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At SXSW Music Festival outrage in air

Issued: 2018-03-14

"All these old men," snarled Mac McCaughan of Superchunk at one of the first major concerts of the South by Southwest Music Festival, "won't die too soon."

That vicious line hails from the longstanding indie rock band's new song "I Got Cut," aimed at politicians who have worked to limit women's reproductive rights. It also reflected the mood in the early going of this year's event. With well over 2,000 bands expected to descend here this week for one of the industry's most visible conferences and festivals, a sense of unrest hung in the air.

While past SXSWs have regularly focused on the ever-shifting nature of digital distribution, inside-baseball business chatter in 2018 was taking a backseat to social and cultural responsibility. Industry talks over the next three days will hit on subjects such as harassment, diversity and gender wage gaps throughout the music community.

Even a largely cheery hour-long talk Wednesday morning from Google/YouTube's global head of music and longtime industry veteran Lyor Cohen, which primarily emphasized the executive's love of hip-hop, couldn't avoid the current #MeToo and Time's Up environment.

As a onetime leader of Def Jam Recordings, Cohen worked closely with the label's founder Russell Simmons, who has seen nearly a dozen women came forward in media reports accusing the hip-hop mogul of rape and sexual misconduct over three decades.

"I want to acknowledge the awful allegations that have been made about Russell," Cohen said. "There's no question Russell and I were very close. We didn't just work together, we were roommates and we stayed friends and partners ever since. I never saw him aggressive or violent with any women.

"It's not the Russell that I know," he continued. "I'm deeply troubled about all the allegations, and there is absolutely no room for this type of behavior."

While Cohen drew laughter with amusing tales of learning on the job while tour managing Run-DMC and conceded that Google and YouTube are late to the party in launching a streaming service to take on Apple Music and Spotify, his statement regarding Simmons was the only moment that inspired applause from Austin crowd.

One thread that was becoming clear at SXSW: Whether galvanized by the post-Weinstein era or the election of Donald Trump, a long liberal and rebellious sector of the entertainment industry was about to become more vocal.

McCaughan, whose Superchunk was never overtly political over its three decades of crafting exuberant pop-punk, said in a Wednesday session that the band didn't set out to make a protest record with its recently released "What a Time to Be Alive." But in 2018, he noted, it's unavoidable.

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