SXSW 2011 Overview: A familiar refrain in Austin, Texas


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Once a showcase for unknowns, South by Southwest now regularly includes name acts. As music sales decline and independent acts often top Billboard charts, promotion takes precedence over business deals.

With 2,000 bands performing over five days in Austin, Texas, the music and media bonanza that is the annual South by Southwest festival and conference is packing in more rock ’n’ roll hopefuls than ever before. Yet even as the industry gathering turns 25 and is overrun with nonstop music from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m., it’s increasingly becoming a study in extremes.


Once a showcase for the unknown and the undiscovered, SXSW is now regularly dotted with name acts. New York’s the Strokes played to more than 10,000 people Thursday night at a riverfront park, a coming out party for the band’s first new album in five years, “Angles,” due in stores Tuesday. Five new songs dotted the headline-length 90-minute set, which stood at about 45 minutes longer than was allotted to 1,990 other SXSW acts.

If SXSW has strayed from its A&R roots, it’s more reflective of a diversifying industry, one in which corporate brands are given more prominence than the four major labels. Online video site Vevo is slated to host Kanye West on Saturday, and the off-site “Fader Fort” boasts free booze and four full days of buzz acts including the Welsh hard rock act the Joy Formidable, sibling L.A. pop band the Belle Brigade and buzzing Compton hip-hop collective Odd Future — although the Fort looks and feels more like a showroom for car sponsor Fiat than a music venue.

Edward Pierson, a Seattle-based attorney and a former executive with Warner/Chappell Music, said at a Thursday panel that 15 years ago a trip to SXSW meant spending “$10-$15 million [to sign] bands you’ve never heard of.” As sales have declined and independent acts now regularly grace the top of Billboard’s charts, promotion takes precedence over business matters. Crowds, for instance, flocked to catch Jack White perform two songs in front of a bus, and AOL Music staged a church-front concert for retro-styled U.K. rockers the Vaccines.

“For people now, it feels like this is a very exciting time,” said Simon Wheeler, who heads up digital initiatives for independent label consortium the Beggars Group. “They can create more than ever before. They can be engaged more than ever before.”

Yet as the industry shifts from CD sales to downloads, streams and incremental purchases, the do-it-yourself digital free-for-all means labels still may need to “shake up” their businesses, Wheeler said. Beggars Group label Matador Records is having some of its most successful years, said label co-founder Gerard Cosloy, but not without weathering some dramatic changes.

“We would typically put out between 12 and 14 records per year,” Cosloy said. “In the last few years we’ve been putting out fewer and fewer … We’re at a point now where our record’s fate is decided the first week or before.”

And competition for dollars is fierce, even in the concert industry, a segment of the market once considered immune to the fluctuations of the recorded music business.

“Now versus 18 months ago the consumer has more to do on a Friday night,” said Nathan Hubbard, who works for Live Nation Entertainment as the chief executive of the company’s Ticketmaster division. “Angry Birds on the iPad is a lot more entertaining than a $125 concert ticket you could live without.”

Hubbard was speaking on a panel that promised to tackle industry divides. Titled “Indie Davids Take on Goliath Ticketmaster-Live Nation,” the panel also featured Spaceland Productions founder Mitchell Frank and indie promoter Boche Billions, whose Billions Corp. handles booking for the likes of the Arcade Fire and Fleet Foxes, among many others. Yet despite the contentious title, the Friday morning conversation politely highlighted the challenges faced by smaller players in the concert industry.

The recent merger of promoter/venue owner Live Nation and Ticketmaster has raised numerous concerns in the industry, namely that the company could leverage its touring and ticketing divisions to cripple competitors. “Live Nation has some advantages,” conceded Department of Justice representative John Read, who was part of the committee that approved the controversial merger. “They have a finger in every part of the equation of a show being put on.”

Frank’s L.A. venues the Echo and the Echoplex have thrived by generally flying below the radar, but as a promoter who often works with bands on the rise and currently sells tickets through Ticketmaster, Frank said, “It terrified me to know that I’m paying 40% of profits for this other company to come in and take over my market.”

To assuage his fears, Hubbard said, “We talk to the Justice Department every week,” adding that it’s “been communicated” to each of his employees to not share data. Yet Read said the Department of Justice has fielded multiple complaints that Live Nation Entertainment has breached its agreement with the government agency.

Several unnamed companies, Read said, have come forth alleging that Live Nation Entertainment has threatened to pull ticketing agreements for an act if they didn’t use the company as a promoter. Read added that Live Nation and Ticketmaster are sharing office space in numerous markets, and stressed “we have not yet sued them for contempt. But we are watching.”

Yet in a consolidating industry with increasingly fragmented niches, can everyone be trusted to play nice?

“It’s like watching my kids,” Read said. “If they know I’m going to be in the room watching, they behave a little better. “

R.E.M. attorney Bertis Downs earlier offered some sage survival advice to all the artists, labels and brands flooding Austin. “The companies that were around 10 years ago and were treating artists fairly are the ones who will still be around in another 10 years.” --Todd Martens in Austin, Texas