Eddy Cue

At SXSW, Apple's Eddy Cue presents the first U.S. iTunes Festival

March 12, 2014: 4:38 PM ET
Imagine Dragons. Photo: iTunes Festival at SXSW

Imagine Dragons. Photo: iTunes Festival at SXSW

By Jim Dalrymple, Austin

FORTUNE -- Apple (AAPL) kicked off five days of free music Tuesday night with performances by London Grammar, Imagine Dragons and Coldplay. After seven years in London, it was Apple's first iTunes Festival in the U.S.

Before the concert I had a rare opportunity to sit with Eddy Cue, Apple's Senior Vice President for Internet Software and Services, and ask him what took so long.

"I wasn't sure we would ever bring it to the U.S.,"  Cue said. "We have something so special at the festival in London that you had the feeling that if you did it anywhere else, it just wasn't going to be quite good enough. You have to have the right place. The combination of Austin, which has a culture of music, and this venue is fantastic -- it's made for music."

Having been to iTunes Festival U.K., I know exactly what Cue is talking about -- the buzz and electricity surrounding an iTunes Festival is incredible. I experienced that same intensity at this event, which was timed to coincide with Austin's big South by Southwest (SXSW) festival, an annual film, music and interactive technology jamboree that's nearly outgrown the city.

Before the event, I spent some time in local coffee shops and on park benches writing and enjoying the Austin sunshine. People were talking about the iTunes Festival, and they were excited. These were musicians, tech people, record label people, people from all walks of life, talking about the bands that were scheduled to play.

This is where Apple really makes an impact. No matter what genre of music you like, there's probably a band to fit your taste: Soundgarden, Imagine Dragons, Coldplay, Keith Urban, the legendary Willie Nelson and many more.

Part of what made the two iTunes Festivals I've attended so special is that they didn't feel like corporate events. The festival is about the music, and you feel like you are going to a concert to celebrate the music, not a stuffy boardroom-sanctioned show. According to Cue, this was done on purpose.

"We're not trying to pitch our products here -- it's all about the artists and the music," said Cue. "It's about the emotion of the artists and the fans."

Case in point: A few minutes after Imagine Dragons finished their incredible set, they came back to sit down in the balcony to watch Coldplay. That's one of the things that makes the iTunes Festival so unusual. It's not just fans appreciating artists, it's artists appreciating artists. You don't always see that.

Apple could hold these events in giant stadiums, but instead they've chosen small venues like Austin's 2,750-seat Moody Theater. You would never expect to see bands this big play in venues this small. It makes for an unusually intimate experience for both the fans and the musicians.

The production that Apple puts into these shows is incredible. I've been to a lot of concerts, large and small, and I have yet to hear the sound quality of an iTunes Festival. Even the musicians agree, which is something coming from bands that play all over the world.

And it's not just about the live performance. These shows are being streamed live around the world on iPhones, iPads and Apple TVs.

iTunes Festival is a unique experience: Great artists, great venues, an intimate experience, and all for free.

"We at Apple take a lot of pride in the festival because we have such admiration for what the artists do," said Cue. "If we can help, even a little bit, it feels damn good."

LINK: iTunes Festival

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