A decade ago, back when South by Southwest (SXSW) was still more or less a music trade festival, it had its own distinctive sound profile: a band in every bar, beer bottles clinking at the hundreds of parties every day and night, and the bass from the soundsystems on every corner. Those noises are all still to be found in Austin, Texas, of course, but SXSW has mutated, so its soundtrack has changed. The most important sound you’ll hear now is, arguably, the tapping of keyboards and the scrolling of iPhones.
SXSW isn’t only about music any more. Film and comedy have joined the artistic mix, and interactivity has become a key theme of the panels and debates that fill up the Texas days. Joining the musicians and record-label workers on the streets of Austin are the early adopters, many of whom queued round the block to buy the new iPad 2 at an Apple pop-up store when the device launched earlier this week.
In fact, the interactive element of SXSW is now arguably bigger than the music side of the event. The development of the digital world over the last 10 to 15 years means SXSW’s role as a showcase for new musical talent has been superseded; you no longer need an annual event to introduce you to a new act because you’ve probably already heard their music online. That overlapping of music and technology has transformed the very way musicians conceive their careers.
“The most exciting British music these days is coming from guys aged 18, 19, 20 years old making electronica,” says Imran Ahmed, A&R director of XL Recordings and the man who signed Vampire Weekend. “Often, these guys are at uni and, historically, they would have had to seek out three other like-minded guys to form a band. But nowadays, you don’t have to do that, which is handy if being sociable isn’t your greatest strength.
“The equipment is accessible – all you really need in most cases is a Mac laptop – and the platform for getting it out there on the internet is universal.” A number of the British acts who fulfil the criteria laid out by Ahmed will be at SXSW this week, including Jamie xx, Sampha, James Blake and SBTRKT.
SBTRKT is a London-based producer whose last few releases have been through the Young Turks label. “These days I spend the majority of my time on a laptop,” he says. “Mainly I start with Logic [an Apple music production suite], then I expand into Roland synths and then I start working with vocalists. The majority of my tracks involve synthetic sounds, which I approach in the way you’d traditionally arrange a song, arrange strings and play bass, I build the parts as you would traditionally.”
Although he has made music for the last 15 years, SBTRKT says the latest developments in social networking and clouds – third-party hosted music sites – have allowed him to build a whole new relationship with his audience. “I think SoundCloud has made a huge difference to me. Now there’s very little income to be made from music, but in terms of interest and reaction, a relationship with your fans, it’s completely unrivalled.”
Although the nature of music’s relationship with the web has been debated for years – with Napster, MySpace, and iTunes all changing the game – what’s become notable in the last few years has been the tangible way in which music and digital technology have intertwined. It’s now all but impossible to consider music without thinking about technology, and the latter is making the former easier and easier to make. When Steve Jobs announced the launch of the Garage Band app along with the iPad 2 last week, he said: “I can’t even tell you how many hours teens are going to spend with this, teaching themselves about music.” No doubt Jobs was envisioning said teen getting inspiration on a bus ride, putting together the track on Garage Band and whacking it online before they’ve even got home.
This entwining of technology and music over the last few years is most evident when you talk to a musician like SBTRKT. “The music industry has changed so much over the last 10 years,” he says. “Now it feels like producers and smaller labels have so much more control over their output. That distinct method of distribution and shop releases has gone. Within five minutes, I can have my latest track on SoundCloud and get reactions instantly.” Dave Hynes, vice-president of SoundCloud, agrees with that sentiment: “Making music is getting more and more accessible. As Steve Jobs pointed out in his latest keynote speech, anyone can now be a music-maker. SoundCloud’s part in this is that, as well as being a really useful tool for the major artists and record labels, we empower this new generation of music-makers to share their creations and get feedback.
“The other big growth area are the third-party apps integrating with SoundCloud. We now have over 130 apps in our App Gallery, including many mobile apps that allow people to create and share music. Like Peavey’s AmpKit, that lets you amp up your guitar with your iPhone.”
What is striking when chatting with any of the thousands of developers who are at SXSW is how many of those behind the latest software or mobile applications advancements are dyed-in-the-wool music obsessives. As Charles Slomovitz of the music sourcing website Shazam said in a recent New York Times interview: “We’re living in a world where technologists and programmers are becoming the new gatekeepers for new music.”
One of those technologists is Alastair Dant, who travelled to SXSW as one of the Guardian’s interactive developers. He’s been making music for years, so has a distinctive insight as he’s watched technology evolve and change the the public face of music. What does he think the next big thing in music will be? “Crowdsourcing is definitely at an interesting point. If you look at something like Tw1tterband, which brought a group of complete strangers together through Twitter to make a song without ever actually being in the same room, I think you get an idea of where things are headed.”
Crowdsourcing is a word you hear a lot at SXSW; developers love it. It means bringing the crowd – the audience – into the process of whatever you’re making, whether it’s an article or a song. When SBTRKT marvels at the power of SoundCloud in bridging the gap between his music and his fans, it’s not difficult to see how this could transcend into fans having actual input into what he makes. He likens the transformative methods of getting music directly to fans to the way DJs in the past would premier dubplates (one-off pressings of new songs) at club nights to gauge the crowd’s reaction. “If I put something on SoundCloud and it gets a great reception, I’ll probably rush that release to make it available,” he says.
When Imran Ahmed describes the typical exciting new British act as wielding a laptop rather than a guitar, he may as well be describing your average attendee at SXSW; MacBook under arm, band T-shirt on, downloading the latest music app to their phone. The gap between technologists and musicians is as slim as the new iPad 2, and, like much of Apple’s fare, it’s getting smaller every day.
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First published online by Rosie Swash.