Listen to Austin 360 Radio

SXSW 2021: Timbaland, Swizz Beatz think the future of live music is streaming

Ramon Ramirez
Special to the American-Statesman
Clockwise from top left, Lucas Shaw, Fadia Kader, Swizz Beatz and Timbaland speak at the featured session “The Pandemic’s Hottest Concert Series” during SXSW Online on March 16, 2021

During a South by Southwest online panel on Tuesday, perennial hitmakers Timbaland and Swizz Beatz made a bold prediction: The future of live music is on your couch.

They agreed that it’ll be a while before music tours return in full as the coronavirus pandemic continues. Even then, as Timbaland put it: “There’s too much money in streaming.”

The 49-year-old producer born Timothy Mosley thinks streaming events will become a post-pandemic, “long-term” part of touring, where high-profile acts plan tours around “selective dates and traveling” but with the consumer expectation of paying for live dates at home, too. He envisioned live music as a rare, prized and boutique event; if you can afford a trip to London for a show, he said, you do that. The rest of us can log on to watch.

Adler at SXSW:Expect 'a close vote' on Austin homeless camping measure

“People are getting very comfortable being in their own space,” Swizz Beatz (aka Kasseem Dean) added, saying that anxiety about large crowds would loom in the near future. Instead of going out, he said: “I’ll just set it up in my living room and I’ll have my own 15 to 20 people over, and we’ll enjoy it from the VIP — which is my house. … A lot of things have to change for people to be comfortable to go outside.”

Chief among those factors, 42-year-old Swizz Beatz said: vaccine proliferation and apps that show you’ve been vaccinated before you can walk into an arena. “I know people that are still getting sick to this day and it’s not older people. ... Until then, we’re right here.”

Alicia Keys, left and Swizz Beatz attend the 61st Annual GRAMMY Awards on Feb. 10, 2019 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, Calif.

The two rap moguls would know about monetizing online. The longtime friends launched online concert series Verzuz last March at the outset of the pandemic. During SXSW Online, they were on hand to discuss the viral cultural obsession.

For the uninitiated, Verzuz is a livestream series where two prolific musicians curate their discographies and take turns playing their songs. Live performances are usually involved. In a 2020 battle of canine rap royalty, for example, Snoop Dogg’s beloved songs featuring “bow wow” lyrics played opposite DMX’s barking ad-libs. That night on Twitter, it was a chaotic and fun trending topic as surly, purist hip-hop fans joyfully reminisced about the "Belly" soundtrack.

'SXSW isn't real':Fest favorite Baratunde Thurston on racism, digital freedom

Timbaland called Verzuz a “video series/concert/history lesson.” Swizz Beatz said it was “an educational celebration platform.” The two originally imagined Verzuz as a live event years ago, where successful producers (who make beats for countless club singles but rarely get to be the center of attention) could “battle” onstage. And so on March 24, the duo took to Instagram Live and broke the internet just as lockdowned Americans settled in for a long year. The subsequent Verzuz between R&B stars Brandy and Monica garnered 1.2 million live Instagram viewers and a drop from now-Vice President Kamala Harris.

The battles don’t end with clear winners, though both participants get what the panelists called the “Verzuz effect,” or an immediate boost in relevance, social media mentions, sales and streams.

Timbaland performs at the Super Bowl Fan Jam on South Beach in Miami Beach, Fla., in 2010. The hip-hop producer appeared as part of SXSW Online on Tuesday.

“We do it for the Verzus effect, because those artists should get their gardens while they’re living,” Swizz Beatz said, drawing a line from Gladys Knight’s September Verzuz to her recent performance at the NBA All-Star game.

Having not been in the same room this whole pandemic, the duo pledged a reunion for the Verzuz anniversary this month. They teased stunts like the first-ever inter-squad battle (courtesy of the Wu-Tang Clan). A genius in the SXSW comments suggested Backstreet Boys vs. 'N Sync.

A Verzuz tour is also in the works, they said — just, you know, taper expectations about how many cities it’ll actually get to.

Timbaland and Swizz Beatz host music producer competition series on Instagram Live.

Our full coverage of SXSW is only possible thanks to Statesman subscribers. If you're not already a subscriber, become one today at statesman.com/subscribenow. New subscribers get a year of digital access at an introductory rate of $39 through March 18.