The Next Big Thing

By Rob Patterson

The annual South By Southwest Music Conference & Festival (SXSW) in my hometown of Austin is just about the best place around to take the temperature of the ailing and disoriented music business. This year’s prognosis, however, offers no definitive answers for what the future may hold.

It’s more than obvious by now that the digital revolution and the Internet, which plunged the record industry into crisis (due to its own lack of foresight), is going to play a central role in whatever the distribution and sales of recorded music will be in the future. And even though the live music business has remained surprisingly strong while the record biz has spiraled into chaos, confusion and far diminished sales, digital communication technology could be a boon to grassroots touring acts as well.

The big trend this year was Twittering, a phenomenon I doubt I will become a part of (I’ll let you know if that changes). Its instant announcement technology—as well as the more now seemingly ancient instant messaging—allowed both SXSW and its attendees to alert others to something hot and happening. I foresee this communication tool as a way for music fans who are enjoying an up and coming act that’s coming through town to maybe get a few more people out to a show as it’s happening and spread the buzz—the ineffable excitement that helps new musical quantities gain that vital audience of first adopters—all but instantly.

Online and digital technology even helped SXSW stay healthy in this economic downturn. In an informal chat, SXSW managing director Roland Swenson admitted that while registrant numbers were down for it music conference, the Interactive gathering that precedes it enjoyed a 20% bump in its business—an impressive growth spurt given the financial state of the nation.

But I also fear that the trend towards digital technology is in danger of becoming the tail that wags the dog. This became painfully clear at a panel with The Oak Ridge Boys, where moderator Michael Azerrad—a music journalist peer of mine who was a surprisingly dreadful interviewer—stupidly asked these men in their sixties whose group has been making music since the World War II era and in their current line-up was the hottest thing in country back in the early 1980s—about their “online presence.”

Huh? Yeah, the Oaks are trying to reinvent themselves for a new era. But what’s kept them alive all these years to even do so is what still remains at the core of marketing music: being able to deliver quality entertainment for Joe and Jane Sixpack. And it would have been far more illuminating to speak with them about what in the end it is all about—their music.

Another factor that keeps SXSW Music humming is the increasing participation of international acts, aided by governmental entities that support the music industries in European nations and Australasia. It’s a sad commentary on how America remains sadly behind the rest of the First World as public funds go to bailout sleazy Wall Street types and incompetent auto companies and nothing is done to prop up our popular entertainment industry, which is not just a part of the US economic engine but also our culture, which has long been something we export to the rest of the world.

I don’t expect America to change its approach anytime soon, if ever. But it would be nice to see the Obama administration’s efforts to restart our economy include an artistic segment not unlike that of Roosevelt’s WPA. But I’m not holding my breath.

The last trend that struck me came while listening to Austin’s local PBS radio affiliate, KUT, preview SXSW by interviewing media tastemakers from across the nation what acts they were excited about seeing at the SXSW festival. Too often they answered by giving mix and match descriptions like “they combine shoegazer pop with garage rock and elements of psychedelia.” And then what was played did little to pique my interest.

I find this phenomenon of a rush by self-anointed cognoscenti towards trendy artists whose music is a hash of influences rather disturbing. But maybe I’m just old and settled in my ways. But I can only recall how when The Rolling Stones came out, no one was calling then “a mix of blues revivalism with early rock influences filtered through a British consciousness.” It was simply pop music with an appeal that was broad and powerful. And even if their new music in recent years hasn’t been as exciting and innovative as they were for many decades before, the Stones still put those butts in the seats of arenas and stadiums.

Year after year, SXSW becomes a rush to discover the next big thing, which is a significant part of its mission that I do support. But as I’ve now said for years, the music business, critics and even audiences keep searching for the next Nirvana when what they should seek out is the next Sinatra—acts that will last and keep making worthy music (that keeps selling) for years and years. (That said, Nirvana’s music has lasted, and if Kurt Cobain had lived and the band kept going, Nirvana would doubtlessly have created more music that transcended the grunge trend. After all, where are all those “next Nirvanas” today?)

There are many factors that have brought about the current music business crisis. But what I ultimately feel is at the heart of it is the same tendency that has brought the American economy to its current state of crisis: going for the short term gain when the long-term and sustainability should be the goal. It’s the inherent weakness in capitalism that counts on continuing growth yearly and even quarterly in a finite world.

I still put faith when it comes to music in artistry that stands the test of time. Then again, maybe I’m just an old guy whose world is changing while I stay fixated on older values. Like my take on the current state of the music business, all I can say about what I believe at this juncture is: we shall see what comes …

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

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2009

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