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SXSW 2019: a morning with Johnny Cash – 16th March 2019 (Saturday, part 1)

 
By on Wednesday, 3rd April 2019 at 1:00 pm
 

Photo of Johnny Cash from the official SXSW Web site

I’ve spent time in March in Austin every year for the last 7 years. And yet, all this time, I have never seen a film that was part of SXSW. That all changed this year. Of the days I knew I would be in Austin, I looked at the films that were playing and when, and I found something that I could slot in on Saturday morning, when most revelers would still be asleep. Or hungover. Or both. ‘The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash’ is a new, authorised documentary on the Man in Black that I saw at the Alamo Ritz. It’s a welcome continuation for those of us whose knowledge of Cash’s history, personally and professionally, is limited to the dramatisation of his life portrayed in ‘Walk the Line’ superbly by Joaquin Phoenix.

Grief over the death of his brother in childhood, the freedom of the open road as part of touring, and the effect of the Folsom Prison concerts are the primary touchstones music documentarian director Thom Zimny and screenwriter Warren Zanes come back to again and again in this film. It is, as one might expect, a much more comprehensive review of Cash’s life from childhood to the end than ‘Walk the Line’ ever could be. It benefits from soundbites from first-hand interview tapes with Cash, his family and friends, and they serve to drive home the relenting reality of his life as you experience the film.

I have been thinking about Cash’s addiction to amphetamines during his early touring years over the last few days before writing this, and I can’t help but draw a line between the reality of artists having to do a lot of late night driving to get from town to town and the tragedy that befell Liverpool Her’s and their tour manager last week. Like any other job, there will always be inherent dangers to being a musician, but to continue progressing in your musical career shouldn’t be a risk to your health or kill you. I don’t know how we do this, and I know Help Musicians UK and similar organisations exist, but we have to continue providing support to the music community. We simply must.

I had not been aware of just what a big influence gospel music was on Johnny Cash. His mother, upon hearing his adolescent singing voice, told him, “God has his hand on you. Don’t ever forget the gift.” I found incredibly bittersweet that although this gift of an incredible voice brought joy and emotion to his many fans, the actual act of singing appears to have been how he felt he could attempt to exorcise the many battles raging in his mind. His description of begging his brother not to go to work the morning he died, based on his own premonition that something bad would happen to him if he went, is painfully poignant. The theme of mortality would haunt Cash his entire life. Through substance abuse and the decline of his career, it is touching how Cash’s career was revitalised late in his life when Rick Rubin believed in him and put his trust in his talent. I’d say God or some other divine being(s) had a hand in making that happen.

As is the case with many musicians, Cash’s children who were born during the earlier years of his career had a mostly absentee father have different recollections than John Carter Cash, who was born when Cash was much older and realised the importance of family. Soundbites from his children and friends add another level of authenticity that wouldn’t have been possible if this hadn’t been an authorised documentary. Taken together, the clips of interviews make you feel not like you’re being talked to but you’re part of the conversation. I know when I’m watching a documentary, I want to have a personal connection with the subject. ‘The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash’ succeeds in this in spades. Leaving the Ritz, I was covered in tears. I hope this film gets a worldwide distribution deal soon.

 

SXSW 2019: #youtoo? with DJ Target, Shirley Manson and Richard James Burgess and Song Math with Ross Golan – 15th March 2019 (Friday, part 1)

 
By on Tuesday, 2nd April 2019 at 11:00 am
 

This year at SXSW 2019, I struggled to find convention sessions and talks whose summaries I would write that I felt would speak not just to our regular readers of TGTF but to a wider audience. Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz and Michael Diamond had a scheduled keynote Friday morning, but in my head I wondered, what exactly could they tell me, a person who appreciated their band but was not an uber fan, that I hadn’t heard before? I had the same feeling about Shirley Manson of Garbage and Lauren Mayberry of CHVRCHES’ keynote on Thursday, thinking that what the two of them would discuss would be a retread of past conversations about the difficulty of being a woman in the music business. Instead of attending either, I decided instead to attend the #youtoo? Creating a More Inclusive Music Industry session, which included Manson as well as BBC Radio 1Extra presenter and artist DJ Target and Richard James Burgess, CEO of the American Association of Independent Music. The session was moderated by Vanessa Reed, CEO of PRS for Music Foundation and who spearheaded the ground-breaking EU initiative Keychange, self-described as “a collaborative European programme led by PRS Foundation which empowers women to transform the music industry.”

