Many a band has been discovered at South By Southwest (SXSW), the annual music conference held in Austin, TX, the land of music and more music. SXSW has expanded over the years to include a Film conference and Interactive conference around the same time. But it was the music that brought Anneliese Rix, Manager at Fox Theatre in Boulder, and myself to the balmy, artsy town.
To tell you just how geeky we are, after we got settled on the plane began discussing our plans for the upcoming trip we both broke out our file folders with all the materials printed out and highlighted. We didn’t want to miss a thing. Little did I know just how much we would pack into those four days and just how much we would live up to the SXSW moto, “The conference that never sleeps.”
ON THE FLOOR
The trade show floor gave us a chance to check out some of the companies pawning their wares and services and to pick up our bag-o-goodies. Among the many stickers and flyers for shows was the SXSW pocket guide. This was with us the entire time and proved to be the most valuable items in we were on schedule. It not only contained a full schedule of showcases, but a map of Austin we would use often to figure out where the hell we were at.
On the show floor, Koss had a listening kiosk to push their new headphones and bands they were promoting. Then there was the Artist Lounge hosted by ASCAP/MUSICPRO where musicians would periodically perform throughout each day. But it was the listening station that caught our ear. Here, you were able to listen to the many, many, many bands that were scheduled to perform over the course of the next few days, and it proved to be pretty helpful in planning our nighttime activities.
GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS
Yes, Austin during SXSW is a great place to rock out and party. But for most who attend, networking and gaining knowledge from the pros is just as important, if no more so.
So during the day, it’s all about the variety of music panels they present, catering to artists, labels, A&R reps, promoters, managers, publicity folk and other people involved in just about every facet of music. For those who are just starting out, this is a great introduction to what’s involved in your particular field. For long timers like Anneliese and myself, the discussions between the pros provided insight into trends in the industry, and some of the legal and technology panels were pretty interesting as well.
Artists in particular seemed to benefit the most from these panels for the very reason that they need to know more about the business of music if they’re serious about doing it full time. They may know how to write and record the greatest song, but if they go into a bad contract, don’t know the ins and out of promotion or booking a tour, the benefits and downfalls of getting a manager, or what’s involved in distributing their music and selling it on the web, they’re going to be sitting in their garage or bedroom for a while. Moving from an Indie to a Major, The Case for Recording Contract Reform, A&R – Artist Relationship, Attracting Media Attention, and Indie Label Opportunities were just some of the panels that gave artists a jump-start to becoming music biz savvy.
Throughout the conference, Demo Listening Sessions took place, focusing on a different genre of music, critiqued by representatives from record labels, radio stations, plus promotion and management companies. It gave artists the opportunity to get instant feedback on the pros and cons of their music, things that could enhance the listener’s experience and areas for improvement.
I was really looking forward to the SXSW interview with Hilary Rosen, the President and CEO of the Recording Industry Association of American (RIAA). With the continuing MP3 saga, I was hoping to hear something new and promising about how the recording industry will finally embrace technology and develop a model for profit so everyone can win, including the artists and their fans. But what we got instead was a bunch of fluff. The interviewer, Tamara Coniff, music editor for The Hollywood Reporter, didn’t seem to know the key questions to ask to get to the heart of what’s going on. She glided over issues and instead of elaborating on Rosen’s answers, she seemed to just look at her little piece of paper with questions and moved from one to the next. I doubt she even wrote those questions, and am guessing that she’s more used to writing about what rock star is dating what model or who wore what to the MTV Music Awards than anything critical to the industry. Bullocks.
The CLE Program, “Legal Issues in the Music Industry”, was presented by the law offices of Stokes Bartholomew Evans & Petree. Again, knowledge is power. Although it can be boring, legal issues – from copyright laws to contracts – play a huge part in managing careers when it comes to being a musician. Panels like From Backroom to Boardroom: Taking Care of a Band’s Business and Band Names: Trademark & Branding Issues for Bands were pretty popular.
Bands and artists could also sign up for a one-on-one Mentor Session with some of the pros, providing the unique opportunity to pick the brains of some of the movers and shakers in the industry. Some of this year’s mentors included Tom Morris, Director of A&R for Hollywood Records, Ted Kartzman, President of JamBase.com, Derek Sivers, President of CD Baby, and Dan Mackta, Director of Marketing for Big Daddy Music Distribution.
