Last word on SXSW: chaotic, vibrant and food for thought

One of the several dozen panel discussions at this year’s South by Southwest Music Conference was an infomercial for the latest addition to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum: a 22,500-square-foot library and archives, celebrating its grand opening the week of April 9.

The panelist at “New Digs: A Rock and Roll Library and Archives” included Seymour Stein, the founder of Sire Records; Lenny Kaye, music critic/writer and guitarist for the Patti Smith Band; Holly George-Warren, music writer and historian; two officials from the hall of fame; and a surprise addition, Scottish singer/songwriter Donovan Leitch (or just Donovan, as he has long been known), who will be inducted into the hall at this year’s 27th annual ceremony.

The afternoon discussion focused less on the archive and its growing collection of resources than on the general need for a repository that reflects the social and cultural import of rock music.

“Something extraordinary happened in 1961, 2 and 3,” said Donovan. “Folk music got into bed with popular music, and it would never be the same again. With this love affair between folk music and pop music came meaningful lyrics and a real look at life itself through a popular song.” The library and archive document our popular culture, he said, which is “a reflection of life.”

Stein said the importance of both the hall of fame and its library/archive is implicit in the worldwide appeal of the music.

“Rock ’n’ roll is a hybrid, and that’s why it has remained, first and foremost, the music of the world,” he said. “Everywhere, rock ’n’ roll is king, and it’s going to stay that way because it has the power to reinvent itself. And it has, many times over.”

In theory and spirit, the SXSW Music Conference is more about the future of the industry and its reinvention than it is about its past. Roughly 2,600 shows were scheduled from the evening of March 13 through the early morning hours of March 18. More than 16,000 people registered for the festival. The artist directory included more than 2,000 performers.

Those numbers don’t include bands performing at free or unofficial music showcases (like Kansas City’s own two-day MidCoast Takeover, which featured more than 30 bands) or the thousands of fans who showed up without official badges or wristbands to soak up the festival’s atmosphere.

On the rooftops and in the clubs and courtyards and crowded streets of Austin, all flavors of music were in bed with each other, siring various and sometimes spurious hybrids.

During his afternoon keynote address on March 15, which drew a full room of nearly 3,000, Bruce Springsteen acknowledged the explosion of bands and genres over the past several decades, rattling off the names of five dozen genres and subgenres: two-tone, acid rock, art rock, Christian metal, heavy metal, melodic metal, black metal, folk punk, folk rock, sad-core, Nintendo-core, noise-pop, samba rock, screamo, emo, rock against communism and so on. Later, he quoted the prophetic title of a song by Danny the Juniors, “Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay,” a hit in 1958, when rock was in its infancy.

Yes it is, but so is change in the music industry, and those rapid changes are especially evident at this festival. Most evident: The universe is losing its center, and everyone is fighting for what’s left of it.

That night, Springsteen and the E Street Band performed at Moody Hall at Austin City Limits, a 2,800-seat arena. Free wristbands to the show were distributed via a lottery available only to festival registrants. His show featured several special guests: Eric Burdon, Jimmy Cliff and Alejandro Escovedo and younger bands the Low Anthem and Arcade Fire.

But even Springsteen was looking forward and not so much back. His set list included seven of the 11 tracks off “Wrecking Ball,” his 17th studio album, which he released on March 6.

His was one of several marquee and sold-out shows headlined by artists on major labels. Among the others: Jack White, Norah Jones and Fiona Apple, who all showcased material from new albums; Lionel Richie; DJ/producer Skrillex; and the Shins, Counting Crows and the Cult, who performed at the free shows at Auditorium Shores.

The festival started becoming a showcase for established stars and not the up-and-coming bands about the time that technology and the Internet changed music distribution and CD sales started to plummet. It has since grown in attendance and scope, and not necessarily for the better.

There’s a lot more waiting in lines. Even a $700 badge doesn’t guarantee admission into a show. The line into the Jack White show was more than a block long five hours before the scheduled start. Fans lined up for Norah Jones hours early, too. During White’s performance, a large crowd gathered outside to look and listen through open windows, bypassing a chance to see other, lesser-known bands elsewhere, the kinds of bands that are elemental to the festival itself and the industry in general.

At the “New Digs” discussion, Kaye mentioned the importance of those “second-level” bands as he talked about a collection of cassette tapes he’d been given that have since been donated to the archives. They are recordings of about 2,000 shows at CBGB, the legendary New York music club.

The tapes, he said, include “not only the most important people, but everybody: bands that played there maybe one night. To me, sometimes, these kinds of second-level artists reveal more about the mood of the times than the superstars, who were fairly well covered.”

Other panelists talked about some of the material that will be stored and displayed at the archives, items like handwritten lyrics (Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”) and handwritten letters (one from Madonna).

George-Warren talked about her oral-history project, which will include audio and video recordings and transcripts of interviews of legends in music, people like Wanda Jackson, one of her recent subjects.

Kaye talked about the value of archiving. The “web-o-net,” as he called it, has made some of the standard functions of the library and research easy to do from home.

“To me, what’s really going to be central to the library concept is the archives,” he said, “a place for people to put their stuff, their collections, the actual physical objects that reveal who we are — letters, manuscripts, you name it. You never know what will tickle someone’s imagination.”

What wasn’t addressed in the “New Digs” discussion is what exactly there will be to archive as the Internet becomes the primary, if not sole, method of music promotion, communication and distribution over the next century.

Will the archive store emails? Will it showcase blogs and websites? Electronic versions of show posters? Someone’s Word document of lyrics? A songwriter’s favorite Spotify playlists?

The Web and YouTube have prompted a proliferation of videos and photographs from concerts. From your laptop in Kansas City you can read about a Bjork show in Reykjavik the day after it happened (or maybe as it’s happening). The website


posts Radiohead set lists live as each show unfolds. What could possibly be the equivalent of that trove of music on those CBGB cassettes? The music world is larger and more universal than ever. There are more bands to see and more records to listen to than ever. Yet it is overexposed. There’s little mystery or mystique.

“The concept of a library is important not only for our generation and anyone doing research now,” Kaye said, “but think of 300 or 400 years from now, when all of the names pass into some strange history. Someone will find a piece of paper that will reveal what life was like at South by Southwest in 2012.”

Life at South by Southwest in 2012 was a panoramic slice of the music world in 2012: a harried, chaotic and vibrant scene filled with 2,000-plus bands vying for the attentions and money of an audience overwhelmed with choices, distractions and opportunities.

“U2 is the last band I’m going to know the names of all four members,” Springsteen said, acknowledging the vastness of the universe he works in. He was also lamenting the slow demise of the big-name bands, the extinction of the icons, like Elvis, the Stones, the Beatles, Dylan.

But life at SXSW in 2012 revealed something else — in the throng who waited in line to see Jack White and among the many thousands who entered the lottery for a ticket to Springsteen’s show: Even as the music world disperses into so many niches and sub-niches, genres and sub-genres, into a kingdom of so many fiefdoms, there remains a thirst for the marquee show and the rock-star personality, for the glory and mystique that filled the earliest chapters in the history of rock ’n’ roll.