SXSW Leaves Its Mark on the Music Scene

With big names like Kanye West and Jay-Z joining indie artists in Austin, Texas, the 25-year-old festival becomes a must-do event.

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Tyler the Creator of Odd Future at the SXSW Music Festival (Roger Kisby/Getty Images)

If the South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Festival has not been on your radar before, then it most certainly will be after this year. The traditionally indie rock festival is becoming more mainstream than ever, with major-label artists such as Kanye West, Jay-Z, LL Cool J and Snoop Dogg trekking to Austin, Texas, to host or participate in showcases, and traditional music outlets such as MTV and BET joining the festivities.

Twenty-five years ago, SXSW started out as a small gathering of 700 musicians, industry insiders and journalists. But in 2011, it has grown into a full-fledged music powerhouse, with more than 14,000 registered attendees and an estimated 100,000 music, interactive and film fans flocking to the Texas capital.

Why the heightened major-label presence? The music industry is changing. Indie is becoming mainstream.  Artists such as Esperanza Spalding are evolving from niche artists to major players almost overnight. With the festival's rise to dominance, black music has also carved out a place in a rock festival that remains mostly white.

For most artists, it's not about the big names or flashy industry-only parties. The spirit of SXSW has always been about giving independent musicians a chance to showcase their music in front of industry professionals, media and fans. And for those who are trying to get to the level of Kanye West, it's all about the grind. Many artists are playing five shows or more during the week, running from venue to venue, handing out business cards and CDs, looking for their next big break.

With the industry evolving, a hot topic at the conference was how emerging artists can adapt to the changing digital marketplace. "As artists, our stories have been great in terms of success and visibility without radio," said Atom Digital's Jaunique Sealey. "The doors are wide open [for artists] in that sense." But with greater access to music-production tools and a more level playing field, music-industry veteran Londell McMillan stressed that artists need to focus more on personality and branding rather than music alone.

BET did its part to spotlight several artists in the hip-hop and R&B realms through its first Music Matters Showcase. Singers Melanie Fiona and Marsha Ambrosius performed, along with hip-hop artists B.o.B. and J. Cole. However, the highlight of the night was the 24-year-old Los Angeles-based singer Miguel, who wowed the audience with his trademark neon microphone and a skillful and encompassing live set.

Not to be outdone, Atlantic Records held its own soiree Thursday night -- the aptly titled "Killers, Lasers, Papers" event at La Zona Rosa. Sadly, Lupe Fiasco and Cee Lo were no-shows, but the genre-defying Janelle Monáe had no problem filling in for the superstars. The rapper du jour, Wiz Khalifa, and B.o.B started the show, with an increasingly visible Amber Rose sitting on the sidelines.

At the mtvU Woodie Awards -- a first for the college-themed awards broadcast -- rising hip-hop dominated the show, with California's Odd Future and Lil B the Based God taking center stage. Marketed as hip-hop anti-heroes by the music press, both artists are poised to have a big 2011, with the B collaborating with hip-hop royalty like 9th Wonder, and Odd Future working with Beyoncé and the Neptunes.

Odd Future -- short for "Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All" -- has become the most talked about group at the festival. It seemed that you couldn't go anywhere without hearing mention of leader Tyler the Creator and his crew. Their raucous live shows and raunchy lyrics (the group constantly, and frankly, talks about rape, sex, drugs and race) had everyone talking.

Controversy sells. But did their SXSW appearances live up to the hype? The jury is still out. Odd Future's fresh faces may not be quite ready for prime-time audiences. However, they will definitely be talked about.