Sophia’s Rock Beat: SXSW 2011 – The Panels

This post is a little outside of my intended use of “Sophia’s Rock Beat” but I thought it was the best place to discuss all of my thoughts on SXSW in general. Here is the link to the post where I discussed (and posted videos of) every band I saw at SXSW.

Overall, I was mostly disappointed in the panels this year. I felt many of the panelists came wholly unprepared, didn’t have a sense of the topics (as outlined in the panel booklet), and in some cases, used every opportunity to pitch whatever company they work for. It even felt like some panelists just showed up to put in their hour of time for their free badge.

Another issue I have with the panels in general is that I don’t get the sense that they know who the audience is. For instance – the panel on aligning your music with brands (once thought of to be a kiss of death for your cred) was actually quite interesting, but when an indie artist got up to ask how they could go about finding a brand to work with – the panelists (not surprisingly) said “we’ll find you” –  basically if you’re as large as (or have a fan-base as big as) someone like The Black-Eyed Peas – of course they want to work with you. “We’ll find you” was a term on heavy repeat any time any indie artist had a question. So if it’s not for indie artists, who is the audience? Of course someone like U2 isn’t going to show up to a panel to learn about music branding (though Taylor Hanson was there asking a question!).

Then at the more industry specific panels – where the audience is more tilted toward industry people – the information was scarily elementary. The first sentence at one of the licensing panels we went to was “there are two types of licenses” – we ran out of there as fast as we could.  Most people going to a licensing panel are likely to at least know a little something about licensing. My thought here is that there should be seperate panel tracks:

For example, have “Licensing 101: Licensing for the artist who doesn’t know anything” and then “Licensing for Licensors: An in-depth discussion” – so the badge-holder could then choose which is the most appropriate track for their needs. This could also apply to marketing, new technologies, etc. I think this would be a huge help to the panels as a whole – by giving them a sharper focus, and allowing the panelists to know the level of the audience so they can better share their knowledge.  This way, everyone gets what they want/need out of getting up early to attend the panel portion. Most of the panels we went to were relatively poorly attended – so I think they have nothing to lose in trying something new next year.

All that said, there were some great panels that we got to see. Overall though, my favorites were the interviews/talks by celebrities – these really seemed to be the most interesting bits of information.

The list below just includes some of the panels that I got the most out of…

Wednesday – the morning started up with a very rousing talk by Martin Atkins (from Ministry, PIL, Pigface, Killing Joke) “Welcome to the Music Business, You’re Fucked” – one of his best soundbites was “it’s not a problem if 20,000 people are downloading your music illegally, it’s a problem if they aren’t!” I’ve been meaning to read his book Tour Smart for a while – but Atkins really “gets it” from a smaller-bands perspective.

Then we went to the panel on Daniel Johnston – which was close friends/family sharing stories about Johnston’s “First Fifty Years” – it was interesting and Johnston came out and performed two lovely songs (on a guitar that I don’t think has ever been tuned.)

Then we checked out a panel on Independent Music in Asia – this was actually really interesting because it was really an area we know nothing about – and it sounds like the Asian markets are going through a shift – which includes busting up some price-fixing (songs in Korea selling for 6 cents a piece, for example) and other sketchy practices – this is also where we heard about the showcase of Korean bands later that night – and I got to catch one of my favorite acts of the week, Galaxy Express.

Thursday, the keynote was given by Bob Geldof, who was an incredibly good speaker. His takeaway point was that rock ‘n’ roll/music has become complacent with the world – that there is so much to be angry about (politics/environmental destruction/the fact that there are people in the world that are starving and we have farmers destroying crops, etc. etc.), but music has stopped being a force to get the word out about these things or to mobilize people into caring. He stressed that the lyrics didn’t have to be literal but the sound of it should be enough to convey what is wrong with the world. In a sense he argued that rock had to be a rebellion and a battle against the evils of the world and he just didn’t see it happening any longer.

“Your Financial Advisor is Duff McKagan” -was hilarious only to see Duff from G’n’R discussing money issues. Below is some video taken by Glenn of KillerSuit. A lot of Duff’s panel was questions from the audience and he did his best to answer questions ranging from a guy wanting super-specific answers to how he should handle selling his music in perpetuity to how G’n’R handles licensing requests to people just wanting road stories.

Later we saw Duran Duran interviewed – they mostly covered the process of working on their new record, but the funniest thing they said was that touring is nice now because all the girls that were 13 in the ’80s are now “lovely 30-somethings!”

Friday morning, I was excited to go to the Yoko Ono interview – I never really thought about Ono much before this week, but after this interview and after seeing the Plastic Ono Band perform, I’m a little obsessed. She spoke about her performance art, her feelings for Japan, her vision of world peace. One of my favorite things she said was, “if you’re making art to make money, you’ll feel like a fool when the money doesn’t come. if you’re making art because you have to make art, then you’ll always know the value of it” (somewhat paraphrased – I’m writing from memory!).

We then went to a panel of artist managers from around New England – we found this interesting because we knew some of the managers and many of the artists that they were discussing – but also because they really gave their stories of how they got into managing. Only one came from a “music industry” program, and I didn’t get the sense they were musicians first – in fact most of them came from the business world – which does make sense but was interesting to hear.

Saturday, there weren’t any panels listed in the booklet that caught our eye.

Finally a note to SXSW & the city of Austin, TX: please, please, please put out recycling bins next year! The only place I could find to recycle plastic bottles and cans was the convention center and it broke my heart a little every time I had to put something recycling in a trash bin.

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