Apple and SXSW partner to bring iTunes Festival to U.S. for first time

In an unprecedented move, South by Southwest and Apple Inc. are partnering to bring the iTunes Festival to the United States for the first time, presenting big-name performers, including Coldplay, Keith Urban, Imagine Dragons, Pitbull and Willie Nelson, not only to Austin but to the world via free live streaming at the iTunes store.

In what is essentially a festival within a festival, Apple will take over ACL Live from March 11 to March 15, the same nights as SXSW Music. The live stream is the primary draw for Apple, which has faced increasing competition in the music marketplace from streaming sites such as Spotify and the new Beats Music.

For most SXSW attendees, the iTunes Festival is unlikely to alter the nature of the bigger event significantly; badge-holders will be eligible for a ticket lottery for the iTunes shows, and a limited number of SXSW wristband holders might have a chance at tickets closer to the shows, SXSW announced on its website. Such high-profile bills at SXSW’s larger venues aren’t uncommon and generally help reduce potential overcrowding at other shows.

Corporate tie-ins with SXSW also are well-established — the Doritos building-size vending machine will be back — although a relationship with a company the size of Apple for an event that stretches over the music festival’s full five-day run is new.

Both Apple and SXSW were tight-lipped Wednesday about partnership details. SXSW Director Roland Swenson referred all questions to Apple representatives. Apple press contact Jenn Ramsay said that “we’re not right now answering any additional questions.”

The nightly lineups include Coldplay, Imagine Dragons and London Grammar on Tuesday; Pitbull, Zedd and G.R.L. on Friday; and Urban, Nelson and Mickey Guyton on Saturday. Performers for Wednesday and Thursday remain unreleased. SXSW also has yet to announce its music keynote speaker; at just three weeks away, this is by far the latest the event has gone without confirming a speaker.

Apple typically shies away from conferences and big events it doesn’t tightly control itself — unlike, say, Google or Samsung, which have had big presences at SXSW in recent years (Samsung was all over the fest last year, including bringing in Prince for a show at La Zona Rosa). At SXSW 2011, Apple opened a pop-up store downtown to sell its iPad 2.

Since then, Apple has beefed up its presence in Austin. The company manufactures its high-end Mac Pro computer here. When that started, the company had about 4,000 employees in Austin, but it could expand to about 7,000 in the next 10 years. Apple has two retail stores in the city.

The London iTunes Festival, which began in 2007, is held in the Roundhouse, which is similar in size to the 2,800-capacity ACL Live, and the similar venue size is intentional. “You want it in a really close atmosphere where the fans are getting to see these musicians in places they’ll never see them again,” Apple senior Vice President Eddy Cue told The Associated Press.

The first London fest ran for a week, but it has since stretched into a month, with two acts a night through September. Lady Gaga, Elton John, Justin Timberlake, Vampire Weekend, John Legend and Katy Perry all played in 2013.

Austin musician and tech industry specialist Scott Garber, who worked as an iTunes product and marketing manager from 2004 to 2011, has attended several of the London festivals, including the first in 2007.

“There was no great big marketing plan about it” in the beginning, he said. “It was just something that the employees in London wanted to give back with. Everybody on the staff volunteered for it. … They were really small events. It was pretty amazing to see Amy Winehouse in a place that holds 200-300 people.”

Even after the move to the larger Roundhouse, Garber said the festivals he attended in 2010 and 2011 didn’t feature any big promotional push such as display booths or product giveaways. This might not hold true at ACL Live, given that the London events were never directly tied to an industry confab like SXSW. The company is about due for a new version of its Apple TV box, and it has been a while since a new iPod has been introduced, though that line of products has been overshadowed by iPad and iPhone sales.

National media outlets treated the Wednesday announcement as big news. Variety, Rolling Stone, Billboard and Entertainment Weekly all posted stories. Locally, public reaction in social media was mixed. KGSR afternoon DJ and Esquire magazine writer Andy Langer’s Facebook post about the event on Wednesday morning elicited more jeers than cheers among dozens of comments.

In the end, Langer noted that the iTunes Festival is simply another milepost along a road that SXSW has been traveling for years. “The reality of SXSW is that you can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” he said. “Try as you might to envision a SXSW that’s about unsigned bands/exposure/underdogs etc., those days are largely gone.”

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