The music industry is in the midst of the biggest technological revolution since Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, and almost everything about the business is undergoing radical change. But attendees at its biggest annual gathering wouldn't necessarily know that from the keynote addresses at the last few South by Southwest Music Festivals, which have spotlighted venerated elders and musical heroes of the past rather than current movers and shakers.
Last year, Quincy Jones reveled in self-serving anecdotes about his storied history, and this year's keynoter, Motown great Smokey Robinson, didn't seem to hold much more promise for addressing this historic and unprecedented upheaval. A much better choice for the agenda-setting address would have been producer Brian Burton, a.k.a. DJ Danger Mouse, whose new project Broken Bells already is one of the big hits of the fest, and who also has scored with Gnarls Barkley and Beck and had his own dramatic run-in with the changing industry via his controversial "Grey Album" mash-up of Jay-Z and the Beatles.
But the 70-year-old Robinson, a former Motown vice-president as well as leader of the Miracles and a prolific solo artist, turned out to be a welcome surprise. Famous for his warm and winning personality, he not only was much more charming than Jones or 2008 keynoter Lou Reed, but in between the usual stories of a celebrated career, he imparted a fair amount of timeless wisdom equally relevant to an up-and-coming young gospel singer or an aspiring composer of cutting-edge electronic sounds.
Interviewed by veteran rock critic and fellow Detroit native Dave Marsh, Robinson started by recounting his first chance meeting at age 16 with Motown founder Berry Gordy. Intrigued by two of the original songs Robinson sang at a failed audition, Gordy asked if he had any others. Smokey "just happened" to have a notebook filled with 100 more tunes that he'd been writing since age five.
"There are no new artists," Robinson said. "Show me somebody making a record at 15, and they've been doing it since they were five... I just wanted to do it so bad, so desperately. I was just a kid who loved music and always had."
Gordy criticized many of Robinson's early songs, which the author now admits often had a first verse that had nothing to do with the second, and a bridge that was completely different from both. Robinson learned from those critiques--he would go on to write a string of classics, including "Shop Around," "My Guy," "Get Ready," "The Tears of a Clown" and "Cruisin'"--and recalled that Gordy told him, "I liked that I could not discourage you."
Now an independent artist recording for his own Robso Records label--he released the album "Time Flies When You're Having Fun" last year--the relentlessly optimistic and upbeat singer was asked by Marsh what advice he would give to younger artists.
"First of all, thicken your skin." Show business is full of peaks and valleys, and artists have to accept that, Robinson said. Secondly: "Try not to take yourself so seriously." Too often, successful artists have the attitude that "now that the world knows me, they cannot possibly do without me. Don't kid yourself!"
These are words that every musician in Austin this week should heed, from the struggling busker on the street corner to the biggest headliners. But honing to the sort of humble attitude that Robinson evinces doesn't rule out ambition.
Noting that he's been listening to a lot of classical music lately, Robinson said, "That music is 300 to 400 years old, and we're still listening to it. I wanted to be a Beethoven. I wanted to be a Mozart. I wanted to be the kind of artist people are still listening to in a hundred years, whatever apparatus they're listening on."
It's a goal the star has achieved, and in the end, it has nothing to do with technology.
Before Robinson's talk, the young Texas jazz chanteuse Kat Edmonson played a sleepy set of sub-Norah Jones cabaret standards. And SXSW creative director Brent Grulke said some touching words about Alex Chilton, dedicating the music festival to his memory, and noting that conference organizers were trying to arrange a benefit for the late musician to replace the Saturday night slot where his band Big Star had been set to perform.