Despite the rows and racks of CDs at your local Best Buy and Wal-Mart, the majority of music being delivered to consumers today is happening via the Internet, most often for free, using peer-to-peer trading software.
With 25 billion music title download transactions last year, it's clear legal interventions have not stopped the upward curve of the genie Napster let out of the bottle. While millions of CDs are still being sold every year, compared to billions of free exchanges, it's clear the music industry, as an industry, is in trouble. If it doesn't figure out in the next couple of years how to capture revenue from Internet music downloading, it will implode.
That was one of the key messages during the panel and keynote sessions — including talks by Robert Plant, Elvis Costello and Erykah Badu — at this year's 19th annual South By Southwest (SXSW) Music Festival in Austin, Texas, March 16-20.
A five-day smorgasbord of live music, record company parties, speeches and panel discussions, the SXSW fest has grown over the past decade to become the key music industry event of the year.
If the Grammys reflect what happened over the past year in music, the SXSW festival predicts what will happen in the year to come. Bands such as Franz Ferdinand and Los Lonely Boys played showcase concerts there last year, presaging their leaps to widespread popularity.
This year, some 1,300 artists took their shots on more than 50 stages throughout downtown Austin, each hoping either to get signed by attending record label scouts, or to get the kind of buzz and press coverage that helps a newly signed band break big.
And some veteran acts, such as The Donnas, Vanilla Ice, Robyn Hitchcock, John Doe, Mavis Staples and more, played just to let the industry know they've got something new to promote.
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Where was the buzz?
Ironically, a big buzz of the festival was a couple of kids. Novelty act Smoosh — two Seattle sisters, 10 and 12, who play drums and keyboards — had people lined around the block to see their fiery showcase. They played with more savvy than many bands twice their age, and it will be intriguing to see if they can grow into a bankable pop act over the next couple of years.
On the flipside, the return of old punk bands such as New York Dolls, Rezillos, and Billy Idol had people jammed into doorways, hoping for a glimpse of past '80s glory.
In between these extremes, there were relatively unknown bands that drew big crowds — despite the 50 other offerings of the hour. Britain's energetic pop-rap-jam band the Go Team, which features two drummers, revved up a packed house for an equally powerful performance by Dogs Die in Hot Cars.
The Futureheads, a new wave pop act that recorded an impossibly catchy take on a Kate Bush song for their 2004 debut CD, had people lined up down the street to see their show, despite being held in one of the largest venues in town.
Canada's folk-rock trio the Wailin' Jennys proved the recent Juno award nomination for its CD was no accident; the trio's back-porch harmonies were heavenly.
Likewise, the German sassy girl duo of Electrocute, who trade vocals over choppy guitar riffs and pre-recorded beatbox and keyboard loops, harangued and teased the audience with a string of bubblegum sweet songs that proved their catchy offering on the "SpongeBob" movie soundtrack last year was no fluke.
And Australia's punk-pop trio the Grates exuded good-time, kangaroo-bouncing energy at its promising outdoor show.
Many acts at SXSW play special afternoon "record label party" shows, as well as "official" nighttime performance slots. Chicago's Beatle-esque the Redwalls played both a Capitol Records private party and a public showcase, in anticipation of their soon-to-come debut CD, along with Swedish buzz band the Shout Out Louds, and New York's hard-rocking femme-fronted Morningwood.
Jason Mraz, who scored big a couple of years ago with "You and I" and "Curbside Prophet," gave industry insiders a taste of his upcoming second album with an outdoor acoustic set one beautiful sunny afternoon on a boat, before repeating the show later at night in a hotel conference room.
Who will hit it big this year? It's impossible to predict, but certainly all of the above — and dozens of others who played SXSW — are poised and ready for that "overnight success."
What's the future look like?
In addition to the hundreds of live performances, the SXSW festival includes dozens of panel discussions, and an exhibit hall with vendors who are there to help musicians with CD packaging, T-shirt duplication, songwriting/recording software and much more.
The topic on everybody's lips, however, was the future of the music industry, which faces growing costs and declining revenues.
Erykah Badu, Elvis Costello and Robert Plant all denigrated the major record labels during separate keynote addresses, complaining that fat-cat top executives milk artists for all they can get, and then kick them to the curb at the first sign of a dip in popularity.
Costello said that while generally the middle-management people at record labels are there because they truly love and care about the music, their hands are often tied by the higher-ups. They all suggested the top label bigshots are out of touch with what's really happening in music, and squander resources that could be put to good use in developing new artists and supporting proven acts such as themselves.
Badu warned that artists can't expect to actually make money from records, given the contracts the industry offers. Instead, they have to use the popularity of their CDs to make money on tour.
Costello suggested that as soon as a critical mass of people has access to broadband Internet, the record industry, as it currently exists, is over.
"When that happens, all bets are off," he said. "We won't need the middle-man. People will get [their music] from iTunes, or get it for nothing."
During Costello's keynote address, he talked of his evolution from a naïve "intolerant" punk rocker to a broad-based songwriter who has written everything from classical to country, and performed with and met many of his idols, from Paul McCartney to Jerry Lee Lewis.
He echoed Badu's sentiments about performance being the bread and butter of a musician.
"Records are a souvenir," he said. "Live shows are where it's at."
Plant talks of love of "blue"
Robert Plant's keynote address was really an interview, as Bill Flanagan, senior vice president of MTV Networks International, quizzed him on his formative influences, his history with Led
Zeppelin, and the genesis of his latest project, Robert Plant and Strange Sensation, who will release their first disc next in May.
Plant was at ease, joking about the shallowness of his Led Zeppelin lyrics, his idol worship of American blues artists, and how "the blue note" has influenced every aspect of his career.
Attendees at Plant's talk got a double treat; prior to Plant's appearance, country star Marty Stuart strummed acoustic guitar for gospel queen Mavis Staples, who warmed the crowd up with a few trademark R&B numbers, at the same time noting she had a hard time finding a label that would release her new album because she doesn't look like a "Beyonce" anymore.
She told the crowd that in her day, she was a "Beyonce" and in the years to come, Beyonce can look forward to becoming a "Mavis."
After Staples' performance, Plant and the audience were surprised when the singer was presented with the Led Zeppelin Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award. Plant was not able to be present at the awards show in Los Angeles the month prior, and Recording Academy president Neil Portnow flew to Austin to present him with the award.
Plant noted it will be 25 years this fall since Zeppelin drummer John Bonham died, and 37 years since the band released its first song.
Plant then went on to speak about how his introduction to Elvis Presley as a kid sent him down the road to discovering American blues music.
"He really opened the door to my whole love of music … because his choice of material opened me up to so many artists," he said. "Postwar Britain was very dour and understated … and then I heard Elvis."
He talked about his parents "cutting the cord" on his record player to keep him from playing this raucous music, and years later when he and Led Zeppelin were brought to "an audience" with "the King," in a room that was rapidly "filling up with secondhand Ann Margarets."
Despite the female eye-candy, members of Zeppelin kept Presley's attention for a couple of hours, talking about the history of music, he said.
Plant said he was "discovered" by Jimmy Page and invited to join The Yardbirds, and laughed at the irony of how, while Zeppelin used to disparage fellow Brits Black Sabbath when they were first starting out, now both bands end up with their discs lumped in the same "classic hard rock" CD pile for the public.
He also talked about his fascination with transcendance, and exotic, African and Middle Eastern rhythms, which influenced Zeppelin songs like "Kashmir," as well as his latest solo project.
His key advice for musicians? "Stay away from a major label," he warned. "You've got to deal with people who are telling the truth … start small."
The attendance at his concert that night, backed by Strange Sensation, was anything but small.