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SXSW kicks off as musicians struggle to become nerds

The crowds at night on 6th Street during SXSW 2011 in Austin, Texas.

Today is the final day of the South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Texas. And it’s the first day of the South by Southwest music conference. The convergence of these two festivals makes a lot of sense when you factor in the technology explosion going on in the music industry lately. There are more ways than ever before to access and share music. If you’re a big star like Lady Gaga or Kanye West, you have plenty of people handling all that for you. If you’re trying to manage your own career, that’s a bit more of a challenge.

“The musicians who are incredibly tech savvy have a real advantage over musicians who are maybe luddites or have a tendency to just focus on playing music and not learning how to code,” says John Roderick of The Long Winters. So the cool kids on the music scene aren’t necessarily the ones who can melt your face off with a guitar solo, they’re the ones who have computer wizardry. I can’t imagine the guys from Twisted Sister ever knew how to code. Times change.

“If you can code your own website, you can put your music out there, and you can be monitoring your statistics,” Roderick says. “You have a distribution system within your own personal computer world that other musicians, myself included, who are not computer masters, we're reliant on either hiring people to do this work for us or begging people to do this for us, and it puts us at distinct advantage.”

It's a good time to be a music listener right now. All sorts of ways to get and share music online, including Spotify, Rdio, Last.fm, Pandora, iTunes, YouTube and numerous other online services. Casey Rae-Hunter of the Future of Music Coalition says there will be a lot of talk in Austin this week about one big issue: “Monetization. Honestly, the trickiest thing is figuring out how to create structures that will compensate musicians equitably and fairly, make sure that the people that are investing in the means of transmission, or the new version of distribution, can get their cut, and making sure that the consumer-facing product is attractive and at the right price point.”

It’s a challenging time to make money in music, especially when you’re competing with a network of piracy sites that give the music away for free and aren’t going away any time soon. Still, Hunter is hopeful that challenges mean opportunity.  “We identified some 42 revenue streams that are available to artists today,” he says. “A lot of them simply didn't exist 10 years ago, but a lot of them haven't fully matured and remain fairly inconsequential at this time.”

One potential stream musicians are looking toward is apps. You know, the sector that didn’t even exist a couple of years ago and has now become absolutely enormous. Thousands of music apps are out there, which means thousands of challenges for musicians to figure out how to work them.

Eliot Van Buskirk of Evolver.fm says everything started to change 10 years ago when music went digital. “Now,” he says, “the same thing has happened to the players themselves, so you know, you would never buy 20 different mp3 players each with a different function, but you would definitely install 20 different music apps if you're a music fan, so this just expands the possibilities dramatically.”

While in Austin, Van Buskirk met the developer of a new app that lets you create a sort of radio station on your phone that other people nearby can hear. “So, you pick songs and people can tune in, and you can listen along with them, you can all chat together.  He said artists are starting to use that to connect to their fans because it's like, if you like my music, maybe you'd like whole radio station of music that I like.”

And that creates one more challenge to musicians like John Roderick. “It's so bizarre,” he says, “at the same time, I’m trying to keep ahead of the curve.”

Also on this program, another edition of According to a Recent Study. We hear about a new report that will make you lose faith in humanity. Turns out 89 percent of lost cell phones will experience someone trying to get at their data. Put a lock on it!

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.

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