Dispatches from SXSW 2018: Nile Rodgers, Kim Deal, and The Future of Music Journalism

As we've come to expect from the annual music conference and festival, this year's South by Southwest brought together a huge number of artists, producers, industry professionals, and every other sort of music person for a week of performances, panels, and other events. While most of the press that surrounds SXSW rightfully focuses on the thousands of performances and showcases that occur in every nook of Austin's downtown, the daytime music conference boasts its own ambitious lineup of programming on the music business, emerging technologies, and culture.

While the panels and presentations that form the bulk of the lineup run a constant risk of devolving into a stream of buzzwords and hot takes—with much attention given to terms like "data-driven," "disruption," and, this being 2018, "blockchain"—all of the events I attended offered worthwhile insights and wisdom on the current state of the music world. Here are a few highlights from the week.

Nile Rodgers on Wanting to be Heard

One of the most interesting discussions came from Nile Rodgers, the hugely influential record producer and guitarist. His conversation spanned from his early days on the scene, penning hits for Diana Ross and Sister Sledge, all the way to more recent collaborations with Avicii (whom he calls one of the most talented melody writers he's ever worked with).

Rodgers also fielded questions and offered opinions on nearly every part of the music production process, from his distaste for click tracks to softer skills, like how to find new collaborators in the wild. As a producer, Rodgers expressed a core philosophy that musicians just want to be heard, and his job as a producer is to foster the right decision-making to make that happen.

Nile Rodgers

There were also a few moments where Rodgers' guitar god status shown through. He explained how he uses his guitar, “The Hitmaker,” to test the musical ideas in his head. “The guitar is just something that I use as a secondary form of expression,” Rodgers said. "Typically the ideas come to my head and I use the guitar... It's like when you're doing math. You use [the guitar] to prove your work and prove your theorems and formulas."

Kim Deal and Steve Albini Talk Studio Workflows

In a conversation between longtime collaborators and close friends Kim Deal and Steve Albini, the pair of indie rock titans traced the history of their working relationship with in-jokes and insights at each step. Albini took the position of moderator, relying on his journalistic chops to toss out questions on Deal's output through the Pixies, The Breeders, and various solo projects.

Albini was effusive in his praise of how Deal operates in the studio. From his perspective, she enters each session with a completely clear picture of how she wants something to sound, meticulously catering the workflow and setup to match that ideal. Deal was equal in her praise of Albini, closing out the event with a prepared statement on how he is the greatest collaborator alive for new artists looking for their sound.

In the Q&A portion of the event, Albini responded to a question about best-sounding records of all time with Neil Young's Zuma, several of the early AC/DC records, and his all-time favorite, Raw Power by the Stooges.

Lyor Cohen on the Nascent Days of Hip-Hop and the Future of Streaming

Early in his SXSW presentation, YouTube's Global Head of Music, Lyor Cohen declared, “I believe we’re entering the golden age of the music business.” For Cohen, who made his career as a key executive and promoter in the global ascent of hip hop, signing acts like A Tribe Called Quest and helming deals with Jay-Z as the head of Def Jam, this claim is made with a certain amount of authority. Indeed, Cohen's embrace of change in the music business was a constant theme in his talk.

In his current position at YouTube, Cohen sees the leveling of the playing field of distribution as the primary sign that the industry is moving in the right direction. For Cohen, small label promoters who can actually nurture new talent is a key component of the business that was lost in the consolidation of major labels.

Lyor Cohen

While he still fears a similar sort of consolidation from Apple and Spotify, he took the opportunity to champion YouTube as the core alternative in its combination of both streaming and social experiences. To that end, anticipate seeing more subscription services getting baked into the YouTube music experience in the near future.

Preservation & Appreciation of Album Art

Anderson Paak - Malibu

It may not be a topic many of us think about all that much, but the current state of album art in the age of digital music made for a particularly interesting panel. Michael Escanuelas, Chris Hassen, Portia Sabin, and Dewey Saunders—artists, designers, and indie label heads—offered a fascinating exploration into the process of album design and production.

A key theme that emerged focused on how in today's industry, a single piece of album art needs to serve a wide range of different sizes and formats at once, from the full scale vinyl release all the way down to the tiniest desktop icon. Saunders, a designer best-known for his work on Anderson Paak's fantastic Malibu, explained how when designing cover art he emphasizes sophisticated color palettes and compositions—as those will work even in the smallest digital formats.

Music Journalism in the Age of Streaming

The final panel on my docket is one that may be a little niche, but certainly raised core questions for anyone who writes or reads about new music. Entitled "Why Music Journalism Matters in the Streaming Era," this panel featured Andy Cohn of The Fader, Chris Mench of Genius, Marcus Moore of Bandcamp, Spin editor-in-chief Puja Patel, and Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber. Collectively, this roster represents some of the most progressive and widely read music publications online, from the tastemaking reviews of Pitchfork to the new artist and scene explorations of Bandcamp.

The conversation centered on a question: In an age where everyone has access to an overwhelming amount of music at every moment, how can music writers act to best serve their readership? A vital distinction was raised early in the discussion between criticism and curation. In a bygone era, when people could only buy so many records, criticism—and especially criticism that sought to offer the final word on a particular work—was used to guide purchasing decisions.

Today, that function of criticism may no longer be needed. When everyone has the chance to listen to everything, writers and editors can instead focus on highlighting the best and most exciting music, while offering some cultural narrative that can enrich a fan's enjoyment of the work. And because the price barriers to both hearing and reading about music have fallen in our digital age, there is a chance for new publications to raise voices that may have been ignored in the days of big labels and magazines.

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