Exploring the South by Southwest Music Conference under way at the Austin Convention Center, I’m struck by the diverse and wide-ranging elements of the music industry represented at the annual festival. 

SXSW Music, now in its 29th year, draws about 2,300 musical acts from about 55 different countries, and about 28,000 registrants from about 80 different countries. That range of geography is immediately apparent among the bands playing the festival, even on a Thursday afternoon inside the convention center— from the thrash-bluegrass of hometown Austin band Whiskey Shivers to the ethereal, Asian hip-hop of Toffee, from Taipei.

The industry panels also vary widely in their focus. For a music fan, it’s a fascinating look at the inner-workings of the music business, as well as a chance to see major stars talking about their passions. On Thursday afternoon, I watch a panel of producers behind some famous hip-hop songs (don’t ask me which ones, I’m not familiar with them) talking about their early experiences learning to DJ and design sound equipment.

A few doors down, I step into a discussion of “The Who at 50,” and listen to famous musicians like Steven Van Zandt and Chuck Prophet extol the virtuosity of Pete Townsend, Keith Moon, and Tommy. “I think the neat thing about the Who is that they were fans of each other,” Prophet says. “Townsend wrote parts for all of them.” And Van Zandt on the Who’s introduction of synthesizers: “I think they’re lucky they got away with it, actually. … They made it work and it really shouldn’t have worked.”

Downstairs, I admire the vibrant work of artists who are testing the limits of gig posters—a realm of artwork that rocks nearly as hard as its musical inspiration. And in a panel focusing Lead Belly, veteran musicologists and journalists marvel at Lead Belly’s wide-ranging influence and importance to American musical culture. “People always ask me why Woody Guthrie loved Lead Belly so much,” says panelist Bob Santelli, executive director of the GRAMMY Museum and the author of a 2012 biography of Guthrie. “It was because he saw Lead Belly as the living embodiment of authenticity.”

The panels also cover more nitty-gritty industry topics, such as performance royalties, collective licensing organizations, and such. But when you get this many music people together, you can’t deny the fun of good live music and debating the all-time greats.  

From the April 2015 issue

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