Festival season is in full swing again so I’m back to thinking about music and the music industry.
In March I made my annual haj back to Austin for SXSW. Contrary to the commonly held belief in San Francisco, South By is a music festival, not a tech conference. Well, it’s that too, but the music came first, and the music is still the best part. Unfortunately, some of the best music is now actually to be heard during the tech conference, at after parties hosted by tech companies, before the throngs of hipsters arrive for the final 5 days of the music festival.
SXSW used to be about music discovery (here is my favorite discovery), hundreds of venues hosting showcases all around downtown. Even the popular food trucks would set up speakers and amps. Over time, it has grown into something else (just like the tech conference which has enjoyed a halo effect from Twitter’s successful promo there in 2007).
For years, purists and Austinites have decried the coruption of what made SXSW great, as commercial interests set up shop in hopes some of the cool factor would rub off on their brands. This year it seemed to hit a tipping point (and not the kind to which Gladwell was referring).
Yes, there were still over 2,000 bands playing over a mere 5 days. Yes, the hot dog stands and food trucks were still hosting showcases. Yes, the hipster watching did not disappoint.
But everything was much more headliner driven. The lines were outrageous, and surviving without a wristband or badge, as I did the first time I went to SXSW, was almost unthinkable. The RSVP list to Fader Fort filled up in mere hours (just like Coachella, even after doubling capacity this year with two weekends of the same music).
I found myself with lots of downtime during the day and conflicting showcases at night that I wanted to see because lineups had been stacked to draw crowds, not actually showcase new talent. I discovered more new music listening to Earbits this year than I did going to shows at the actual festival.
SXSW was bound to change and evolve so no lamenting what has been lost (although I do hope next year they get back a bit more of the South By mojo). I use the SXSW festival to illustrate a point about the health of the music industry.
Music festivals are a booming business right now, and that should be instructive to the rest of the music industry. The industry is worried about album sales, but people are spending $200 to $400 for general admission tickets for each of the music festivals being held this year all around the US (maybe the festival numbers are in the hundreds by now). That doesn’t include travel, lodging, food, alcohol, and merchandise. Why?
Everyone in the music industry to read The Experience Economy by Joseph Pine. I read it some years back, and the book itself was published in 1999, perhaps a little before it’s time. The future of music is in creating shared emotional experiences. Records, 8-tracks, tapes, CD’s – those were all part of a products centered business model. The logical evolution is music as a services (e.g. soundtracks) and then experiences.
That’s why Amon Tobin’s show is so impressive, even if I find the actual music mediocre (I’ve seen his set twice now but would never buy the album) and why Girl Talk can play the same mash-ups of other people’s music but the crowd still goes wild when the stage crew throws out some balloons and confetti. The experience is why people argue that vinyl is better even if the science says otherwise. I suspect it’s also why mind altering substances and music have been so highly correlated since even before Woodstock (correlation not being equal to causation, I won’t speculate whether people seek to enhance the music with drugs or drugs with the music).
When people go to a music festival, they are seeking out an emotional, shared experience through sensory stimulation. The experiencing self is looking to create fond memories with others – friends, the artists, the audience. Why else would they suffer so many of discomforts that go along with the typical festival?
The value of the festival is in the combination of three key elements: emotion (a happy one), experience (musical performances), and sociality (with other people). For some, the music is actually secondary.
Learning from the contemporary success of festivals, how else might the music experience be enhanced to deliver more value to the consumer (fans) and more willingness to pay (for whatever)? Lights and visuals have been done. What about smell for an even more profound emotional association? What could technology offer to share the experience with others asynchronously?
In the end, music is performance art. In fact, for most of human history, music was likely participatory art, taking on the character of performance only much later. (Maybe we should actually get back to that participatory format.) Audio recording and playback is a modern concept, but regardless of the state of technology, the purpose of music has not changed.
Music still has an important part to play in life. The technology and our capabilities have changed, dramatically in recent years. The old business models won’t work anymore, but the demand hasn’t gone anywhere. There is still value in music. Someone will figure out how to capture it, and it will be those who appreciate its connection to emotion, experience, and sociality.