Sure, plenty of stars and superstars descended on the South by Southwest Music Conference, which concluded Sunday after five days of glad-handing, pitch-making and music scouting by thousands of attendees. There were sets by everyone from Bruce Springsteen and Jack White to Erykah Badu and 50 Cent (with a drop-in from Eminem).
But mostly this was about the 2,000 bands or artists who aren't Springsteen, the up-and-comers who might be, could be next in line to make life-changing music. Wild Belle -- Chicago brother-sister duo Elliot and Natalie Bergman -- demonstrated a mix of craft and charisma that suggested its immediate future will be filled with offers from record labels. The duo's sound, fleshed out with a full band, is a deceptively breezy brand of pop, accented by Jamaican rock-steady beats and trip-hop atmospherics. Natalie Bergman's sly, poised vocals suggest there's a lot more to these songs than first meets the ear, a hint of sophistication and nuance that puts the melodies a cut above.
Another Chicago group, Kids These Days, was all but unknown outside its hometown a year ago, but has had a swift rise in the last year and played multiple times at South by Southwest. The septet's third and final show on Saturday alone found the band in a high-energy, almost feverish mood, rolling over some of the subtle jazz inflections and textural shifts in its arrangements. But the group's genre-swinging versatility -- everything from rap and lounge to blues and soul -- and exuberance carried the day. The group received a visit from Epic Records executive L.A. Reid in Chicago a few days ago, and its Austin appearances played like auditions for many of Reid's peers.
Commerce is never very far from the music at South by Southwest, but this year the lines were particularly blurred as big corporate money brought in big-name artists. One huge outdoor stage outside the conference center sponsored by a snack-chip company was shaped like a giant vending machine. Hotel room keys advertised the new album by a U.K. rock band. Advertising by Internet and car companies turned the interior walls of revered clubs such as Antone's into big billboards.
It wasn't always so. In its inaugural year of 1987, South by Southwest hosted 200 mostly local or regional bands at 12 clubs. Still, even as the conference has grown to 2,000 bands from as far away as Spain and Taiwan vying for attention at 92 clubs over five days and nights, there were signs of intelligence and heart. Springsteen's keynote address was nothing less than inspiring, a tour of personal influences that played like a mini history of the music. There is nothing "pure" about the music he and countless others play, Springsteen asserted, nor was it meant to be. It is an ever-changing hybrid in which doo-wop, the Sex Pistols, Eric Burdon's growl and Roy Orbison's operatic longing can co-exist. He then enumerated just about every genre known to music geeks, from death metal to neo-soul, and said they are all worth hearing, so long as they are done with "power and purpose."
Springsteen's message of inclusiveness pointedly ignored the business side of the equation, but many of the daytime panels did not. One discussion centered on how critical social media had become to bands' success, even as one panelist suggested that the most powerful social-media platform, Facebook, would be passe in a decade. Perhaps the only certainty was that technology used to connect bands to their fans will change almost as rapidly as the fortunes of many of the artists using it. As physical product has been replaced by downloading and now streaming, the revenue pie for artists continues to shrink, another panel observed, but tiny revenue streams can eventually turn into something substantial if enough users buy in.
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