A$AP Ferg, The Chainsmokers' Manager & More Discuss Changing Music Industry in SXSW 'Digital Revolution' Panel

Jason Goodrich/RCA
A$AP Ferg

The discussion was led by Billboard’s SVP of content, Mike Bruno, and also featured singer-songwriter Bridgit Mendler, C3 founder Charles Attal and Latin artist Residente.

“Digital Revolution: A Look at Music’s New Frontier” may have been the name of the Wednesday's (March 15) SXSW panel moderated by Billboard’s SVP of content, Mike Bruno, but the actual conversation didn’t focus on digital strategy only.

The discussion was led by an an active panel of industry veterans in all arenas, from artists to management to festival bookers, with subjects weaving through many of the modern music industry's main themes and talking points. Those areas explored included releasing albums as songs or all at once, the changing culture of music festivals and whether pop and hip-hop music is dominating because of the era or if the era is defined by those genres, to name a few. 

The biggest draw for the nearly full room was rapper A$AP Ferg, but by no means did he dominate the discussion: singer-songwriter Bridgit Mendler spoke at length about challenges she faces and strategy she employs, including creating online playlists based on her songs; C3 founder Charles Attal discussed how AR and VR are affecting festival culture, mentioning that artists who are directly involved with creative promotion often are the ones who get more attention from organizers like himself; The Chainsmokers manager Adam Alpert discussed breaking artists who aren’t ready for album-length statements by releasing songs once a month; and Latin artist Residente broke down radio-play strategy, bemoaning traditional promotion models as outdated and dishonest.

The talk felt more like a bunch of new friends hashing out theory over coffee than a direct panel Q&A, which gave way for greater honesty than a traditional SXSW panel. For instance, Ferg asked Alpert, “With the internet, can you still birth icons?”, to which Alpert responded with a discussion of how difficult it is to maintain the sort of mystique artists were able to have in that pre-Twitter era.

Mendler, Residente and Ferg all justified various reasons for putting art out into the world for free, with Mendler reiterating that music itself can be a form of marketing for a show or an overall investment in an artist. Ferg discussed hip-hop roots as an early form of that, with seminal artists like Kool Herc setting up free parties in parks, and Residente essentially said that music distribution isn’t where he’s making his money, regardless.

“As an artist, I don’t need to be a millionaire,” he said, referring to whether he needed to sell his music rather than allow for free distribution. “I’m happy with playing music and doing the stuff I like.... Maybe the [recording] industry needs money. I’m OK with what I earn [playing shows].”

Of course, no one professed to have any true answers for the future of digital music -- and that was made very clear during the audience Q&A, when an audience member asked where the panel saw the business in five or 10 years. Atall’s paraphrased response: “You can barely predict what’s going to happen in a year.”

In an industry that’s always moving with and towards the next big thing, truer words may never have been spoken.