GIVE ME THE MUSIC
Okay, so at the end of the day on Wednesday, it was back to the hotel for a Rambo like refresh and out to grab a bite before the shows were to begin. We started off at the Hip Hop Mecca showcase at Mercury Ent. at Jazz, hanging out in the warm air with a cool drink. We weren’t that familiar with any of the groups, but a big part of going to something like this is to discover new music.
Then, after getting denied two sold out shows, the Dwarfs and Superdrag, we were okay, because we still got in to see They Might Be Giants. I would guess that TMBG had to be one of the, if not the longest running bands at the conference, and for good reason. For twenty years the John and John duo have continued to create colorful songs with witty and often humorous lyrics, ripping on the horns and accordion like no one’s business. I believe TMBG may still have their song-of-the-day thing going, where they record a song every day from their New York abode for their fan’s listening pleasure. This night they played their classics, like “Birdhouse In Your Soul”, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople), and “Your Racist Friend”. In addition to writing the theme song for Malcom in the Middle, they asked their fans to watch out another new project – their new children’s books. Very fitting, since I don’t think these guys will ever grow up. At least I hope not.
Next we headed over to Element to check out DJ Collette’s set. She’s not only cool woman DJ, but the girl’s also gotz some pipes, adding a unique vocal element to her bouncy, booty shaking set.
Thursday, Anneliese was in charge, mapping out our plans to take in Seattle’s Pretty Girls Make Graves and The Eyeliners from New Mexico at Room 710, both fronted by saucy, strong females of the rockin’ persuasion. Both bands just killed the little room, packing the place out with pure punk energy. Right off the bat, it was obvious that Pretty Girls’ lead vocalist Andrea Zollo was the commander in chief, the 180 version of Morrissey in presentation, who along with the Smiths, inspired their quad word identity. Voracious, powerful and intense, their words were simple but hit to the core on songs like “If You Hate Your Friends, You’re Not Alone” and “Liquid Courage”, backed by a fury of sticks, strings and sweat.
We hit the streets for a bit, then returned to the club an hour later to take in the rockaway sounds of the slick sister trio, Laura, Gel, and Lisa of the Eyeliners. Laura has moved to the front of the stage after being both their drummer and lead vocalist, getting a boy toy to fill in on drum duty. Good move, because the lady knows how to belt ‘em out, getting in everyone’s face with songs from their 2001 release, Sealed With A Kiss. I was an instant fan, and so were many of the men in the crowd.
Then we were off to Rehab. No, we were far from taking those the twelve steps, although I’m sure we stumbled a few. This was the place to continue our booze binge and take in Pleasure Forever, a San Francisco trio whose singer/keyboardist, Andrew Rothbard, was originally from Colorado. Living in the city by the bay suited this artistic group, who went from 0-60 and back again with unique twist and turns of menacing vocals and quivering rhythms. Guitarist Joshua Hughes ripped up the stage and drummer David Clifford was in a contrast state of frenzy, until Rothbard would interrupt the madness with beautifully scripted keyboard interludes.
Friday. This is when the pocket guide got a complete workout. This particular evening we took in seven shows in seven different venues. Starting off at 7pm sharp, we were hanging at the Town Lake Stage at the Auditorium Shores to check out Local H. Ever since I heard “High-Fivin’ Mother Fucker” off their 1996 release, As Good As Dead, I’ve love these guys. It was their single “Eddie Vedder” that launched them to the MTV kids, and what surprised me when watching that video was that so much sound came from only two people. Since then, they’ve added a lot more members to the live ensemble to pull off the new songs from Here Comes The Zoo, released this year.
Promptly at the end of their set, it was off to the Mercury Ent. at Jazz for The Moldy Peaches, a costumed troupe that sang love songs with a huge dose of sarcasm and chocolaty sauce on top.
Then Japan night started with Bonkin’ Clapper from Tokyo, one of the bands we hand picked that day at the listening station. It’s music, not love, that should be considered to be the international language. And these guys could be the poster children for breaking down any barriers in any country. The little lead singer 70* was a quite the firecracker, hopping and dominating the show to the furious mix of rock and rap, but without all the cheesy homeboy crap. Their set was pure and fierce, and afterwards most everyone crowed the merch table to snap up their CD Bonkanesia, Anneliese and myself included, to take a bit of Japan home with us.