The session offered three different perspectives on how to achieve better equality in the music business, from the unique viewpoints of an artist (Manson) and a radio promoter and independent music champion, both with a background of being an artist (Target and Burgess, respectively). As a woman of colour who runs a music Web site, a rarity, I myself have wrestled with how women go forward from where we are today to reach equality in the business. I have been uncomfortable with the push for equality by physical number of female acts on festival bills, a push that seems to be getting louder every minute. To be clear, I am not against the ultimate goal of equality. The problem, as I see it, is how to implement it.

Vanessa Reed and DJ Target Friday SXSW 2019

One moment in time that sticks in my head is this article by The Guardian’s Michael Hann applauding the bill for 2015’s End of the Road. Part of the argument that rang hollow to me was in regards to Laura Marling’s position as headliner and how the festival should be applauded for choosing her. Marling is an established artist with a very large fanbase and therefore her presence would sell tickets but not on the basis of her gender. While she is a fine example of a woman who broke the mould, succeeded against insurmountable odds and deserves full credit for all she’s done, I would argue that artists regardless of who or what they are have all faced their own difficulties. Who gets to judge who has suffered more and deserves the bigger breaks?

This may sound funny coming from a woman who is also a person of colour, but the way I see it, hard work is hard work, just like some in this business will argue talent is talent, no matter the source. I fully admit that my experience is coloured by the fact that as part of what is called the model minority in America, I’ve received the short end of multiple sticks. I recall with much clarity that even though I asked specifically for help, I received much less assistance from my high school counselor because as an Asian-American, I was perceived as not needing it as much as my peers. I was also excluded from my university’s minority student support office because I was of Asian descent.

Shirley Manson and Richard James Burgess Friday SXSW 2019

One of the things that I have appreciated more than anything else as a Chinese-American music editor is being judged and respected by industry folk for what I bring to the table and not because I’m a woman or the color of my skin. I also don’t even get the sense that my being American is considered a benefit or a hindrance. Maybe it’s masochism, but I would rather be remembered for how I was able to promote acts I loved, not because I was a nonwhite woman doing it. Burgess’ comments describing how his office is staffed echoed my thinking: he explained that while he has more women working for him than most have in the industry, his hiring decisions were based on merit and experience, not gender. While this model obviously can’t be applied to every situation, I think this is what we should aspire towards.

I appreciated each speaker’s views on the topic and what they suggested for going forward. In particular, Manson’s outspoken opinions on how the white women of America failed all women in voting for Donald Trump for President is something I have thought a lot about since that dreadful day in November 2016. While all of us women have shared experiences in feeling marginalised by elders due to existing patriarchal social structures, by voting in that manner, white women, whether knowingly or not, discounted the additional hurdles faced by women of colour in our country.

Manson’s searing commentary on how the pink hat was seized as a symbol of white women feminism felt spot on to me and brought me to tears. It has become very much the “protect your own patch” mentality, which has a mirror in the racism I discovered a few years ago within the white LGBT community, which was a surprise to me after having grown up with the inherent racism among Asians. My intention in including Manson’s comment here is less about taking sides but to take the first step, in raising awareness of the existence of a problem. After awareness, we can move towards better understanding and empathy. Without these three pieces, we cannot truly address or tackle the issues. Inclusivity in conversations seems to me as key for us to come to permanent, lasting, agreeable solutions.

with Shirley Manson crop
photo by Maryum Rasool of SBEV (thank you kindly!),
I’m pretty sure I was reliving ‘Special’ and disbelieving I was talking to Shirley Manson

Manson brought the conversation back to the music industry when she described the difficulty in finding a female band to support Garbage on a recent tour. I thought it was interesting that Manson felt it was a thinking process that caused industry people to freeze, rendering them unable to call to mind any act that would fit Garbage’s request. I think this is an important distinction: minds can be changed. The more we can keep the dialogue open, the more we challenge the status quo, the more we turn the conversations into the norm and less the exception, the more consistent changes we’ll see.

