By Chris Thompson
(Check back for GRAMMY.com's ongoing South by Southwest conference coverage, including blogs and artist interviews as part of our GRAMMYs on the Road series. Meanwhile, visit The Recording Academy on Facebook and Twitter for SXSW updates.)
With a couple thousand acts showcasing in more than 100 Austin, Texas, clubs, the performance aspect of the SXSW conference is infinitely customizable. But attend some daytime panels, and an important through-line becomes difficult to ignore.
"If you have a choice," advised hip-hop artist Brother Ali in one panel, "you should keep that damn day job."
Vector Management's Nick Stern framed it another way during Pennies From The Celestial Jukebox, an industry panel on Friday addressing the prospects for artist compensation at a time when streaming music services have begun usurping the traditional role of radio and retail.
"I would much rather be able to sell 17 million records like you could in the '90s," said Stern, who represents artists ranging from Kid Rock to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. "But we don't have that option."
Referring to himself as "a recovering emerging artist," upstate New York concert promoter Stephen Clair hosted Small Markets Can Build Careers, a late-afternoon panel during which speakers extolled the virtues of touring smaller cities.
"It's not just about major markets, it's about the Pistol Rivers of the world," said Tim Drake, president of the New Jersey-based Roots Agency, referring to an unincorporated community in southern Oregon. In such markets, he added, an artist can find more welcoming listeners and, in many cases, a bigger paycheck.
Ideally, they'll be getting significantly bigger paychecks than the thousands of artists from around the world who come to SXSW, at their own expense, for the sake of exposing their music to a wider and potentially more influential audience.
Of course, most artists don't expect to follow in the footsteps of pop trio Hanson, who went from being virtually unknown when they performed at a SXSW showcase more than 15 years ago, to huge success.
But there are other rewards, many of which involve the bonding between artists. During last night's Planet Hip-Hop celebration, independently minded artists from Australia, Canada, Sweden, Portugal, the UK, and United States crowded into a small club to perform politically conscious hip-hop for a responsive audience.
And that pattern scales further up the career ladder, as Colombia's Bomba Estéreo ignited the crowd as openers for Latin GRAMMY winner Juanes, who closed Friday night's show at the Moody Theater (the same venue where Bruce Springsteen And The E Street Band held court the previous evening), with a rafter-shaking set for a crowd of his closest SXSW friends.
After four days of SXSW frenzy, at least one fact remains indisputably clear: Despite the unprecedented challenges facing today's recording industry, it's ultimately the music that makes it all worthwhile.
(Come back tomorrow for an update on Saturday's SXSW events.)