But the fans didn’t come for the swag. They came to see their favorite new bands — bands that swarm SXSW every year with big dreams. One day, with any luck, these groups will be smiling for magazine covers, singing on late-night television shows and . . . hearing their music streaming on NPR’s Web site?
Forget the totes — NPR has a brand new bag. The Washington-based news outlet has emerged as an influential powerhouse in a splintering music industry thanks to the growing popularity of NPR Music, a Web site that has connected with music fans by premiering new albums, streaming live concerts and landing exclusive interviews.
How big of a deal is NPR in the music world? Bertis Downs, manager of R.E.M., says NPR’s endorsement now carries as much cultural weight as an appearance on “Saturday Night Live” or the cover of Rolling Stone. “When we sit around thinking, ‘How do we get attention?’ — they’re at the top of the list,” says Downs, who recently helped R.E.M. get its new album streamed on NPR Music. “We know that’s where the audience is.”
The audience is growing. In 2011, NPR Music has averaged about 2.1 million unique visitors a month, putting the site somewhere between MTV.com, which pulled in 7.1 million unique visitors in January, and RollingStone.com, which drew just shy of a million that month, according to Nielsen.
Traffic on NPR Music has quadrupled since the site launched in 2007, and it currently accounts for about 14 percent of the eyeballs visiting NPR.org. And those figures don’t even include the millions of radio listeners who catch the audio features that NPR Music pushes to NPR’s various news programs.
But as the audience for NPR Music grows, it appears to consist of a demographic that’s actually shrinking: music fans who still buy music.
When NPR pushes a group, “there’s a spike in sales and chatter online,” says Steve Martin, the publicist for Radiohead, Arcade Fire and Paul McCartney — all of whom have felt a tangible boost from NPR’s support. “It’s something that reaches an audience that a lot of other people don’t reach.”
And the fact that NPR has music fans reaching back into their wallets has forced both independent and major labels to make NPR Music coverage a top priority in their publicity campaigns.
Label representatives for British soul singer Adele say that NPR was an “important piece” of the publicity strategy that pushed her new album, “21,” to the top of Billboard for two weeks earlier this month. NPR Music recently streamed both the album and an exclusive live performance.
For lesser-known indie acts, NPR Music’s stamp of approval can feel downright momentous.
Take Tune-Yards, the avant-pop troupe from Oakland, Calif., that performed NPR’s Thursday afternoon gig at SXSW. Between songs, bandleader Merrill Garbus sang NPR’s praises from the stage: “I didn’t occur to me how much independent artists depend on NPR.” Then she asked the audience to raise their right hands and “pledge to do everything possible” to support National Public Radio.