SXSW 2018: #TimesUp, Artificial Intelligence & More Conference Topics to Watch

Andy Pareti/Getty Images for SXSW
Crowds milled around Sixth Street  in Austin during SXSW 2017.

The 32nd annual South by Southwest Conference will kick off March 9, attracting over 400,000 people to its 1,000-plus official parties and 2,000 presentations and panels. As usual, a combination of tech innovations, music-industry concerns and cultural forces will be fueling the buzz at the event.

Here are three industry subjects to keep an eye on at SXSW 2018.

#TimesUp Comes to Texas

In the midst of the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements sweeping the country, several panels are addressing the issue head on, including three that directly address how to change the culture of the music industry into a more inclusive, safe place. Meanwhile, a discussion with members of the National Women's Law Center and the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund it administers -- as well as Tina Tchennewly-appointed chair of the Recording Academy's task force exploring women representation at the Grammys -- will be a hot ticket. Even the showcases are reflecting the moment: ICM Partners, for one, boasts an all-woman lineup for its annual party (featuring Willow Smith, Rapsody, Kamaiyah and more), as does the city of Washington, D.C.'s Events DC show (headlined by Kelela).

"Whether it's with the women's movement or women being more prevalent in music and the music industry, we felt it was important to us to take a year to showcase our female talent, because they don't naturally sometimes get the looks and opportunities that some of their male counterparts do," says ICM agent Jacqueline Reynolds-Drumm, who helped put together the agency's showcase. "It's always been important to us, but I think because other people are paying attention -- brands, festivals, promoters and general music buyers -- we were able to have the most eyeballs and support to do this this year. They deserve these looks."

Is AI the Future -- Or the Present?

With Amazon's voice-activated Echo and the subsequent smart-speaker craze fueled by Sonos and Apple, artificial intelligence is in the spotlight. While AI has been a focus in the past, this year has seen the discussion shift from what it could change to what it is changing. (One panel title: "How Interactive Audio Changes Everything.") Whether it's assessing the dynamics of "The Golden Age of Audio," discussing the power of voice to shape how people connect to the world, looking at the legal grey areas surrounding the advent of the technology, considering how it could pave the way for computerized creation or simply imagining and guarding against a dystopian future where intelligent robots overhaul our economy by methodically replacing the workforce, the number of sessions directly addressing artificial intelligence suggests a holistic approach to one of the most intriguing tech trends in some time.

Playlist Primacy: Challenge or Opportunity?

While streaming continues to charge ahead as the dominant listening form and revenue stream for the recorded-music business, the importance and power of playlists with millions of followers has exploded along with it, producing a new class of gatekeepers for artists to win over. To that end, the talk has shifted not to their power -- which some contend is not as absolute as it may seem -- but to their possibilities, including the valuable fan listening data they can provide. "Artists today are more digitally savvy than ever, and I don’t think there’s anything they’re missing about the significance of being added to certain playlists," says Rachel Whitney, Pandora's head of country music programming and a SXSW panelist. "What gets lost, though, with all the buzz about playlists, is that some might overlook their own power over these platforms." 

As often occurs when a newly-powerful medium rushes to the forefront, there are concerns within the industry about those who can, or will at least try, to game the system. With that in mind, "playola" will be a topic of discussion at one panel in particular as well. But there are other ways to build a following that circumvents the song-pluggers at streaming services. Whitney points to "platform-specific tools" like Pandora's Artist Marketing Platform, as well as social media, that artists can use to create their own footprint in a way that gets the attention of fans, playlist curators and, yes, algorithms alike. "What we’re seeing in streaming is similar to the early days of social media," she says. "An artist can grow and engage audiences around their music without a gatekeeper."

Festivals 2018