Amid much kerfuffle about city permits for events in parking lots during the South By Southwest Music Festival, we reported last fall that the massive vending machine/premium stage/garish spectacle Doritos has erected for the last few years in the parking lot of Carmelo’s Italian restaurant would not return to that space in 2015. A few weeks back, in a visit to the Statesman office, SXSW organizers confirmed that the chip company would not be at the festival at all this year. (Doritos representatives have not responded to a request for comment).
For many critics last year, Doritos became a representation of how corporate sponsorship has led the festival astray. In addition to programming the vending machine stage, Doritos sponsored a concert by last year’s keynote speaker Lady Gaga. In order to gain entry to the show, Gaga fans (and music journalists) were required to participate in a ham-handed “Bold Moves” social media campaign which had credentialed fest-goers performing publicity stunts for the company. Gaga’s performance was widely panned. Her keynote address had a few salient points about individual creativity in the modern music industry but was largely a softball conversation with fanboy interviewer, FuseTV’s John Norris.
In the wake of all that who could SXSW tap this year to bring the festival back into focus? I’ve turned this over in my head a hundred times and I always return to the one obvious choice:
Why? Leave aside the fact that it’s 2015 and the festival has never tapped a hip-hop artist to keynote, the drummer and musical director for the Roots is now also the leader of the Tonight Show band. His day job is to create musical arrangements for an elite selection of the most relevant musicians performing today, superstars and emerging artists alike. Beyond that, he’s a huge technology geek. His early adoption of blogging software in the late ’90s contributed to the creation of the Roots’ website Okayplayer.com. Through its message board communities hip-hop heads from around the world met, traded verses and ideas and argued about pretty much everything. The site was absolutely instrumental in undoing much of the regionalism that was central to hip-hop’s identity at the time. To this day, he functions as not just a musician, but one of our generation’s essential thinkers and philosophers. In 2014 he eloquently challenged artists to create a post-millennial protest music and weighed in reasonably on the Iggy Azalea debate. Also, that D’Angelo album that everyone lost their minds over around Christmas time? He co-produced it.
How likely is it? At first glance, it seems like a long shot. He is an awfully busy man, and unless the Tonight Show is going to follow Kimmel’s lead and do a week in Austin, which seems unlikely, the scheduling would be tough. But when you take into account his pet project, the VH1 show Soundclash he executive produces, it begins to seem much more plausible. Soundclash puts bands that wouldn’t normally collaborate together for mashup mixes of cover songs. The show premiered in July and has produced a few incredible collabs — think Ed Sheeran, Sia and Grouplove doing “Drunken Love.” But it has not received a ton of buzz. Where better to supercharge the show than SXSW, where thousands of musicians converging on Austin creating endless mix and match possibilities, not to mention the greatest showcase ever? If the stars align correctly, it’s not out of the question, and, quite frankly, it would be the best possible thing to happen to the fest.
The second string.
Why?: This is the big name most speculators have been floating. Talk of U2 dropping in on the fest has been in the air for years but it’s never materialized. He’s one of the biggest rock stars of all time and a master pontificator. Landing Bono would be a huge “get” for the fest.
How likely is it? The answer to that question is with iTunes. If the iTunes Music Festival returns to SXSW as it did last year, a U2 appearance becomes a very real possibility. The band has tied its identity very tightly to Apple’s music service. Remember that free record that no one except Rolling Stone was excited about? Bono has spent the last couple years recovering from a bike accident. He says he may never play guitar again and he clearly has a lot on his mind. He recently wrote a 6000-word A to Z treatise chronicling 2014 on the band’s web site. Full disclosure, I didn’t read the whole thing (who has that kind of time?) but letter ‘I,’ largely devoted to iTunes, is revealing. “That Apple remains a music company is the best news for any one who wakes up with a melody in their head or wanting to hear one,” Bono writes. “Apple is unique in big tech in trying to get artists paid. That they would agree to pay Universal for SONGS of INNOCENCE, and then gift it to all the people who still believe music is worth paying for, both makes sense and is a beautiful thing.” Does Apple want Bono to walk into the center of the music world at SXSW and put that message out? My money says absolutely.
Bonus: If the iTunes Music Festival returns I also suspect that fellow Irish musician Hozier will also appear on the bill. SXSWfm originally announced Hozier as an official artist, then pulled back his name and said he is not coming despite the fact that there’s a hole in his tour schedule in the middle of a slew of Texas dates during the fest. Hozier played the iTunes Fest in England last year.
Why? Swift, who is likely on her way to another Grammy sweep, shook up the music industry last year when she first declined to put her new album on Spotify, then pulled her entire catalog from the streaming music service. She penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on the value of music as art. While Spotify whimpered in the background, defenders applauded Swift for taking a stand. As her album sales skyrocketed, she continued to speak out against streaming services in an acceptance speech at the American Music Awards. At 25, she’s very young, but she’s revealed herself to be astute as both an ever-evolving pop star and a businesswoman.
How likely is it? Not particularly. While I believe Swift is incredibly relevant and would be an engaging speaker, I doubt that the fest would follow last year’s widely criticized Gaga keynote with such a young artist. Also, there’s a good chance Tay Tay doesn’t have the time.
Why? He’s the best-selling male artist of the Soundscan era. Maybe you don’t love his music, but you know it. What he lacks in hipster cred, he makes up for in real life substance. Remember when he cancelled his Tonight show appearance because he felt like it would be “distasteful” to perform in light of the Ferguson decision?
How likely is it? Brooks doesn’t really need SXSW to help him sell out arenas. SXSW would probably prefer someone buzzier.
Why? Apart from the surprise album the broke the internet in 2013, the “Flawless” singer is one of Texas’ great gifts to the world.
How likely is it? This one falls into the category of straight up pipe dream. Beyond award acceptances, the Queen B isn’t know for speech making and she doesn’t really do anything that isn’t elaborately choreographed. We can all dream, though, right?