For those not familiar, the SXSW conference is the music industry's biggest gathering, a mecca of schmoozing and self-congratulation that draws attendees from every industry niche imaginable. Founded 13 years ago, SXSW was originally intended to bring exposure to deserving new bands; since then it's degenerated into a snapshot of how rife with politics and self-importance the industry has become. While young, unsigned artists from across America and beyond played in near-empty bars with "SXSW 99" banners behind them, the industry players -- A&R guys, managers, rock journalists, et cetera -- ate free barbecue and drank free Lone Star beer at parties thrown by the major labels.
In the interests of South Florida's local bands, rising stars, and voyeuristic fans, what follows is a list of music-biz advice gleaned from the mean streets of Austin. Study carefully and perhaps someday you can grow up and be a know-it-all rock critic.
If you're a legend, you don't have to play these inane conferences. Every year SXSW has a secret superstar appearance, which is always the toughest show to get into. Last year's superstar was Sonic Youth, performing only tracks off the then-unreleased A Thousand Leaves album. This year, it was a "surprise" appearance at guitar-god Jimmie Vaughan's 48th birthday show by none other than Eric Clapton. Except Clapton didn't show. Just as the secret was leaking out into the streets, word came that Clapton wasn't coming after all -- he sent regards, family business to attend to, yadda yadda yadda. It's cool, Eric, savvy attendees were watching Champaign, Illinois, girlie-pop-rockers Sarge during your time slot anyway.
If you're a cool legend, you'll play the conference anyway. Clapton-less, the conference's biggest buzz and most difficult place to get into was Tom Waits' show. Playing a commercial gig for only the fifth time in the U.S. in a dozen years, the gravel-voiced troubadour's appearance was such a pain in the ass to attend that many attendees didn't bother. Because there were a measly 600 seats available for the thousands of badge-wearing conferencegoers, those who wanted to see the show had to stand in line at 12:45 p.m. on Saturday to receive randomly drawn seat assignments. Most conferencegoers were still sleeping off their hangovers.
Wayne Kramer, legendary founder, songwriter, and guitarist for Detroit's seminal MC5, was considerably easier to catch. Besides taking part in a panel discussion about the history and impact of the MC5 and playing a late Friday-night gig at Austin's punk-rock haven, Emo's, Kramer took the time to play two afternoon parties on Saturday -- one at porn/music/culture rag Pop Smear's party and a blistering set at High Times magazine's party. At the latter's dope show, Kramer ripped through a crowd-riling set, letting his solos do the talking in between his spirited rants against the man. ("They don't understand -- we're not just antiwar, we're antigravity!") Ending his set with an awe-inspiring, pummeling rendition of the MC5's "Kick Out the Jams," Kramer proved that even punk rockers can grow up to be guitar gods.
Using free food and beer as bait works -- kind of. There's no better baiting tool for music-industry folks than intoxication. Unfortunately, just 'cause they come to the show doesn't mean they'll like the band. It's more probable that the A&R guys and critics will be clustered at the bar, making fun of how horrible the band is; talented artists don't need to resort to bribery. Countless shows offered complimentary libations, but none offered any memorable talent.
If you're playing a live show (or pretending to), make sure that all your instruments are accounted for. Columbia Records' artist P.J. Olsson was on hand at the label's hotel party to showcase songs from his self-titled record. The mix of straightforward rock songs with sequenced bleeps and electronic touches worked sonically, but the guitar/bass/drums three-piece on stage left the audience wondering just who was playing the second guitar line and where the backup vocals were coming from; Olsson was the only one with a microphone. In the words of the notorious Mr. Rotten, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"
Clumsiness can be endearing. Precocious 20-year-old Aussie popster Ben Lee gave a lesson in nonchalance at his Saturday afternoon in-store appearance and won the adoration of the overpacked crowd. Shortly after missing a chord change and apologizing through a mousy grin, Lee stood on an amp to rock out on his acoustic guitar, but the amp collapsed and Lee went to the floor instead. The crowd gasped, but Lee popped up, blushing and smiling, and continued the song. The audience was instantly infatuated.
The industry is not your audience -- the fans are. Of the indie labels that showcased acts at SXSW, the smart ones did well to remember who really pays the bills. At Lookout Records' Thursday night showcase, despite pouring rain at a partially covered outdoor venue, throngs of local punk-rock kids showed up to watch beat-punks the Hi-Fives, three-chord wonders the Donnas, and queer-poppers Pansy Division play electrifying sets. Friday night, New York's Deep Elm Records one-upped Lookout by waiving the cover charge for locals, giving all the kids an opportunity to check out Deep Elm's roster of post-emo melodicore bands and living up to the label's slogan, "Records for the working class." Long live the indie aesthetic; it was the only dose of reality left at SXSW.
-- Brendan Kelley
Contact Brendan Kelley at his e-mail address: [email protected]