Both DJ Target and Manson emphasised the role (no pun intended) of strong female role models in the artist realm. Manson, along with the aforementioned Mayberry and others like Grimes, Jane Weaver and Gwenno, have taken their positions with candour and energy. More of this, ladies. But we need to step up and raise up those and offer our help to anyone who needs a hand.

Instead of rehashing the part of Ross Golan’s Song Math that I was present for, I will simply summarise for you the most thought-provoking bits. Ross, I hope one day you offer your review of popular music as a recording. I’d buy it! I’m sure plenty of music teachers would use it for their classes, too.
1. A lot of classical composers died of syphilis: that’s a fact, which Golan utilised repeatedly as a comic device. Thankfully, we here in modern day have penicillin available to us. No more mercury poisoning! But if you’ve been watching Victoria, you already know this.
2. Gregorian chants should be considered the earliest pop recordings.
3. Phoenix were right: Franz Liszt was the first true rock star.
4. Today’s musicians are indebted to the songwriters of years gone by, and much beyond sampling. For one, the structure of songs as simple as ‘Happy Birthday’, ‘Frere Jacques’ and ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ have been repeated over and over, inspiring artists far and wide, and subliminally or not.

 

SXSW 2019: Matt Maltese at the Back to Amy photo exhibition, ROE and Joshua Burnside at Output Belfast and APRE – 14th March 2019 (Thursday, part 1)

 
By on Wednesday, 27th March 2019 at 11:00 am
 

After a luxurious sleep (read: more than 6 hours) and the breakfast buffet in my hotel, it was time for a trip to the often neglected west side of Austin, which has some of the most chill and interesting watering holes in town. Holy Roller played host all week to the Back to Amy photo exhibition, displaying never before seen images of the late and great Amy Winehouse at age 19, before she became a household name and before the release of her seminal debut album ‘Frank’. The photos were taken by Charles Moriarty and introduced by producer Gabriel Gornell, who also served as emcee for a specially curated group of promising young artists playing in a cute performance nook of the restaurant.

I was curious about both the photos and Matt Maltese’s performance there at 11 AM. Not the best time to perform during a full-on festival at SXSW, but let me say as a music editor, any opportunity at any time of day to sit down on a chair and enjoy a lovely hand-crafted pink beverage called the She Bad is more than welcome. Following his set the previous night at Central Presbyterian Church, I preferred this performance in more relaxed surroundings for its intimacy. We probably could have sat at his feet if we wanted to. A large cartoon drawing of Amy hung as the backdrop, a poster that all artists playing at this exhibition would sign after their performances. During a week of watching all sorts of artists with seemingly increasingly complexity in instrumentation, watching a master at work with the simplest of setups served as a good reminder that at its very basic, sometimes stripped back is best.


During this set, he had been introduced as creating Brexit pop; Maltese was quick to be humourously contrary in correcting this as he started, saying he was now in post-Brexit pop. Maltese wrote ‘As the World Caves In’ with two world leaders in mind, imagining them getting intimate as their decisions have led to the end of the world and humanity. Given the problems in his country and ours, it has become strangely more appropriate than he could have ever realised when he was writing it. ‘Strange Time’, another one of his songs that is no hurry to get to the finish, muses on an unconventional relationship that somehow works: “They say I’m too old for my age / And you’re just the same / Yet we make love like kids, again and again.” Like Maltese himself, it doesn’t sound like it should work on paper but is such a pleasant surprise when you’re finally get an opportunity to be properly introduced to it.


After some time mooching around at the posters on offer at Flatstock, I returned to the British Music Embassy for the first two acts of the Output Belfast afternooon showcase there. Young Derry singer/songwriter ROE impresssed straight out of the gate with her aplomb. Being stood on a stage entirely alone except for her guitar and electronics in front of Texan fans and industry types might have shaken the nerves of lesser mortals, but not her. The precocious, smiley artist explained the origins of her songs as she went along, lending sincerity to her stories of adolescent angst. The last festival we covered her at was Hard Working Class Heroes 2017, where she performed at Dublin Grand Social.


