SXSW: Jessica Lea Mayfield, The Cloud and The Future of Music

The best music I heard Wednesday afternoon was made by Jessica Lea Mayfield, the 21 year old songwriting veteran from Kent, Ohio who played at one of the many daytime stages at the Austin Convention Center. Dan Auerbach produced Mayfield's new album, Tell Me, and it's easy to hear what the Black Key heard in her. Mayfield writes narcotic, sad country-soaked songs that also can deliver an emotional grandiosity that reminded me of Nick Cave.

"Our Hearts Are Wrong" is a killer, but "I'll Be The One That You Want Someday" is pretty devastating, too. And along with impressive composure and an effectively emotive voice, Mayfield's got a sense of humor, too. "This is the season," she said, "when Austin is covered in a blanket of plaid." With her pink feathered earrings matching her guitar cord, Mayfield didn't fit the description of the rest of the indie rock invaders of this Hill Country capitol city, but her drummer and guitar player did.


So what's that got to do with The Cloud and The Future of Music? Not much, really, though Mayfield certainly has a bright one. But the rest of my time at the Convention Center on Wednesday afternoon was spent at a pair of panels that puzzled over what direction digital music distribution is going, and the impact that's having on the quality of what we hear.

The first, called Mobile Music Moves To The Cloud, was the more useful and more interesting. DJ Richie Hawtin aka Plastikman was on the panel along with Will Mills, the director of music for Shazam, the mobile app that allows you to identify (and buy) songs that you hear anywhere with your smartphone. Among other things, they talked about the implications of the point of purchase moving into your pocket, the growing interactivity of the concert experience, especially among DJs (no need to shout out requests anymore - just text them). And that while streaming technology grows ever more prevalent, and seems to discourage piracy, it takes an average of 200 streams on services like Rhapsody and Soundcloud to deliver the royalties to an artist that they get from one download sold.

The second panel was called The Future Of Music: Is There One? sounded pretty promising to me, particularly since it included Blue Oyster Cult-Clash producer and McGill University professor Sandy Pearlman who's a big thinker on such matters as the ubiquity of music and whether its very everywhereness means it means less to us. On this particular afternoon, however, Pearlman was on about the shabby sound of mp3 files versus higher quality analog recordings, or at least that seemed to be what he was getting at. I bolted over to hear Mayfield instead, and found her tales of romantic and existential, rather than technological, woe more enthralling.

Previously: SXSW: Black Joe Lewis at the Continental Club