Monday, March 17, 2008

South By Southwest

After a rough go of it at South By So What (where the most popular band involved a teenager in a pink wig and drag singing lude lyrics over electronic beats) in Plano on Friday, I made the trek to Austin Saturday for my first go at South By Southwest.

I decided to wear a shirt asking people to come talk to me about what they wish the internet would do for their musical experience. I couldn't find iron-on letters at Target, so I figured the next best thing would be to get some nametags and write my message on those. I wound up drawing a lot of attention, but unfortunately no one actually talked to me about my message--they were all just interested in the design of the labels themselves. I must've had at least 25 strangers wanting to take pictures of me. Weird.

My SxSw experience got off to a slow start. I arrived a little after 5, when most daytime shows were over and the nighttime bands were all loading in and soundchecking. I didn't have a badge or a wristband (I'm not sure how/when/where you get those), so I had to take my chances at the door on each show--a risky proposition considering all the shows I wanted to see were at different venues.

I got into the Habana backyard (where Kaddisfly was playing) a little after 7 and hung with the guys from Kaddisfly for a while before heading to Esther's Follies for Bryan Scary and the Shredding Tears. The venue appeared to be a cheap dinner-and-a-show joint frequented by local magicians and the like. Thirty to forty people watched (half seated, half standing) as Scary and his band rolled through a series of operatic rock voyages through space (replete with props) that scream of Meatloaf and Genesis influences. A mangy Scary alternated between beating on his keyboard and falling all over the stage, acting and reacting to his own lyrics. It was certainly more of a show than any magician I've ever seen.

From there I sprinted back to see Kaddisfly. Excited to play a 45 minute set after their 20 minute tease at South By So What, they ripped into a new jam to open the set. Unfortunately, Kile's bass went out before they even got through the first song, and the rest of the show was delayed for a few minutes. Chris tried to pass the time by improvising on the keyboards and singing, but he ran out of material after a couple minutes. Finally, everything was fixed and the show went on without a hitch. After rolling through "Empire," they played a new track that the audience (not knowing who this band was) really dug. The band played their usual energetic live show (at one point Chris took off his shoes and started beating on the cymbals), showcasing their talents beautifully, and closing with an extended rendition of "Snowflakes."

Knowing the band would need a few minutes to pack up and load out before I could chat with them, I snuck off to see Oh No! Oh My! Being Austin locals, I expected a slightly bigger turnout than they had, but they packed over a hundred folks into the top floor of Buffalo Billiards. In sharp contrast to the intensity of the first two shows, Oh No! Oh My! played largely feel-good, poppy indie rock with funky rhythms and beautiful harmonies. They closed with a new song that was so good it completely soothed the complaints of some vocal fans screaming for their favorite older song.

I tried to get back into Kaddisfly's venue, but it was popular enough by that point that they were only accepting badges and wristbands. I called Aaron from Kaddisfly, who was about to sleep in the van, and realized I probably wasn't going to get to hang with them as much as I had hoped, so I should go elsewhere. Right at that point, I got a txt from Atom from Feable Weiner telling me to come hang out. We met up at Shakespeare's for You, Me, and Everyone We Know, where he introduced me to the founders of Echospin (which has YMaEWK's label, Drive-Thru Records, as a client). When the band's microphones all went out before even the end of the first song, Atom ditched for PureVolume Ranch, and after talking to the Echospin guys, I followed suit.

It turned out PureVolume Ranch was a private artists' party. Luckily, Atom sweet-talked the security guy and got me in. It was really great to see Atom again (first time in 3 years I think...way too long). We nerded out for a few hours, talking about the internet and the state of the music industry, and the future for it all. He revealed struggles he's had trying to find the right record or distribution deal for the new FW record he's been sitting on for nearly two years (it's extra-complicated because they've topped out the charts in the UK, but haven't had a whole ton of commercial success on this side of the pond (yet)). We met a few other interesting folks at the party, but generally just talked, even all the way through Limbeck's raucous set. He and his girlfriend were even gracious enough to let me crash on her couch.

All in all, I could say that I was disappointed in not seeing more music, but the truth is it cost me $32 to see four truly outstanding shows in near-perfect settings, and I met some good people and got to catch up with old friends. Not too shabby. Maybe someday I'll get to go for more than one day...

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Huge Tool: The LinkedIn Answer

Last Tuesday I was at a They Might Be Giants concert in Dallas, and amidst the usual witty banter between the Johns, John Flansburgh asked the audience “So do you think we should get on this Facebook thing?” There were some strong boos and some strong yeas, but to my surprise the majority of the crowd remained silent, or merely chuckling at the question itself.
The truth is, Facebook isn’t something people associate with music (though Facebook is trying to change that with their partnership with iTunes). I guarantee there were multiple people in the audience turning to their friends and whispering “Isn’t that what MySpace is for?” Just like it might be weird to get a Facebook Friend request after taking a business meeting with someone, but it might be appropriate on LinkedIn. Each site is, when all the initial excitement wears off, a tool for a specific purpose.
MySpace is for entertainment. It allows full creativity in making your profile as ugly as you dare, and is a hub for up-and-coming musical and comedy acts to share their material and plug themselves. Gone are the days of promoters and street team managers—bands manage all that by messaging their MySpace “friends.” It used to also be for people, but that was only when people on the internet were a form of entertainment, rather than an extension of real life.
Now Facebook is for people. People being the majority of people who don’t go to the internet looking for new relationships necessarily, but just want to keep track of what their real life friends are up to. Therein lies the beauty of the Social Graph—Facebook is a tool for keeping track of real life friends. Facebook has thus focused on communication and photos.
LinkedIn has survived in the face of possibly the worst design in internet history (recently upgraded to workable) because ultimately it was a very good tool for keeping track of business contacts (it’s syncing to Outlook was a fan favorite). In fact, one could argue that the poor design and difficulty in navigation may have been something of a comfort to business people who often see computers that way in the first place. If Facebook or MySpace (or Google's Orkut) buys LinkedIn and tries to integrate it, they will need to focus on the business-specific aspects of the site and be sure not to alienate long-time users by taking the focus away from that functionality.
Look at some of the other big guns: Google’s homepage is famously simple, focusing entirely on its search tool; Craigslist does nothing but provide a tool for online classifieds; eBay went through a craze, but now gets most of its traffic from stores and most of its revenues from PayPal (a smart pickup when they were on top of the world), both tools for facilitating ecommerce between existing merchants and everyday consumers; YouTube won in video not because it was the best in a lot of ways, but because it was the easiest tool to share videos with friends.
In the end, every truly successful website will boil down to being a tool—the others will have their fads, but will die off relatively quickly if they don’t evolve into valuable tools. While we have a fascination with this internet thing as though it were in an infomercial on tv, in the long run it’s going to boil down to a new set of tools for humans to get around their everyday lives. But perhaps by then we’ll be entertaining ourselves by taking family vacations to Mars.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Buy this record (yes, record)

I liked the post office yesterday--not only did my iPod Touch finally come in, but when I got to work in the morning I found a white box containing my double-disc, limited edition vinyl from Kay Kay and His Weathered Underground. I don't own a record player, but the band doesn't let you order the album in any other form (note: it does come with a card with a code to download the mp3s online). Not too many bands could get away with only selling vinyl, but for Kay Kay it seems somehow appropriate--they're very heavily influenced by the late 60s and early 70s (though they also show many signs of their Seattle rock roots). Their MySpace page describes them as "Alternative / Lounge / Experimental" music, but I think it's best to skip the classifications and let you hear for yourself. Oh, and don't forget to pick up one of the only 1000 copies of this record available--you won't regret it: