Tuning in on Tweets

By Rob Patterson

“It’s now all about the tweets, not about the music,” declared a longtime music biz artist manager on the first official morning of the South By Southwest Music & Media Conference and Music Festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas. To wit, many in the crowds at the scores of venues where some 1900 musical acts played official showcases — as well as the hundreds of more unofficial shows and parties around SXSW — were texting and tweeting as well as snapping pics and videoing with their cell phones.

And obviously not fully listening to and hardly engrossed by the music as audiences were in the pre-digital era. But this was emblematic of SXSW Music in its 24th year. Registrations at its 16-year-old Interactive Conference over the preceding days exceeded that of the original music confab. By all reliable reports, that’s where the real action was in the panels and presentations. Those for the music conference seemed lightly attended while its trade show was smaller than in recent years and felt anemic in its draw. (Disclosure: This writer worked for SXSW doing ads and trade show sales for the 1990 and ’91 conferences and helping with it panels through 1995.)

The music action was out on streets, at the scores of daytime parties and performances and at the nightly showcases. Many thousands of music business types, journalists, bloggers and fans roamed through just about every available space where music could be presented in search of, if maybe not the next big thing, then at least the next new thing(s).

SXSW certainly proves that a plethora of music within a diversity of styles and musical variations is out there to be heard in 2010, maybe more so than ever. The digital revolution has offered it more exposure than ever before while throwing the record business into turmoil. But the flip side of this is a diffusion of the impact of any one artist, few of whom any longer sell in the millions, much less the multimillions of decades past. And the fumbling major record companies had a presence that was little more than ghostly at SXSW as independent labels continued to further seize the cutting edge.

What does this all say about the state of the music business and the recording industry? What was once a central cultural force in modern American culture is rapidly becoming just another of many entertainment options — simply more “content.” And that’s not a good sign for music, or for our culture.

The digital revolution has created exciting new modalities and opportunities for exposing, promoting and selling music. It has snapped off the lock that corporate major record labels had on much of the recorded music market and opened it to entrepreneurial indie labels and artists.

Yet at the same time it has also diffused the impact that any one act might have. And proliferated a hail of chaff that makes it far more difficult to find the wheat — truly notable musical artists.

Music has become simply another lifestyle accessory. Consumer products for hipsters have increasingly latched on to music to help sell their wares at SXSW, as exemplified by how Levi’s jeans and Fader magazine presented its own four-day not-so-mini music fest just east of the center city. A slew of other product-sponsored shows and parties gave away goodies. Music is less the medium it once was and now more a medium within a plethora of entertainment and lifestyle offerings, yet another color in the spectrum of what’s considered happening and cool.

The rush within tweeting and blogging to latch onto whatever is new and trendy also makes me wonder how musical artists can grow up not in public and get the seasoning that helps groom future greatness. No longer can a young Beatles go to the Reeperbahn in Hamburg and make their musical bones in front of tough audiences. The moment any artist starts to even have the slightest buzz or start on an audience, they and those around them tweet and post and work the digital realm.

Just how this double-edged sword will affect music continues to remain murky at the most significant gathering of the cool school segment of today’s music. The good sign at SXSW was lots of music. The bad sign is that digital technology and all that it has spawned has grabbed the cutting edge, and the business of music still seems to be floundering in terms of how to exist and thrive in this new environment. Only time will tell what the end results will be.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email orca@io.com.

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2010


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