The poppy ‘Thomas’ specifically calls out a situation where she was teased for her short hair and compared to a male classmate, but the treatment is incredibly catchy. Songwriting was her method of catharsis from depression when coming up wth ‘Down Days’, broaching a difficult, ongoing subject that needs to keep being discussed and continually. ‘Wasted.Patient.Thinking’ is a surprisingly adult admission that we all should taking care of ourselves first, especially when a relationship no longer serves its purpose to us. It is a sobering thought that ROE has able to come to these conclusions and write them into infectiously amazing pop and at an age when the rest of us were all twiddling our thumbs. If she can keep this up – and I do think she can – she’ll have a long career ahead of her.

Joshua Burnside and his live band returned to Austin after a series of rousing performances at SXSW 2018 last March. This time, he arrived in Texas with a prominent moustache that made him look like a cross between a cowboy from days gone by and Matthew McConaughey. Throwing a beloved flat cap into the audience might not have been the best idea – I’m still not sure if he ever got it back? – but it sure led to a whoop of cheers around Latitude 30. ‘Holllllogram’, from his 2017 Northern Irish Music Prize-winning album ‘Ephrata’, still wows in its exposition of how a broken heart can remain haunted.


I unfortunately had to leave Burnside’s set early to catch what I thought would be an enlightening talk given by Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA and his work colleagues at Auddly at the Hilton. Auddly has been now rebranded as Session, though I had to find that out on social media, as there were technical difficulties preventing their Thursday afternoon session at SXSW from starting on time. I sat there for a good 20 minutes before calling it quits in favour of the International Day stage.

APRE’s most prominent appearance during SXSW 2019 would no doubt be their slot opening the BBC Radio 1 showcase Saturday night at the British Mustic Embassy. Given my past experience having difficulty getting into Latitude 30 for that showcase in multiple years, I didn’t want to miss out on seeing the London-based duo up close and personal. If you’ve followed APRE for any length of time or indeed, you read Bands to Watch preview of them from last month, you are well aware that they don’t take themselves seriously. They also enjoy wearing bright red jackets, which they brought to Austin!


okay, so there’s no red jacket here, but…

This electronic-driven duo occupy a nice niche between tropical pop and r&b, which gives them the opportunity to cover more music territory when songwriting. The delivery of the anthemic ‘Without Your Love’ and ‘Don’t You Feel Like Heaven’ suggest they could their music to stadiums. Conversely, in a different way, a r&b-inflected song like ‘Blackstreet’ pits them favourably against acts like Jungle who have proven they can reach those stages. Although like when I saw Elder Island the day before I got the distinct feeling I was probably the only person in the room who’d heard of them before this, APRE impressed a different set of punters than the ones who saw them the night before at the Communion showcase at Augustine.

 

SXSW 2019: the return to Austin and David Byrne vs. Lance Bass – 13th March 2019 (Wednesday, part 1)

 
By on Tuesday, 26th March 2019 at 11:00 am
 

Reflecting on my eighth SXSW in a row, there are some things about the Music portion of SXSW that are self-evident. One of those things is that there is no good or bad time to arrive for the music festival. Regardless when you choose to touch down in Austin, there are going to be things you have missed, but there will be plenty more amazing things to come. Covering the event alone for TGTF this year, my decision to arrive on Wednesday was primarily a financial one: I stayed in the thick of it, on a hotel on East 4th Street for 4 days, trading number of days for location.

Our pilot on our flight from Baltimore landed us admirably through choppy, bumpy turbulence (cue motion sickness, nearly) and before our scheduled arrival time. Despite this, it took longer to get my badge this year, longer than I could ever remember it taking in past years. The badge pickup area was noticeably much smaller and with less staff than in previous years, though everyone I interacted with was in good spirits and helpful. By the time all was said and done, it was 1 PM, halfway through the two SXSW Conference sessions I’d noted on my schedule: David Byrne and his Reasons for Being Cheerful keynote at the Hilton or Lance Bass in the convention center, both of which I previewed here. Knowing that Byrne’s keynote would likely be videotaped and available to everyone later – I was right, you can watch it in the embed below – I decided to go with the *NSYNC star instead.

