Thoughts from Austin

(This is a piece I did for the M&G Podcast this week)

I’m in Austin, Texas. Well, that’s true but not absolutely true. I’m at South by Southwest – a week long orgy of a conference that spans the triple disciplines of interactive, film and music, and all the grey areas in between that they share. To say that South by (as we regulars call it) is big, is like saying that Table Mountain is pretty. It’s true, but it doesn’t begin to do the kind of justice to the statement that true hyperbole can. It’s frigging ginormous. So while I am in Austin, I’m in Austin during something so big and all consuming that the city becomes secondary. Like Edinburgh or Grahamstown during their festivals, or Mecca during the hajj. The cities are there, but they become secondary to the event which the city wears like a fresh skin. South by is as much the skin of Austin as it is the heart, lungs and quivering liver.
Trips like this are best reflected on, their true value only unfolding in the fullness of time. Asking me in the middle of the frenzy to offer any insight into its worth or impact is like turning to me in the middle of a movie and asking me what I thought. I can tell you I am enjoying it, but I can’t tell you why. So let me do this….

Being at the creative and technological hub of the world, and sharing that experience with those who shaped the world to begin with is enough, I think, to qualify me to offer up some observations and theories about trends.

Trend number 1: The Geek shall inherit the earth.

To be honest I came up with that line before I spotted the trend, but the more I think about it the more self-evident it appears. In the early 90s the tech department in any company were the cable guys, the ones you called when Windows bombed, tried not to speak to for fear of being drawn into a long conversation about the relative merits of Linux and, well, Linux, and who huddled together at office parties, waiting for the pizza and beer to be finished so they could go back to their caves and download porn and play games. Except they weren’t doing that. Well, not all of them. They were building the very tools that today shape the way we interact with every company and brand in existence. They were thinking of and building Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, developing Flash and writing lines and lines of code that would give rise to Google, Firefox and other behemouths of our age. Today they’re the ones CEOs turn to for insight into where their company is going or should be going. The power they hold is enormous and their influence global.
Observation number 2: The music industry is not ill, but the record industry is terminal.
One of the most insightful moments of this week came at the end of the interactive portion of the Festival. The head of interactive stood up at the last keynote address to introduce the speakers, and thank all the delegates. In doing so, he pointed out that the music festival had just gotten underway. “There will be lots of musicians wandering around the building today,” he said “You can spot them – theyre the ones looking around for a business model.” The geeks guffawed smugly, if indeed you can guffaw smugly (and I think you can). As the music portion of the festival unfolded it became clear that at no point in living memory has more music been created, recorded and distributed. And we’re not talking poky little garage bands here – we’re talking seriously talented singers, songwriters and bands working their butts off doing what they do….and earning a living from it. The worried ones are not the bands, their managers or their mothers. Its their record labels, who are becoming as irrelevant today as seven singles were ten years ago.

Witness the performance of Metallica, arguably one of the biggest bands in the world. They played at South by not to promote a new album, funded by a massive record label. They played to promote the launch of a new computer game – Guitar rock Hero, the Metallica version. They’ve made more money off computer games than they ever have off record sales. More of the money is going to them, they are generating new fans and by being smart marketers themselves, they’ve cut out the fat in the middle. In other words, the fat cat record companies.  The keynote address I mentioned earlier was by Chris Anderson – Wired editor and author of the Long Tail. He’s got a new book coming out – it’s called “Free”, and it details how everything available online is one day going to be free. And he’s walking the talk – anyone who follows him on Twitter will get a free PDF of his new book. Don’t worry – he’ll find ways of  making his money. There will be limited edition paperback gift sets sold in the real world, monthly newsletters you can subscribe to, lucrative speaking engagements and so on. His theory is that you should distribute content as widely as possible for free, and convert 5% of that free market to a paying market through other channels. The bigger the free market, the bigger the 5% will be. His publisher no doubt hates him, but his followers adore him. And, ironically, he’ll get rich by being free.

Observation number 3: South African musicians are being short changed, and the country is losing out.
This Festival is made up of literally thousands of showcase concerts happening over four days. There are big names – like Metallica, Kanye West, Dinosaur jnr, Razorlight, the Proclaimers and Primal Scream, and then there are the young hopefuls playing their hearts out hoping to get spotted by promoters, festivals, radio stations and record companies. Out of all those thousands of bands, there are precisely two South African bands – Soweto rockers Blk Jks, and the perennially talented Parlotones. Both those acts are here not because their South African management or record company bankrolled them, but they were being punted and staged by American agents and promoters. Let me repeat that – the South African bands here were being presented by Americans. By contrast, dozens of other countries are here showcasing their bands – Scotland, England, Canada, Australia and more. Funded by Tourism boards, arts councils and governments who realise the tourism and marketing potential a global audience to a country’s music has for that country’s economic growth. Why wasn’t there a South African showcase here with Sibongile Khumalo, Vusi Mahlasela, Karen Zoid, Harris Tweed, Louis Mhlanga, Ray Phiri, aKing, Arno Carstens and Koos Kombuis? Yes, it’s an expensive exercise. But for the investment of a couple of hundred thousand rand South Africa could see returns in the millions in terms of GDP contribution, marketing and brand value and tourism potential. I’ve spoken to about a dozen people since I’ve been here who hadn’t thought about coming to South Africa for the World Cup, but who now are because they met someone from our country who enthusiastically sold it to them. The Parlotones handed out a couple of hundred free CDs at their show – now a couple of hundred people are going to listen to them, play them to their friends, send them off to their local radio station saying “listen to this cool band from South Africa”. Sure, no-one actually visits Ireland because of U2….but they know about it, the talk about it, and one day they might visit it. Meanwhile they’ll buy tons of U2 CDs, t-shirts and concert tickets…earning the band money, and the entire Ireland-based U2 economy of record companies, publishers, t-shirt manufacturers will flourish. And if U2 had to pay tax, which they don’t because Ireland actually supports its artists with tax breaks, the government would earn a healthy chunk off all the band’s earnings. U2 becomes an export commodity. So too could any one of the South African bands I mentioned earlier.

OK, so that’s my perspective from Austin. This time next week I’ll be back at home, ensconced in a world I know far better than this one, looking forward to our elections and the political high drama we do so well. Maybe some of the views I’ve expressed here will be moderated on my return, but i hope not. With just one day to go before this particular movie ends, I think I already know how I feel about it…and I’ll be back to watch the sequel.

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