Today marks the kickoff of Austin, Texas’ South By Southwest’s Interactive Festival -- now in its 18th year as its own distinct entity within the entire SXSW conference. But while SXSW Interactive started primarily as a hothouse for emerging technology trends and companies like Twitter, in 2013 it’s become a must-do event for many in the music business, even though the official schedule of panels and events doesn’t include many music-specific events before Tuesday.

According to KCRW Program Director Jason Bentley, as his station has grown to become a large part of the app and streaming worlds, he’s decided to attend both SXSW Interactive and Music confabs. “This year, I’m getting in for the entirety of Interactive before Music for the first time,” Bentley notes. “The whole conference has grown so much; music has obviously been our main focus, but it’s been creeping over into Interactive. So much of KCRW’s audience is online, so planting our flag there is crucial. It’s a whole different buzz.”

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“Getting to Interactive right when it starts on Friday is so important,” says Sean Glass, A&R, social media, and technology consultant for Glassnote Records and the president of Win Records, a new joint venture with Glassnote and Downtown distributed by Sony Red focusing on dance-music crossover. “Music and Interactive are merging: that’s why it’s crucial to be out there. We’re launching a lot more not just via the music industry, but through the tech industry, too; it’s not so much about discovery as it is about creating awareness and opportunities for our artists across new, innovative platforms. [Recent Glassnote signing] Robert DeLong utilized the Condition One app for a recent music video, and that came from the meetings and relationships that happen at SXSW Interactive.”

Glass notes that Interactive has grown essential for labels due to an environment where “Mumford & Sons might sell a few million albums in total, but then get eight million streams on Spotify in one week." "We’re huge supporters of Spotify and the best new marketing platforms for our artists,” adds Glass (who will be moderating the “What Can Rock Learn From EDM” panel during SXSW Music the following week). “It’s this incredible déjà vu moment: ten years ago, people were so afraid that iTunes was going to cannibalize retail, and now we’re having the same conversation about Spotify. But our job is to get music to the most people as possible, and then we’ll figure out how to make money -- and that’s all about technology.”

According to SXSW President/co-founder Roland Swenson, the overlap between Music and Interactive proves an organic outgrowth from what has always been the conference’s primary mission. “The reason we started the different SXSW events is because we’ve always wanted to see what entertainment is going to look like in the 21st century,” Swenson says. “We figured if we firmly rooted in the digital/tech worlds, we’d be on the right track, and that’s what happened. A good example from this year is the panel we’re having Amanda Palmer do about how she used Kickstarter to develop a huge fanbase and get her records on the charts. That just signifies how, while Music and Interactive started out separately, they’ve been growing closer and closer together every year.”

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That status is reflected not just in exec attendance but in the number of music acts being booked during Interactive itself. SXSW in general can be an expensive proposition for those attending: often showcases will pay very little, not covering the complete costs to get there for the artists and labels in attendance. During Interactive, however, tech companies have increasingly started making up that difference -- and increasing opportunities for exposure -- by having both buzz bands and higher-profile acts play their SXSW-tied parties and events. “Last year, Robert DeLong came to SXSW as an unsigned artist, playing small shows,” explains Glassnote Records’ founder Daniel Glass, a longtime SXSW regular. “Now he’s doing huge shows during Interactive for companies like Spotify.”
 
Established talent in particular is finding Interactive provides a new avenue in their traditional SXSW experience. “When I’d play SXSW with Spoon in the past, we’d usually do one big show,” notes Britt Daniel of Spoon and Divine Fits. “This year, I’m playing eight shows at SXSW with Divine Fits, which is the most I’ve ever done -- and two are for Interactive.” (Note: Tuesday, when both of those shows take place, is the day when the Music and Interactive festivals overlap). “In addition to the shows Ra Ra Riot is doing for Music, we’re also playing two shows during Interactive, including the closing party for the gaming section,” says Ra Ra Riot frontman Wes Miles. “It’s fun, bringing the digital and music worlds together.” And lucrative, according to Tom Windish (whose Windish Agency was named Pollstar’s Independent Booking Agency of 2013). “There’s money there now,” Windish says. “Alt-J is playing a show at Interactive, and the band is being paid very well for it.”

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And just as branding has become a crucial part of SXSW Music -- with the likes of Converse being a key sponsor of the tastemaking Fader Fort showcase and Vans serving as an official SXSW sponsor -- it’s also integrated simultaneously into Interactive’s digital fabric. “Branding is part of the music business now,” says Swenson. “Acts work with sponsors, which replaces income lost in other areas. Aligning with other entities is part of everybody’s strategy, and a lot of that business is going on here.” As such, this year Converse’s Chief Marketing Officer Geoff Cottrill decided to bring the iconic shoe company’s Rubber Tracks Studio concept (where unsigned area bands utilize state-of-the-art recording studios free of charge courtesy of Converse) to SXSW for both the Interactive and Music sections for the first time. “SXSW has evolved, and Interactive has become a bigger part of it,” Cottrill says. “It’s hard to separate Music and Interactive -- they’ve really become one big idea together, which is natural for us. With Rubber Tracks, it’s about the brand helping artists, as opposed to what we can take from them: we look at creative musicians as our core consumers, with the idea that Converse can supply something useful in our interaction. We’re focused on using social-media platforms to broadcast these relationships, helping themexpose their art to millions of people through Facebook and creating content pieces that stream through our digital presence. We want them to leave the experience feeling good about Converse, and speaking about that through social media -- and as a result, our social media network tends to get bigger, too.”
 
The increasing intermingling of SXSW Interactive and Music also reflects Austin’s dual status: it’s both Texas’ state capital for new technology (Facebook chose Austin as the location for its first major office outside of California, and the city is a burgeoning home for startups like Cogsy, NetSpend, and RetailMeNot) and one of the music industry’s live-music power centers, thanks to the local presence of companies like festival/management kingpins C3. “Austin has become great as an industry-motivated place,” says acclaimed Austin-based singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo. “It’s as much a part of the music-business fabric now as any city, and it’s truly media savvy.” For execs like Sean Glass, SXSW provides a crucial pivot for the best of both worlds, ideally serving his needs as the music business expands its focus. “Having the best music is still the most important thing, but it’s getting to the point where half of the situation is being involved with the best tech companies,” Glass explains. “I do A&R with artists, and I do A&R with tech companies. Whether I’m at a meeting with a company founder or a band, I’m asking the same questions.”