South by Southwest, Austin’s annual music conference that usually showcases the best new artists coming down the pike, kicked off, oddly enough, with a plea to go back. The call came from Robbie Robertson. The onetime leader of the Band expressed mild alarm at the state of the music business during his keynote address Thursday morning. Go back, he suggested, to that first moment of musical discovery.
“Music took us on a journey, and we’re still on that journey,” he told a packed ballroom at the Austin Convention Center, noting that his own first impressions came during childhood visits to the Six Nations Indian Reservation. “Everybody sang or danced or played an instrument,” said Robertson, now a solo artist and occasional actor. “I had to find my niche in this thing, too.”
Robertson’s SXSW address comes at a contentious time in the recording industry. Though calling himself “not a keynote kind of guy,” he pointedly touched on many huge issues facing the music biz as it enters a new century: online distribution, piracy, label consolidation and contracts battles between artists and their labels.
Robertson also lamented the current climate that favors the “cheap thrill” of quick radio hits over artist development. “In these times I don’t know what would have happened with a Bruce Springsteen or a Bob Dylan. It took a while for people to become aware of what they were doing.”
All of which makes this year’s normally amicable SXSW music industry confab a potential flashpoint in the growing tension between major labels and artists. Immediately after the keynote came a speech by Hillary Rosen, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, the leading lobbyist for recording labels. And on Saturday, artist and activist Courtney Love will be interviewed onstage by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chuck Philips.
“It’s our job to address the needs of the music community, and obviously these are big issues important to everyone,” said Brett Grulke, creative director of SXSW, which kicked off Wednesday and runs through Sunday. “Depending on how these issues play out, we will possibly see a very different music business in our lifetime.”
Grulke notes that the role of the music conference is not to set an agenda, but to provide a forum for these and other issues to be debated.
Other panels this week will explore the growing jam-band movement, new technologies, performance anxiety and the astonishing (and perhaps telling) success of the Grammy-winning O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack-which suggested that music buyers have a taste for roots music in numbers that rival teen-pop sales.
In addition to his keynote speech, Robertson is also set to be the subject of an onstage interview Friday conducted by former Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres, who will focus on the lasting impact of the Band and MGM’s upcoming DVD release of The Last Waltz, Martin Scorcese’s classic documentary on the group. (The DVD will include previously unreleased footage.)
“The Band was extremely significant in helping bridge rock and roll with American roots music,” said Fong-Torres, an author of four books and a curator for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “They did it in an intelligent way that was completely natural. It’s amazing how soulful [Robertson’s] songs were.”
But the main attraction for fans and industry veterans alike at SXSW remains the music, spread across dozens of venues across Austin, and which will include live performances by the likes of the Eels, UK critical favorites Starsailor and young guitar wizard Jonny Lang.