Anyone who’s ever attended a business convention knows how little is really accomplished at such gatherings. Year after year, the same folks show up for the same panels to rehash perennially unresolvable issues, network, and — most important — chow down and enjoy the nightlife.
You think a music-biz confab is any different?
Last week, some 9,000 musicians, journalists, flacks, and industry types descended on Austin, Tex., for the five days of music, madness, munching, and mouth flapping that is the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference. SXSW began in ’87 as a low-key alternative to the frenetic, now-defunct New Music Seminar, but has since grown every bit as brassy and unwieldy. Its 24-7 flurry of activities includes showcases, moderated discussions, parties, a trade show, softball, even 12-step meetings. SXSW also hosts influential film and multimedia components, which many believe are eclipsing the music portion. Meet the new behemoth — same as the old behemoth.
But this year there was a new wrinkle: Digital music, and just how the burgeoning dot-com revolution will affect the industry, was the hot topic. At a panel called ”Retail’s New Playing Field,” record-store owners fretted over the threat posed by MP3s and online retailers, citing the success of the recent Black Crowes–Jimmy Page live album, which is available exclusively online; the album’s initial single is the first Internet-only track to crack Billboard‘s Mainstream Rock Top 30 chart. Don Van Cleave, president of the Coalition of Independent Music Stores, also found the rise of CD burners disturbing. ”We’ve trained kids that music should be free. CD burners feed into that philosophy,” said Van Cleave. Meanwhile, Web enthusiast Chuck D of Public Enemy had nothing but praise for online music distribution: ”It’s been my saving grace. Last year, they were saying I was crazy talking this dot-com s—. Now they’re all trying to jump into it.”
The commercial ascendancy of dumbed-down teen pop was another touchy issue. ”In this climate, there would never be a Tom Waits or a Paul Westerberg, someone it takes two or three albums to break,” mused Neil Young‘s manager, Elliot Roberts (in town with his client for the premiere of Young’s movie Silver & Gold). AGF Entertainment prexy Ron Fierstein, whose firm manages Shawn Colvin and others, dropped an even more chilling tidbit: ”I had a major record label president — who shall go unidentified — say to me two weeks ago, ‘Forget about it — art is dead.”’
Yikes. Thank God the more than 850 signed and unsigned bands who played around town don’t heed such talk. For those with enough stamina for the nightly club crawl, Austin offered a head-spinning array of choices; you couldn’t swing a tamale without hitting a folk, punk, metal, electronica, hip-hop, power-pop, or country act. Members of Los Lobos jammed with Joe Ely and Steve Earle; the Mekons worked their sloppy magic for a large, if inattentive, crowd; country renegade Shelby Lynne wowed ’em at an afternoon party; stoner-rock bands like Fu Manchu and Acid King paid sludgy homage to Black Sabbath; the perpetually blunted Cypress Hill rocked a Columbia Records showcase; and local legend Alejandro Escovedo, who opened for Patti Smith at SXSW’s highest-profile gig, performed with a fire and verve that had non-Austinites wondering ”Why isn’t this cat a megastar?”