Grabbing a cab, we rushed off to see Starsailor from the UK, who was performing in one of the bigger venues, the Austin Music Hall. After having to store my camera in one of the venue manager’s car because I didn’t have a photo pass, we made our way in. Even though the place was packed out, it was worth dealing with the crowd after the band broke into song, and the lead singer/guitarist James Walsh blew us over with a glorious wave of pure heaven that reached to the top rafters. Even from the back of the venue, we could feel their presence and knew that this was a band will eventually give Coldplay and Radiohead a run for their money. Our fifth show of the night was Girls Against Boys at La Zona Rosa, and the Texas stars were out…or being worn in the form of an electronic contraption housed within a hat on one particular fan’s head. Both Annie and I were long time fans, but had never been able to check out their live set. It was great to know that they were still around after getting caught up in that label Catch 22 so many bands went through the past few years. They played new tracks and some of the classis, and we got to see and hear for ourselves why the saucy men of GVSB had such a following.
After that sexy set, it was a stroll over to Hickory St. Bar & Grill for a frosty set of L.A. indie rock. The show was outside, and although the temperature is definitely warmer than at home, it wasn’t quite beach weather yet. But the boys in Lo-Fi Champion warmed us up with happy, happy, joy, joyous tunes.
We ended the night by hitting up the Hard Rock, right in the heart of the hustle and bustle. But that was nothing compared to what took place inside when Icarus Line hit the cramped stage. Also from L.A., these guys took a bit of Marilyn Manson, AC/DC, and ‘80s new wave to make one hell of a punk and roll cocktail. Gyrating all over the stage and into the crowd, lead singer Joe Cardamone put a bit of fear into some of the tourists who were there have a Coors Light and buy a souvenir T-shirt. But it was guitarist Aaron North that caused the security guards to come out of the woodwork. In an attempt to pull off a Who-like ending to the set, Mr. North flew across the stage, pounding his guitar into the plexy-glass encased guitar that hung on the wall. Messing with anything by Stevie Ray Vaughn is a federal offence in Texas (kidding, or maybe not), so he was prompting tackled to the ground, and was laughing the entire time. It was pure rock genius. The only pisser was I was out of film. Curses!
Saturday we took the pace back a few miles, missing the Courtney Love slur, I mean, speech. I can’t imagine that session to be anything other than a train wreck, which is pretty much what I think of the persona of this supposed rocker. So we passed. We did meet up with Gooding and his group, a phenomenal guitarist I had supported for many years when I was at KSCU. After a fine Mexican meal and a few tasty margaritas, we took in his early set. If Jose Feliciano was actually dead, Gooding could easily be his reincarnate. Simply amazing.
We tried our luck at the Red Room again, this time for a Vue, a San Francisco band who truly represents the style of music that made the city famous in the sixties. Modernizing ‘60s pop with a blend of bluesy rock, Vue’s stylish band members shook the crowd to their dancing bones. At one point, lead singer Rex Shelverton got down with the bongo, ripping out the tunes as he sat low to the floor. It was an all out party, and everyone, including the band, was exhausted but happy by the time we made it out of there.
The party wasn’t over. Oh no. It was off to a very appropriate venue, Beerland, for Lords of Altamont, a crew of sailors on acid and PBR. Rockin’ Oi style, these punk pirates lit the place on fire, literally. Being ones to cheer on audience participation, a lovely volunteer joined the band on stage for the celebratory lighting of the keyboard, which in no way stopped the band from blistering along with a non-stop wave of music to wake the dead. But by this third night out, I’m sure that’s what we looked like as we made our way back to the hotel.
TAKIN’ IT TO THE STREETS
Just walking through downtown Austin is an experience unto itself. Every weekend they close down the streets so people can mingle and stumble along from club to club.
And since this is a town that really does support music and culture, it’s everywhere, from breakdancers with a boom box, to artists setting up shop in the middle of the street. No one seems to mind either. In fact, it’s expected and welcomed, which is a great thing for everyone. We were even invaded at one point by this Cirque de Bicycle brigade, outfitted in various costumes and custom cycles. I felt like one does when you go to the Renaissance fair and everyone is in that “Ye Old” character, which gets old after the first five minutes, so we moved on/ran away after a bit.
SXSW really is the conference that never sleeps. But sleep can be overrated, especially when we got to hear so much great music and meet so many cool people. And the town of Austin is the perfect place for everyone to come together and celebrate what we love, whether it is hip-hop, indie rock, jazz guitar, or punk polka. This was not my first time, and I know for a fact, it won’t be my last.