A music journo choosing Lance Bass over David Byrne probably sounds like a major mistake. Bass was in town for the premiere of The Boy Band Con, a YouTube documentary he coproduced on Lou Pearlman, the boy band impresario who launched the careers of *NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, O-Town and many others but who was ultimately brought down by the American legal system when his fraud and racketeering activities were brought to light. Check out the film trailer below. It’s interesting to learn than it was Bass who was able to get so many past professional singer associates of Pearlman’s to participate in the documentary, winning them over by explaining that the film would be about their stories as it would be about the man who ultimately swindled them.

I was a massive boyband fan back in the day. The other day, an *NSYNC song came on Sirius XM radio in my car (‘God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You’, if you wanted to know) and I was shocked I still knew all the words. For a good portion of my formative years, while I dealt with some family and health issues, music was the only world available to me that I could escape into. I still have all the hand gestures and dance moves to ‘Bye Bye Bye’ memorised. I’d watch the kids go crazy over their favourite bands on TRL on MTV here in America and for that hour the show was on, I could pretend I was like everybody else. It sounds cliched, but when you’re young and you feel like a total misfit, any sense of belonging is welcome. Thinking along those lines, it is incredibly sad that at the same time that while his band brought joy and inclusion to their fans, all the while Lance Bass had to hide who he was and for so many years.

I suppose it’s no surprise that his sexuality was a major point during his conversation with Homophilia podcast hosts Dave Holmes and Matt McConkey. Despite years of discomfort and “playing a character” who wasn’t who he was at all, Bass is now comfortable in his own skin and an advocate for the LGBT community. He spoke of the time he proposed to his now husband Michael Turchin in what he thought would be a beautiful place to make a romantic overture in New Orleans. Unfortunately, the mood was broken by an overzealous fan who apparently wouldn’t go away and completely missed the fact that they were in the middle of something.


photo of Lance Bass from his Facebook page

Although I was only in attendance for the second half of the session, I’d argue that I probably saw the better half. Audience members took turns at the mike on the floor. A young gay man from Mississippi thanked Bass for his visibility, saying that having him as a role model gave him the confidence to be himself. (Who brought the onions?) A female fan asked what Bass thought of social media and if he wished it had been around when *NSYNC hit it big. He described as a double-edged sword. He was glad that it hadn’t been around because anything stupid they did would have instantly spread like wildfire, and he insisted that it would have been something said or done by his bandmate (and resident big mouth) Joey Fatone who would have probably caused the most problems, which elicited huge laughs. On the flipside, Bass said that if social media had been around, he would probably have over a million followers on Twitter by now, which would make promoting any of his work that much easier.

Another thought-provoking question Bass was asked was about his stance on religion, specifically given the fact that he was raised Southern Baptist in rural Mississippi. He said he still considers himself a Christian and called out the mainstream Christian church for being “fake Christians”, which I took to mean their ultra-conservative beliefs that have excluded and shunned the LGBT community. While I think we all expected such a response from a worldwide-known celebrity whose family and fans support him, it drives home how poisonous the massive divide in American Christianity on the issue of sexual orientation, among many other close-minded beliefs and teachings, really is. When will we as a nation, and as part of the global community, rise above these differences and embrace them as part of what truly makes America great?

I feel sure that Bass’ faith is behind his ability to have forgiven Pearlman after all that he did to him and *NSYNC. Lance Bass has moved well past what might have led to a dark ending for him, instead living his authentic life and being a true role model of what it looks like after you overcome adversity.

 

TGTF Guide to SXSW 2019: this year’s recommended keynotes and speakers

 
By on Wednesday, 6th March 2019 at 11:00 am
 

Every year without fail, you can count on the SXSW Conference to bring you an illuminating parade of industry visionaries and artists speaking next month in Austin. In a few weeks, there will be an awe-inspiring selection of sessions to sit in on and engage with as part of 2019’s Conference. Below is just a smattering of what music programming is on offer this year.

A$AP Rocky and Gorden Wagener (Monday, 11 March, 12:30 PM) – The announcement of A$AP Rocky as a SXSW 2019 showcasing artist has been huge. Quite possibly as huge is his session on the 11th of March to discuss his success with development and sales of his own athletic wear and accessories. (You can check out a recent interview he did with Los Angeles radio station Power 106 before a live appearance at the Forum.) Joining him in this session is Gorden Wagener of Daimler AG, responsible for directing everything related to the customer experience at Mercedes-Benz. The importance of creativity, branding and fans and followers will no doubt be discussed in this session.

