Muscling in at SXSW
I'm not above looking silly when it comes to sussing out the name and artist behind a song that hits my ear in a particularly pleasant way. I'll walk around stores and streets and, should the beat of something strike me, I'll whip out my phone and hold it high above my head as the mobile app Shazam, a music-recognition service for smartphones, listens along with me. Should the song be in the service's database—it claims to have some 15 million post-1950 songs on file—my phone will light up with the title and the artist responsible for the track, with handy links to download it legally should I feel the urge.
These single-song moments are the opposite of the music portion of the annual South by Southwest Festival, which wrapped up on Saturday and which in its ideal form is a garden of delights for those people who want to gorge on newness. Any space in Austin that's big enough to hold 50 people and an amp or two can become a venue, which results in half a dozen show-going options in less than half a city block. But the festival has grown so large that it has become almost impossible for people not slogging their way through the city's maze of invite-only events and official showcases to get a bead on who the Next Big (Let Alone Medium) Things might be; this year, the most boldfaced names—Bruce Springsteen, the recently resurgent Fiona Apple, the soda-sponsored Lil Wayne, a stage designed to look like a giant vending machine that served up a super-size version of the Dorito—sucked up the bulk of column inches and tweets read by those who, like me, were following along at home. (Jay-Z, once again displaying his business savvy, bypassed the music portion of the conference entirely; instead, he performed during the segment of SXSW devoted to new media and reaped a whole lot of press as his reward.)
The prospect of discovery was still present in Austin, as evidenced by bands that played as many as a dozen times in order to make their names stick in the minds of those people wandering through open-air open bars that happened to have live music and the writers who, whether uninterested in the bigger stars or daunted by the long waits in line required to see them, went off the beaten path. But the heavy weight of larger names (and those super-size snacks) made it tougher for even the most talked-about up-and-comers to gain critical mass among the deluge of press beamed back from Austin.
Operating squarely against the filled-to-the-brim principle of SXSW is This Is My Jam (thisismyjam.com), a new social-music service created by two former employees of the social-music site Last.fm. In the overloaded world, This Is My Jam's concept is irresistibly simple and direct: Users post one song (the declared "jam") for a maximum of one week to the site (and, if they choose, to their followers on Twitter and Facebook). People can stream a playlist of their friends' picks, and declare whether or not they like what they're hearing. It's the "hey, check this song out" concept taken wide and delivered elegantly.
The back end is handled by the repositories of songs posted on the streaming-video site YouTube and on music blogs, and there's a sort of irony to the way This Is My Jam's setup is rooted in both the social-media world and the music-blog realm. Last week, the San Francisco music writer Casey Newton, spinning off a recent announcement by the streaming-music site Rdio, posted a thoughtful essay (it's at crumbler.tumblr.com) about what he called "the slow death of MP3 blogging," the writers-gone-DJs form that allowed readers to hear and read about new or blog-worthy songs at the same time.
This multimedia marriage doesn't seem like a big deal now, but 10 years ago, it was somewhat mind-blowing. And it was pretty easy for those people with an Internet connection and a lot to say about music to jump in on either side: Writers would select individual songs from albums, post them online, and provide commentary, and link to blogs that posted simpatico music. In a way, these bloggers were doing the work of promo teams, picking "singles" at a time when technology allowed individual songs to able to be loosed from the tether of an album (not to mention that album's $14–$18 price tag). Thanks to labels being skittish about their product being distributed piecemeal and for free among people operating under the "enthusiast" label, the MP3-blog format eventually became somewhat professionalized and smoothed-out; promotional teams serviced bloggers with particular songs, thus allowing them to blanket the Internet in a coordinated effort. It was a re-creation of the singles market; instead of plunking down money for a 45, consumers would only spend bandwidth on a four-megabyte download, and instead of a popular song hitting No. 1 on the Billboard airplay charts, it would float to the top of the appropriately named Hype Machine.
In addition to the rise of streaming-music services like Rdio and Spotify, which allow entire discographies to be sampled on demand, the reduction in people engaging in the idle browsing that was back then known as "surfing the Web" has been a large factor in MP3 blogs' decline. Walled gardens provided by content-consumption apps and, increasingly, friends directing one another to outrage-stoking stories and cute cat pictures via Facebook and Twitter are two of the factors behind peoples' online-browsing habits becoming more targeted (while the browsers become more unaware of what they might be missing). As a result, the sort of serendipitous Web-surfing that led users to a blog by someone who wasn't famous or employed by a brand name, but who instead really liked music and wanted to share it with passersby, is dropping.
It's a sad coincidence that Newton examined the decline of this form, in which enthusiasts effectively developed a new way for labels to promote and disseminate their artists' music in the Internet age, during the same week that already-existing musical (and snack) brands from all genres declared themselves to be worthy of "discovery." But is it surprising? As attention becomes its own currency, those who already have deep pockets—whether in the form of sponsorship cash or a name that can make news without playing a single note—will win out.
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