Marketing Rules at Music Festival

By Rob Patterson

During the recent South By Southwest Music & Media Conference and Music Festival here in Austin, Texas, where I live (known in shorthand as SXSW), a friend of mine who has also made music a large part of his life was giving reggae legend Jimmy Cliff a ride across town from one scheduled promotional appointment to another. As they rode through the afternoon hubbub of parties and free music shows that crowded the center city as some quarter million people visited for the event (as well as SXSW’s film festival/conference and interactive conference that precede the original music gathering), Cliff surveyed all the goings on and then asked my friend a rather basic question: “What does this all mean?”

“You know what?” my friend confessed. “I didn’t know what to tell him. I used to be able to answer that question. But I can’t any more.”

I can relate. You might think I’m a lucky guy to live in a city where once a year thousands of musical acts come to town from all over the world for some five days. Popular music and its business have been the primary interest and pursuit of my life for the better part of four decades, and my major beat as a journalist. But the longer I live the more I find that the trappings that surround music distract and even work against the love of music for its own sake.

That’s why after moving to Austin 22 years ago to actually work for SXSW when it was still a struggling regional and grassroots gathering, this year I just couldn’t find it in myself to wade into the throng in search of some new and exciting act or attend some of the conference panels to try to get a bead on where the industry of music is headed.

But even from the distant sidelines I could tell Jimmy Cliff what SXSW is all about: marketing. And sadly, marketing more than the music these days. That’s dead obvious as corporations hawking non-musical products pour piles of lucre into an association with popular music every year as SXSW has become the premier event for sparking that ineffable “buzz” for musical acts.

Not that there is anything inherently wrong with marketing, mind you. In fact, we now live in a brave new world where the ability and tools to market their music are more accessible than ever to those who make it, thanks to the digital revolution. That’s the obvious point of how SXSW’s interactive conference has overtaken its gathering of music professionals, drawing many more thousands of attendees.

At the same time computer technology allows those who consume music greater access to more music than you could ever imagine. It also democratizes the creating and recording of music, which can be all done on a well-equipped computer. As can putting that music out there into the world and making people aware of it.

Why did I feel the need to step back from a smorgasbord of music to be heard almost within earshot of my living room? Many reasons, including the simple factor of age that makes me less willing to plough through crowds and wait on line to join another jostling crowd to hear an act play an abbreviated show under less than ideal conditions in the hope of finding something that stirs my soul.

But the biggest factor alienating me from a feast of something essential to my very existence at my doorstep is that marketing has largely overtaken the music. Rather than the other way around, which is that the marketing should serve the music. Hence too much music that’s made these days is created with the market as the object rather than the music itself. Once again, the voracious maw of capitalism and consumer demand has taken a powerful form of sustenance that can speak – or maybe better put as sing – to the proverbial human heart and reduced it to product.

I have long said now that God gave us music to express emotions that mere words can’t fully convey. And as technology and a wired world thrust us headlong into the future, just as with much else that sustains humanity, I fear for the state of music. And hope that it can find a sustainability that enables what music means the most to the human soul to not just survive and thrive. In our current age, as much as I don’t wish to be a pessimist, I have to wonder and worry.


‘Luck’ Runs Out

TV Series: Luck – With a cast of stars and veteran actors led by Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte, this series set at California’s Santa Anita racetrack was HBO’s latest big offering. At its beginning, Luck looked to be another notable if not historical example of TV drama. Created by David Milch, whose past series include NYPD Blue and Deadwood, the show interwove a slightly perplexing yet just as compelling set of parallel plots that augured well for the multiple viewing and depth that marks some previous HBO winners as The Wire and The Sopranos. Executive producer Michael Mann directed the first episode and imbued its look with the rich color that marks his work, making the show visually engaging to boot. Horse racing and wagering may not be politically correct and is anathema to anyone who supports animal rights. But as a lifelong horseman it’s the one form of gambling I indulge in, and to the show’s credit, it pulled no punches when it came to the brutality of the sport towards horses. But the sport and its wagering does offer a powerful set of analogies for major aspects of the human condition. Alas, HBO canceled the series in March after a third horse died during production.

TV Documentary: Namath – Another prize from HBO that goes beyond the common assumptions about sports and its stars. One might think former New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath was merely an overpaid playboy. But this look at his life reveals interesting depths to the man. One major factor in illuminating Namath as a man is how it spends much time in his small Central Pennsylvania hometown of Beaver Falls at its beginning and keeps returning there. Growing up in the 1950s, Namath’s best friend was African-American, a rarity for the times. When he played for the University of Alabama in the early 1960s, he wasn’t an activist, but his presence in the crowd in 1963 when Gov. George Wallace first blocked the enrollment of its first black students and then stood aside reflects a solidarity that was also rare. It both spoke and worked well for him playing for the Jets. His grit and courage as he played while suffering great pain throughout much of his professional career speaks to the measure of this man, and his struggle with alcoholism and eventual triumph also attests to his character. This doc is a full and honest look at a common man of exceptional talents in uncommon circumstances who proved himself a good human in the end tally, a point underscored by the final scenes where Namath returns home to be honored.

CD: Not So Loud: An Acoustic Evening with the Bottle Rockets – Missouri’s Bottle Rockets are a standout from the pervasive mediocrity that marks the disappointing Americana music movement. Among the reasons why they have remained longtime favorites with me (beyond writing two PR bios for them as disclosure requires me to mention) is the excellence of their songwriting, how taut and powerfully the band rocks, and a lyrical eloquence that often explores the American blue collar and rural experience with the ring of truth and genuine empathy. On this acoustic set, their superior songs get room to breathe fully and carry the power usually conveyed by electric guitars, and since late last year this has been one of the more enduring listening experiences I keep returning to and finding further enjoyment.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2012

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