandora to listen to music, Herring said, but only 3 million ponied up at least $4 to do it. (The names of some other panels, including "Get Yourself Working With Music Houses on Ads Now," offered little more hope to struggling musicians.)

Yet if the meeting rooms at SXSW seemed filled with worry about money, Kelela revealed none in her performance earlier Wednesday at a party sponsored by Spin magazine.

"I released a mixtape called 'Cut 4 Me' last fall," said the L.A.-based electro-soul singer, speaking to a sizable crowd gathered around the outdoor stage at Mohawk. "You can just download it for free." Later she said, "You can also buy it if you feel like it," but then quickly added, "Whatever -- no pressure."

A striking collection of sensual vocals and shape-shifting grooves, "Cut 4 Me" has brought plenty of attention to Kelela, whose Spin gig was just one of several she's booked to play over the next few days at SXSW.

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And so far that attention appears to be reward enough: At Mohawk, she described the sight of the midday audience before her as "so heartening" -- a word one rarely hears at SXSW, where the relentless churn of talent can feel more desperate than inspiring.

Accompanied only by a DJ, Kelela sang impressively in songs from "Cut 4 Me" such as "Keep It Cool" and "Enemy," which she mashed up with an unprintably titled highlight from Jay Z's recent "Magna Carta Holy Grail." (Jay Z, by the way, is to reunite with his "Watch the Throne" partner Kanye West in Austin on Wednesday night.)

Before slinking into the mixtape's title cut, Kelela said, "This is me doing Mariah -- like, literally," and though that wasn't quite the case, she was beaming in a way that suggested she was feeling like a star.

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Twitter: @mikaelwood
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