From its humble beginnings as a regional music festival launched in the Texas state capital in 1987, South by Southwest has grown to become two weeks embracing three of the most respected and most-buzzed conferences worldwide--the film and interactive components were added in 1994--drawing tens of thousands of people from around the globe and generating an estimated $110 million annually for the Austin economy.
The music festival remains SXSW's largest component: It is the music industry's mix of Spring Break and the Cannes Film Festival, with 1,400 bands playing in 80 venues over the next five nights. But this year, attendance of some 10,000 at the interactive fest nearly rivals the 12,000 attending the music fest, though there also are tens of thousands of non-registered music fans, many from Chicago, swarming into the city to crash the official showcases or attend the non-sanctioned parties.
The interactive festival was winding down on Wednesday just as the music fest was starting up. But the two most interesting panels I caught at the Austin Convention Center on day one blurred the line between where interactive ended and music began.
Things kicked off with a session entitled "Successful SXSW: The Tao of the Conference," hosted by Derek Sivers, who is best known for launching the CD Baby Web site to help up-and-coming bands establish themselves and distribute their music outside the traditional record label system. Sivers sold the site to Disc Makers in 2008 for $22 million and moved on to other Internet ventures, but he used his talk to pass on advice for musicians who have come to Texas to be heard, but are struggling to stand out amid the sometimes overwhelming din of so many bands.
A musician himself, Sivers didn't pull punches: Musicians are used to getting in front of a microphone and sharing their lives with the world, he said. To make connections at a conference such as SXSW, the trick is to listen more than to talk.
"People are the reason you paid so much money and came so far," Sivers said. "So indulge deeply."
Drawing from his own wealth of anecdotes as well as showing brief video interviews with other musicians with wisdom to impart, Sivers made the case for even the most introverted artists pretending to be extroverts--at least for a couple of hours a day during the conference--in order to meet people who may be able to help their careers down the line. This is best accomplished not by hyping themselves, he said, but by listening.
"Be interested. Listen deeply. And ask questions like a reporter," Sivers said.
I like that last part, as much as I like the idea of a New Media Guru lauding the timeless techniques of good old-fashioned dead-tree media.
Much less inspiring and much more sobering and frightening was a talk later in the day called "Recording Industry vs. The People" by New York attorney Ray Beckerman, who also writes a blog by that name.
Set in one of the smaller, darker and colder rooms off the beaten track in the vast convention center, the session was both Orwellian and Kafkaesque as Beckerman described the unrelenting legal campaign that the Recording Industry Association of America has waged against its own customers in a crusade to stop what it calls illegal downloading. (The paid lobbying group of the major-label recording industry, the RIAA has filed about 40,000 of these cases to date, and it shows no signs of relenting.)
While the goal of stopping copyright infringement may be noble, Beckerman portrayed a battle that has been anything but, with judges who have little to no understanding of the technology at the heart of the cases they're hearing; RIAA investigators and attorneys using thuggish, bullying tactics that seem intended more to harass people than to get at the truth or recover legitimate damages; a hit-and-miss approach to suing people who pay for an Internet connection rather than providing solid proof that anyone at that ISP address actually committed illegal file sharing ("More than half of the cases that have been brought have been against people who did not commit copyright offenses," Beckerman claimed) and most of all fines that are far out of proportion to the actual damages.
Beckerman estimates that the actual cost in lost royalties to an artist from someone illegally downloading a song that sells on iTunes for 99 cents is about 35 cents, since that's the average royalty the artist would have received from the record company for that tune. But the RIAA seeks and secures fines that range from a minimum of $750 to a maximum of $150,000 per song--or 2,200 to 450,000 times the actual damages.
Also frightening is the fact that President Obama's Justice Department has so far filled six of its top slots with attorneys who worked for the RIAA and brought lawsuits against alleged illegal downloaders--dashing hopes that the administration might take a more forward-looking approach to the issue and bring some sanity to the problem of copyright infringement in the digital age.
For all of the bad omens, however, Beckerman ended his talk on a positive note. "We are entering a golden age of music," he said, "where more people can make a living [making music]. The age of platinum acts selling millions of records is decreasing, but the age of artists eking out a living by selling their art is increasing," via the possibilities for the Net making micro-payments to artists digitally distributing their own work.
That certainly is the hope of every band I'll see tonight, or throughout the rest of SXSW 2010.