Even though SXSW has outlived, or at least outdone, similar events (the New Music Seminar, CMJ Marathon, North by Northwest), it's also been written off by a rare combination of idealists and cynics. First came the festival's discovery by major labels, which supposedly ruined it. Then came the decline of said labels, which ensured that its days were numbered.
But SXSW has adapted admirably. And, at least to some extent, so have the musicians who've survived an industry that only benefitted a chosen few in the first place. Although what happens next remains a matter of conjecture.
Take, for instance, "Who's Gonna Make Me a Star Now?," where industry panelists attempted to reconcile new music paradigms with old-school expectations. When members of the audience were invited to give their own definition of success, my personal favorite was the guy who answered: "I want to get offstage and have fans tell me I changed their lives." Panelists, of course, extolled social media as the key to forging a bond with potential fans, not particularly shocking given how many of them set up companies to do just that.
More original thinking emerged during "Music Is the Weapon: Empowering Communities Through Music." Speaking to the future of inner-city music, Harlem hip-hop artist Immortal Technique cited a need for musician-driven activism and global awareness.
"A child comes out of the ghetto with fury and anger at what he sees," said Technique, noting that the guys in N.W.A. were 20 years old when they first started generating controversy. But when direction was needed, he argued, the post-civil rights generation "turned its back on us," instead of "taking the brother or sister under the wing and saying, 'Let me teach you something. Let me talk to you about a struggle in Africa that's similar to yours. But let me make you feel special about having hot water in your ghetto, instead of your man over there that has nothing.'"
SXSW clearly missed an opportunity here, since Immortal Technique could have given a much more inspiring keynote speech than Sir Bob Geldof, who offered "insights" like: "Music is dangerous. Always has been." "I don't think the music of the American revolution is fife and drums. I think the music of the American revolution is rock and roll." And, "We live in existential times. Ladies and gentlemen, please believe this."
But not every discussion of the past was a letdown. "Searching for Blind Willie Johnson," a panel curated by Texas Monthly's Michael Hall, offered revealing insights about the mysterious bluesman's profound cultural impact. And "This Is Mod" featured brilliantly sardonic observations from Small Faces/Rolling Stones keyboardist Ian McLagan, not least of which was his fond recollection of the opportunities available to musicians at a time when "AIDS hadn't been invented, cocaine wasn't addictive, and most of the young men were in Vietnam."
— Bill Forman
Find more about the conference's panels, and watch videos of SXSW performances, in the music section of the IndyBlog.