T-Bone Burnett (Wednesday, 13 March, 11 AM) – He may not be a household name you recognise, but you definitely know his work. Musician, producer and songwriter T-Bone Burnett has composed the soundtracks for countless films and produced many albums, including those that launched the careers of Counting Crows and Los Lobos while helping reinvent and relaunch those of Gregg Allman and Roy Orbison. Burnett will be releasing his 13th album ‘The Invisible Light’ in April, so he’ll be chomping at the bit to talk about his newest work.

David Byrne (pictured at top) (Wednesday, 13 March, 12:30 PM) – The former frontman of Talking Heads and multi-award winner will be speaking about Reasons to Be Cheerful, a platform to drive social change he launched last year. The purpose of the Web site is to give people the tools and information to make changes locally to social issues as diverse as climate and energy to transportation. For a taste of what Byrne might talk about, I’ve embedded below a talk Byrne gave in early January 2018 at the New School in New York City.

Lance Bass (Wednesday, 13 March, 12:30 PM) – You remember him, Lance was the blond bass singer in *NSYNC. In case you somehow missed this, since his former ‘90s boyband’s implosion, he has become an actor of stage and screen and a gay activist. He even had a turn on Dancing With the Stars. Perhaps it’s surprising that his appearance at SXSW 2019 will be to talk about his current career as a film and tv producer. Like Madonna, Cher and many other legends in the music business, he’s proven resilient in successfully reinventing himself, his time as *NSYNC fading into the distance.

Shirley Manson and Lauren Mayberry (keynote; Thursday, 14 March, 11 AM) – These two female titans of Scottish music will be appearing at Thursday morning’s Music keynote. It’s being presented in association with PRS Foundation’s Keychange programme and will be centred on discussions about “creativity, the music industry and the female identifying narrative.” Both have been outspoken on feminism and and equality in the business; below, watch an interview with Mayberry at Australian music festival Splendour in the Grass.

Laura Jane Grace (Thursday, 14 March, 2 PM) – Formerly the founder and frontman of punk band Against Me!, Grace is a transgender musician who has become a role model for those struggling with gender identity and dysphoria. With her new band Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers, Grace is headed in a decidedly more intimate direction with her first solo album. The changes in her life over the last 6 to 7 years have thrust her more into the public limelight, and I’m sure she’ll be using this platform at SXSW 2019 to revisit key events, as well as discuss the music she’s making while Against Me! is on hiatus.

Björn Ulvaeus and Niclas Molinder (Thursday, 14 March, 3:30 PM) – Ulvaeus is best known as a Swedish songwriter and producer of international giants ABBA and the co-composer of Mamma Mia! and other Broadway musicals. He will be making a stop at SXSW 2019 along with Niclas Molinder; both are cofounders, along with famed pop songwriter and producer Max Martin and manager Ash Pournouri, of Auddly. Auddly is described on the SXSW Web site as “rapidly setting the standard for how music creators, their collaborators and their representatives are identified along with accrediting their contributions in compositions and recordings.” A worthy enterprise, indeed. Ulvaeus seems like such a great interviewee, as evidenced from the BBC One Show clip from last year below.

Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz and Michael “Mike D” Diamond (keynote; Friday, 15 March, 11 AM) – The surviving members of seminal NYC hip-hop trio Beastie Boys will be stopping by SXSW this year for the Friday morning keynote session during the Music part of the SXSW Conference. Late last year, Horovitz and Diamond released Beastie Boys Book, 6 years on from the untimely death of their bandmate Adam “MCA” Yauch.

Ross Golan (Friday, 15 March, 11 AM) – Like T-Bone Burnett described above, Ross Golan isn’t exactly a name that will ring too many bells but I can guarantee you’ve heard and appreciate his work. Golan penned Ariana Grande’s ‘Dangerous Woman’ and 5 Seconds of Summer’s ‘Mrs. All American’, among others. However, I don’t think Golan will be in Austin to rest on his songwriting laurels and will be speaking on something else near and dear to many artists and managers’ hearts. He’s a major champion of the Music Modernization Act, which was signed into U.S. law last October and aims to move forward with better best practices in issues of copyright in the digital age. He’ll be discussing this, along with the future of songwriting.

