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Inside the purgatory of SXSW music marketing panels

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'I've Got 99 Problems But PR Ain't One'

Vivien Killilea/Getty Images

The record industry is doomed. We know this, they know this, it might as well be a blood pact at this point. Our vestigial fantasies of The Working Musician subsisting purely off of album sales are long dead, and all we're left with is this ill-defined era of corporate sponsorship, endless tours, VEVO, and 36-cent Spotify checks. Remember when Blockbuster was on its last legs, and the posters, figurines, and Raisinettes dominated a floorspace that used to belong to movie rentals? That's the feeling I get whenever Nicki Minaj presses play on a Beats Pill in a music video.

Through all this, SXSW has beamed; a constant, shrieking light of unwavering optimism in a terminal business. There was that boom period, about five years ago, when Mountain Dew and Doritos were bankrolling Wavves / Best Coast joint sets and everyone was getting paid. But those interests are out in Vegas now, lining the pockets of EDM producers who have never, and will never, need anything more than a SoundCloud account to stay relevant. SXSW is still standing, but it's only now realizing that its legs are missing. Modest Mouse, Hozier, Death Cab For Cutie, Kendrick Lamar, Mumford & Sons, all unquestionably "important" acts who've made their mark on pop culture and have new albums coming out, are skipping. In their stead, SXSW hired Snoop Dogg to be its keynote speaker. In 2015. This may be the year where we finally admit that we're lost.

SXSW: a constant, shrieking beam of unwavering optimism in a terminal business

You can always get a read on the current temperament of the industry through the suits who put on well-meaning, but ultimately hollow, SXSW music panels. Usually I skip these, preferring to wash away the festival's more nefarious inclinations with cocktails and buzz. But with this year's truncated lineup and an increasingly panicked business foundation, I decided to sample a few of these lectures. I didn't do a whole lot of background research beyond the titles, with a preference for anything that sounded the most clueless, or the most cynical, or the most achingly reassuring. Do SXSW's worst panels know they're facing oblivion? Can we learn anything in the land of the chuckleheads? I didn't have my hopes up.

"The 7 Hottest Trends in Music Tech in 2015"

What is it about the ballrooms of Marriott hotels that lend themselves so well to discussions about integrating marketing? At this discarded listicle of a panel, our speakers, all older white men who've bounced around Facebook, Vevo, Pandora, and various Venture Capital firms, have a tired discussion in an overpacked, beige-carpeted suite, illuminated by the calming light of dozens of HipChat spouting iPads. Ah yes, this was the hell I was looking for.

this was the hell I was looking for

The conversation didn't actually end up centering around those so-called "7 hottest trends," instead bouncing around the same unsolvable problems of streamer revenue and declining physical sales. But about 15 minutes in Larry Marcus, a founding investor in Pandora and a managing director of Walden Venture Capital, pipes up with perhaps the nastiest matter-of-fact gut-punch of the week. "Live shows constitute about 65 percent of the average artist's revenue," he says. "physical product, and I mean both albums and merch sales, are less than 10 percent of their overall revenue. It dropped off a cliff, and it's not coming back."

There was genuine chill in the room, and the conversation was quickly ushered towards what Amanda Palmer was doing on Patreon. I guess inevitable bankruptcy is the eighth hottest trend.

"Getting Royalties From Streaming Music Services"

If you've been following the controversial rise of streaming services, you'll know that Spotify is dealing with a number of big names, (Radiohead, Taylor Swift) who've removed their catalogs entirely. It's hard to blame them considering your average streaming deal is essentially agreeing to put out your music in an exceedingly low bit-rate for microscopic compensation. That's why I made sure to attend "Getting Royalties From Streaming Music Services," because the idea of a bunch of men with vested interest in this part of the industry arguing that the formula isn't fundamentally broken for artists seemed pretty funny.

"The challenge is no longer to stop piracy, but to monetize piracy."

I'll be honest, I didn't understand a lot of it. So much of the panel conversation was buried in bizarre doublespeak jargon it really felt like they were taking the piss. "Aggregators." "CMSes." "MCNs." User-generated content? That's "UGC" now. I'm sure it was all good advice, they were just offering highly technical information about how to maximize your profits in an all-music-is-free dystopia, and there were a few moments of refreshing fear. At one point John Raso, the moderator and vice president of Harry Fox Agency, said, "the challenge is no longer to stop piracy, but to monetize piracy," which was probably the purest declaration of defeat at SXSW.

However, I'd be remiss not to mention Robert Barbiere. That guy was a gem the whole panel. He's an older fellow who's been in the business a long time, and right now works at Dubset Media Holdings, a company that specializes in clearing samples for DJs and producers.

But here's the thing: I've never heard anyone speak about electronic music in a more stilted, unsure way. At one point he said "content creators creating mix and remix content," which is truly the "she sells sea shells" of empty commercialese. I mean seriously dude? "Remix content?" Twenty minutes later he was calling Skrillex part of that "hardcore techno stuff." Barbiere seemed genuinely nice, but also like someone with absolutely no passion for who he was representing outside of their monetary value. If you want to know why people distrust the music industry, Robert Barbiere is your guy.

"I've Got 99 Problems But PR Ain't One"

On "99 Problems," Jay Z says that "rap mags try and use my black ass so advertisers can give ‘em more cash for ads."

At "I've Got 99 Problems But PR Ain't One," a man talked about how excited he was to get his band a feature in Vogue.

Okay, I'm being meaner than I need to be — this panel was mostly fine, despite that atrocity of a name. Four PR people gave solid, reasonable advice on how to make your agency better, and how to make your band appealing to some of the more influential companies. To be honest I was a little disappointed that the content was a well-reasoned discussion instead of a buzzy, pun-filled death march.

It's difficult to get people to care about a band in 2015

And you know? It was interesting to see how the machine works. I don't want to get too inside-baseball here, but if you cover music as part of your job, you end up with roughly 200 press releases in your inbox every day. They all look exactly the same: "Hey Luke, how's it going? I've got something here I think you'll enjoy!" followed by a giant copy-paste of the same thing the other billion people on the mailing list are getting. Most of the time it's offering a premiere. Premieres, premieres, premieres! "Will you premiere our music video / remix / album art?" I make fun of that sort of marketing because it feels more like a carpet bombing than a campaign, but sitting there hearing these publicists talk about how difficult it is to get people to care about a band in 2015 made me sympathize. You have to rely on "premieres" because it's the only quick, easy, fresh thing you can offer a publication in the aggregation era. Sure, nobody cares, but you have to try.

"Why You Matter To Brands/Why Brands Matter To You"

I could write at length about how the word "branding" has become obnoxious enough to shatter glass, or how marketing is one of the most unforgivable industries in the world, but I don't need to, because this panel gave me the most perfect encapsulation of SXSW I've ever seen.

Panelist Diane Andreoni was, until very recently, the senior creative director of Global Marketing at McDonald's. She designed an advertising campaign during the Sochi Olympics to push Chicken McNuggets, which licensed a song by underground New Zealand rap trio The Wyld. They played the ad, and then moderator Eric Sheinkop unleashed this banger:

"Not only did this ad help break this hip-hop group," Sheinkop said, "it also increased the sale of Chicken McNuggets 18 percent."

I swear to god, I'm not making this up.

Welcome to SXSW, get out as fast as you can.