SXSW 2014: Lil Wayne, EDM and the future of African digital music

Lil Wayne.
(David Goldman / AP)

“If I forgot anybody, sorry, I just smoked before I came out here,” Lil Wayne said to guffaws from the overflowing room at the Austin Convention Center during the 2014 South by Southwest festival. “Shoutout to Willie Nelson.” Game recognizes game.

Wayne was tasked with rattling off all the artists currently on his label Young Money, and it sounded like he got them all. The list was an implicit torch-passing: Wayne has announced that his next album “Tha Carter 5” might be his last. But his keynote in Texas with interviewer Elliott Wilson was an endearing and disarming conversation about a lion of rap entering the winter of his career, which has spanned his teenage rap ensemble Hot Boys through an unimpeachable mid-aughts solo run and now an uncertain future.

“I’m approaching this project as if I didn’t have tomorrow,” Wayne said.

SXSW 2014: The scene

The conversation covered his famously precocious childhood in New Orleans, his time studying psychology at the University of Houston (“I went back to school because I have kids, they needed to know their dad went to school”) and the ways a once-young rapper (he started his career at 9) can age gracefully.


Wilson modestly acknowledged that Wayne’s career remains a commercial powerhouse but has had a bit of a quality falloff on recent albums such as the middling “Tha Carter 4.” “I still don’t turn down songs, I’m still on a million singles,” Wayne said.

And yet, “between 2006 and 2008,” Wayne was unstoppable, Wilson said. He was referring to the golden years when Wayne was on every pop-rap track and had a flurry of lauded mixtapes and an album, “Tha Carter 3,” that was widely regarded as one of the decade’s best and biggest selling rap records.

Wayne grinned and seemed to get the drift. “Today, when I hear a Euro song, I’m like “Man, I didn’t even know that was a word’,” Wayne said, referring to his Young Money signee.

Wayne had humble, laudatory words for the new class of MC’s, such as Kendrick Lamar, and for his predecessors, such as Jay-Z, who once made overtures to pull Wayne off his homegrown Cash Money label to Def Jam. But while Wayne’s biggest signee -- Drake -- has had testy words for Lamar in recent months, Wayne tried to tamp it down as all part of the craft. “Battling is cool at the time,” he said. “But music lasts forever.”

Even if rap careers don’t.

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Earlier in the day, a couple of panels tried to make sense of where two growing, vital music scenes are going next, and how to be financially viable in the long term.

“Africa’s Mobile Music: A New Way of Listening” focused on the unique challenges and opportunities of distributing and monetizing digital music in Africa. There, mobile phones are fast becoming the dominant means of conducting one’s business and entertainment life, but mobile providers run the equivalent of a predatory cartel for media.

“In nearly every emerging market, people aren’t ready to pay for music,” said Yoel Kenan, the former senior vice president of International Marketing and Business Development at Sony BMG. Or, at least, not in the ways that the West is used to. “People in Africa don’t buy whole loaves of bread, they’ll buy a few pieces. They don’t buy a big bottle of detergent, they buy 50 ml at a time. They spend less but more often, and you could sell them a streaming service by the day or week instead.”

Kenan is now the CEO of Africori, a digital music licensing and distribution firm focusing on African music, which he said is among the most unique marketplaces for music in the world -- almost 60% to 70% of all music consumed there is local. Companies looking to enter the space have to be mindful of local tastes and purchasing habits and provide offers accordingly.

“Look at the gospel market, there’s 80 million people in Nigeria who describe themselves as religious.” He said. “That’s a huge market if you can monetize it.”

Electronic dance music, by contrast, has had no trouble monetizing itself in recent years, and “The New EDM Fan” panel focused on how the current rush of American interest in the genre is evolving into more nuanced and lifelong fandom.

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“Chill sounds are in, like that Australian future-bass/disco sound,” said Senthil Chidambaram, the CEO of the EDM news and podcast site Dancing Astronaut. “Dubstep had a strong 18 months but now it’s starting to fade, and the really aggressive styles, I think, are at the beginning of the end. The life cycle for sounds are just going to get shorter.”

The ultra-specifity of dance sounds caused a few giggles -- an audience member used the phrase “chillstep” in total sincerity during the Q&A. The speed of EDM is the source of its intense fandom but also its difficulty to cash in on as far as records go.

“So much of the stuff on Soundcloud has uncleared samples, and that stuff will never get uploaded to Spotify” said Kerri Mason of Billboard, in response to a question about the lag time between streaming services’ catalogs and changing tastes.

But as the genre mainstreams, it’s both creating its own rules and learning to live by the old ones. “I was indicted in 2001 for having glowsticks, which the government said was drug paraphernalia,” said Donnie Estopinal, owner of the EDM promotion firm Disco Donnie. “You can have quick entry into a festival or fuzzy bears on your backpack. Today, we have to search people harder than on airplanes.”

Mason agreed. “It’s a subculture mainstreaming. All these things will be commodified. This is palatable to mainstream kids in the U.S. But as it becomes a more solid business, the underground will do better as well.”


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