As always, the schedule of events at SXSW 2019 is subject to change. For the most up-to-date information on the SXSW Conference, visit SXSW’s official Web site.

 

SXSW 2018: Keynote speech by YouTube Global Head of Music Lyor Cohen – 14th March 2018

 
By on Monday, 9th April 2018 at 11:00 am
 

Header photo by Sean Mathis/Getty Images for SXSW

My SXSW 2018 Wednesday afternoon technically began late in the morning at the Austin Convention Center, with an 11 AM keynote speech by YouTube Global Head of Music Lyor Cohen. I was a bit tardy in arriving to the Convention Center to queue for the popular talk, and I ended up sitting in the overflow room, where the speech was being simulcast on a big screen TV. This arrangement in no way detracted from Cohen’s message or the enthusiasm of the attendees, who nodded and occasionally even applauded as if Cohen himself were actually at the front of the room.

Lyor Cohen internal

Cohen began his keynote address by giving some background on the earlier days of his career in the music industry, as a way of explaining his lifelong passion for music and for promoting musicians. His career started in artist management for up-and-coming rap artists at Rush Productions in the 1980s, and his success eventually led him to high level executive roles at Def Jam and Warner Music Group. Cohen’s brief autobiographical sketch was accompanied by DJ/producer D-Nice, who supplied audio clips from a number of artists on Cohen’s historical rosters, including RUN-DMC, Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Slick Rick, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Warren G, Sum 41, The Killers, and Fetty Wap. (Want to hear it for yourself? D-Nice’s playlist is available, of course, on YouTube. Click here to listen.)

D-Nice

In the context of his career highlights, Cohen made note of some of the biggest changes he’s seen in the industry, emphasising his own willingness to accept new ideas and his ability to adapt to an ever-changing landscape as the keys to his success. From that point, he moved on to discuss his current position at YouTube, including plans for some major changes that are already in the works. Cohen described his vision for music on YouTube in terms of three basic goals: (1) creating diversity of distribution through ads and subscriptions, (2) collaborating with label partners to promote and break artists and (3) giving artists, labels and managers the best direct consumer access across any other platform.

You read that right. YouTube will, in the near future, institute a paid-subscription service which will be layered on to YouTube’s current ad-based service. The new monthly-fee subscription model was supposed to launch in March, around SXSW, but has apparently been delayed until later this year. Nevertheless, Cohen was undeterred by the delay, saying, “There are plenty of leaned-in listeners willing to pay, so we will convert them to paid subscribers. We know we’re late to the music subscription party, so we are making an enormous investment to launch a music product that combines the best of Google Play Music’s context listening and YouTube’s breadth and depth of catalogue.”

As for breaking new artists, Cohen outlined his plans to continue in that arena as well. “Breaking artists is my drug and now, here at YouTube, I can do so on a massive, global scale. This past year we’ve partnered with Sony, Warner and independents to support artists like Camila Cabello, Dua Lipa, and Ozuna. We got to flex our platform to help promote their music, tell their stories and grow their global fanbases.”

artist candid

While I’m not entirely convinced about the wisdom of Cohen’s first two ideas, his third, regarding direct consumer access via YouTube, was at least partially on point. “The most powerful aspect of YouTube is our ability to allow artists, managers, publishers, songwriters and labels to engage with their fans with no hoops to jump through,” he said. “Whether it’s promoting a new video, an album, a tour or a live stream, the only place the music industry can play in both commerce and direct to consumer is YouTube.” Let’s hope Cohen keeps it that way.

If you’re interested in hearing Cohen’s hour-long keynote speech in its entirety, SXSW has made the full video available online. You can watch and listen just below.

 
 
 

About Us

There Goes The Fear is where we tell you about the latest music, gigs, and tours we love and think you should too.

We love music that has its heart on its sleeve, tells a story, swims around our head all day or makes us dance like no-one's watching.

TGTF is edited by Mary Chang, who is based in Washington, DC. She is joined by writers in England, America and Ireland. It began as a UK music blog by Phil Singer in 2005.

All MP3s are posted with the permission of the artists or their representatives and are for sampling only. Like the music? Buy it.

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