So, what did we learn at South by South West this year? Well, firstly that it can rain in Texas and did, almost solidly for two days. Countless burger buns were transformed into deformed sponges and all the swag shops were selling umbrellas at exorbitant prices, which, mostly fell apart within minutes of use and in my case, before I had even left the shop.
There were fewer bands showcasing this year - just under two thousand instead of just under two and a half thousand last year - and the showcasing side did feel more focused. The lack of a Lady Gaga or a Justin Timberlake meant that the music fans had to search out more knock out shows amongst the emerging talent. Not that the lack of a superstar act made it any easier to get into the venues. Three times I rocked up to see Leon Bridges and three times I got turned away from full venues. It never ceases to amaze me how people will join a queue that is already two hundred strong when the guy on the door is operating a one in, one out policy, not for me. Nevertheless, 6th Street was definitely more navigable this year, that is, until the Saturday night when all the locals come out to play.
Over the last couple of years the area around Rainey has become a good alternative to 6th Street for seeing new bands but if the extraordinary proliferation of construction work going on between and either side of the music venues is anything to go by then it's only a matter of time before that becomes as congested as 6th Street.
What was noticeable this year was that the venue operators were being much more stringent about preventing overcrowding in the venues. I was told that the Austin authorities had upped their game this year and were doing spot checks on audience numbers all over the city resulting in some of the venues being served with substantial fines for over-crowding. It could be that these welcome changes, and the fact that there seemed to be a lot more police present this year than in previous years, are as a result of the tragic deaths that occurred at last year's festival when a driver fleeing the police ploughed into a queue of people outside the Mohawk music venue.
The convention center was as busy as ever and the stands featuring music from all over the world, new technologies, and all manner of seemingly desirable but ultimately unnecessary gizmos were as entertaining as ever. There always seems to be an underlying air of desperation in the chat that you are treated to by the guy who wants you to put a huge order in for the app or piece of software that he or she has developed and brought to market. Not surprising really when you add up the cost of a stand and all the associated costs, for some of the smaller players in the market, the success or otherwise of your product depends upon making a killing at the SXSW trade show. Personally, I can do without an app that will make my photos look like they were taken by a 1970's polaroid camera, but that might just be me.
The panels and debates were as dry as ever but there were some interesting trends emerging. Up until now I had no idea how important Shazam had become as a precise indicator of the popularity or otherwise of new acts. Shazam can give you weekly reports on exactly how many people, on hearing a track on the radio, are using the app to identify the song and the artist. Clearly this is a fantastic early pointer to an artist or tracks potential for sales and the industry has embraced it whole heartedly as the number one litmus test for emerging talent. There is even talk of Shazam releasing a new app for 'things'. In other words, point the app at a car, a pair of jeans or a bottle of ketchup and it will tell you everything you need to know about that product, including, it is rumored, exactly where to buy it at the best price; what a world.
Meerkat was causing quite a stir this year, you may well have read about this app elsewhere. If I was working for an outside broadcast news team I would be more than a little concerned about Meerkat. This is a new app that you can download onto your smart phone that enables you to stream video in real time to a community of 'followers'. It's called a Meerkast (I know), you just fill in a subject box describing what you are about to film and press the stream button. Then those who choose to follow you on the app (very like Twitter followers) get an alert telling them that you are live, and they can choose to watch the video and even send you messages. If another Arab Spring or Columbine goes down then surely we won't bother switching on the BBC or CNN we'll just follow someone who is there and streaming it live. Of course, the really frightening thing here for the music business is what does this mean for bands playing live shows? How can we stop a live stream of a gig through Meerkat or its Twitter born competitor, Periscope? Audio bootlegs are bad enough but if you've got a few hundred people all live streaming your gig to their followers surely that will have an effect on potential ticket sales, not to mention the total minefield of copyright infringement. Surely it won't be too long before we see a blanket ban on the use of smart phones at gigs; but that in itself will be a nightmare to enforce, check your iPhone in at the door and collect it when you leave? It might work at the 100 Club but how on earth could you make that work at the o2 Arena? The pace at which new technology confounds us and complicates our industry is mind blowing.
Finally, I'd like to congratulate all the UK bands that travelled out using the MU supported International Showcase Fund. The standard of UK acts this year was better than ever and the British Embassy at Latitude was packed out with industry people and music fans. Well done and here's to next year.