Monday, March 10, 2008

SXSW and the Marginalization of Austin Music

In the mid to late 1980's there was quite a bit of national attention being paid to the Austin music scene. Bands like The True Believers, The Reivers, The Wild Seeds, Glass Eye, and The Texas Instruments and performers like Daniel Johnston (this is by no means a comprehensive list) had, through their uniquely Austin take on rock 'n' roll, caught the ears of record company execs everywhere. Not to diminish the talent and originality of these bands, the success of REM and the emergence of the Athens, GA music scene played a significant part in this, as record company scumbags are always on the lookout for the next local scene they can exploit and, in so doing, ultimately destroy after the money has been made. Austin was in their sights.

These industry stuffed shirts (I don't care how hip they dress - that's what they are) were ultimately unsuccessful in breaking the Austin music scene of the time nationally, possibly due to the entrenched independence of the bands or perhaps that the "Austin sound" was too unique to central Texas to be understood or commercially viable nationally. The possibility of national exposure and the ability to quit day jobs, however, very understandably resulted in a deal of collusion between the bands and the record labels early on.

If I'm not mistaken (my once razor sharp memory is failing at an alarming rate - could it be the 12 - 15 beers a day for two decades?) it was in 1986 that MTV descended on Austin and made a sort of documentary of the scene including interviews and live performances set up specifically for the film, and this was subsequently shown on MTV (this was at a time when MTV was still associated with music - you youngins won't remember it). This certainly served to maintain, if not increase, the larger music industry's interest in Austin music as an exploitable commodity. It also gave rise to a small local music festival called South By Southwest.

SXSW was conceived as an avenue by which ambitious and talented Austin bands would play over a three day weekend, allowing a specific time of year for industry types to check out local talent, as opposed to making several trips across the year to catch a performance by a band they had their eye on. While I have no direct experience with this history I was, for whatever reason, at all the hip parties shortly after that time and rubbed shoulders and had conversations with those who had put the festival together, not to mention most of the bands and performers involved.

The first SXSW was held in March of 1987 and was pretty much an instant success. From this humble beginning it has bloated into the three week long multimedia juggernaut that it is today.

I had been knocking around, playing in various short lived projects, drinking heavily, and attending all the hip parties, including the SXSW ones, for a couple of years before I became involved in the first serious band of my life in the spring of 1991. By this point SXSW had grown considerably, attracting bands from across the country and some international acts. The focus was still on indie bands trying to make that jump to some commercial success, but it was starting to become more difficult for native Austin acts to be accepted for a showcase slot. Those with consistently large local draws and any bands containing a member of that original 1986 batch were shoe-ins, but a lot of hard working, innovative bands were being passed over. The band I was in, on the strength of two self released cassettes (that was the medium an unsigned band released a record on in those days) and several strong live performances, had attracted the interest of both Atlantic Records and Rykodisc. No money had been discussed, but we were under consideration. In spite of this we were passed over for SXSW 1993.

Upon speaking with a member of the permanent paid staff of SXSW regarding this I was told that local unsigned bands, in order to receive realistic consideration, must have shown serious initiative in self-promotion, self releasing material, contacting record labels and sparking their interest, and getting self financed touring under their belt. My band had been considered four upstart drunks who had accidentally hit the right chemistry at the right time, which wasn't far from the truth. I didn't find these conditions unreasonable - it certainly improved your chances of A&R types showing up for your showcase slot, and if you couldn't count on that then why take up space that bands who had laid the groundwork could more usefully take advantage of? It bore out for me as well - my next band, in spite of (deservedly) no label interest, had dogged record labels, spent a ton of money on promotion, put out a record (on CD by now) and toured the Midwest. We were accepted for SXSW 1997. We broke up two months later.

The next band I started I took everything I had learned and worked it to the max - mailers, promos, self-financed recording, self-released CDs, self-financed tours, self-financed publicity, making sure the songs had hooks and were as marketable as anything out there on an indie label - I spent practically every spare moment I had working that band. Over the 10 years of our existence we were invited to play a SXSW showcase once. We were placed in an out of the way Tejano bar that's management had decided they had made a mistake agreeing to be a SXSW venue. How do I know this? They shouted it in my and my drummer's face during the altercation that ensued when the club management had our van towed while we were playing. The SXSW stage manager did nothing to intervene. Phone calls placed to the SXSW office to complain were never returned. We were never reimbursed for the $110.00 it took to get the van out of impound at 3AM.

It was shortly after this that it became apparent that being a big local draw was not enough to be invited to play SXSW. The bands were increasingly national bands with comfortable record contracts already in place. There were exceptions, but they were few and far between and even fewer of those called Austin home. Very prominent world-class acts such as Iggy Pop started showing up and performing "special events". Woe to the bands who's showcase slot was scheduled during such a "special event". It kept getting bigger. It's now the largest music conference of its kind in the world.

The idealistic people who started the whole thing to help musicians find some success have turned into the very ones exploiting them for pleasure and profit. Was this inevitable? It's hard to say. The intentions were good, and I'm sure that these people think they still are. From where I stand, it looks like a week long vacation for music executives (not for SXSW staffers - even with my disillusionment I know how hard they work this time of year).

I've never personally known a band that got a record contract due to a SXSW showcase performance, and I've known a lot of bands. Bands I've known that have gotten record deals during the conference have gotten them due to performances at non-SXSW parties. The best example I can bring to mind is my buddy Britt Daniel's band Spoon (this involved one of the most ingenius self promoting false rumors possibly in the history of rock 'n' roll. It never would have worked had Spoon not already been a fantastic band. If you don't know the story, well, it's really not my place to relate it here). The only time record company people came to see my band play was at these non-official, usually daytime events. At SXSW 2007 my band had secured a record deal with a European indie label and were actively looking for an American indie to release our record over here. In spite of this, we had been passed over for a showcase slot and had to organize our own event.

Getting mad at SXSW is like getting mad at the weather (which I regularly do, but I have pretty serious psychological problems). It's like a force of nature now - an unstoppable force with no immovable object to stand in its way. Maybe the silver lining around its massive bulk blocking out the sun is this - it's forcing unsigned and indie bands to go DIY again. That's something the US musical landscape has been in desperate need of for some time. A crucible from which fresh, innovative music emerges will always re-energize a co-opted art form. I have to hold on to the hope that this already is or soon will be the case.

I guess the most disappointing thing to me about all this is that SXSW is no longer a celebration of the music. It's become a celebration of the music industry, and I just find that incredibly depressing.


leigh said...

great piece. i think you've missed your calling.

so, can you tell me the britt d. story?

MiseryCreek said...

If I dwelt upon all the callings I missed there wouldn't be enough psychiatric medication in a Pfizer factory to save me from myself.