SXSW: Music biz preps for recession time spring break
About one week ago, the South by Southwest press office sent out a release to highlight the scope of the business and media event. It boasted that more than 1,900 artists will descend upon Austin, Texas, next week, and noted that more than 70 industry panels and discussions are on the docket.
As it went point-by-point over everything that the annual event -- now in its 23rd year -- has to offer, it did so under a defiant headline, one that likely emphasized the topic of conversation that will dominate the conference: "Off key economy won't hit sour notes at SXSW."
In the music business in 2009, even the good news doesn't read all that celebratory.
"My long-term feeling is that the business and overall economy will recover at some point," says Josh Rosenfeld, founder of Seattle-based independent label Barsuk Records (Death Cab for Cutie, Ra Ra Riot), adding that his label is healthy and that he's still aggressively investing in bands. "But between now and then, a lot of bands, a lot of record labels, a lot of record stores, and the list goes on and on, are going to go out of business."
When the five-day music portion of SXSW begins March 18 -- film and interactive events start Friday -- it will do so with with the now annual doom-and-gloom stats and topics. Album sales are again facing a double-digit dip, the already-beleaguered Virgin retail chain is on the verge of closing its remaining stores, and further consolidation is potentially imminent, as industry giants Live Nation and Ticketmaster aim to join forces. On a smaller, but no less significant level, famed Chicago independent Touch and Go Records announced recently that it would cut a significant portion of its staff, and cease acting as a distributor to other labels.
"I can’t say we’re not at all affected by the meltdown, or whatever you want to call it," says SXSW co-founder Roland Swenson. "But it’s kind of marginal at this point. We’re down some in music registrations -- maybe somewhere between 10% and 15%."
But the concerns of the major labels and the mainstream music biz have always felt slightly removed from the SXSW happenings. There are few household names -- Tori Amos, M. Ward, Peter Bjorn & John, the Decemberists and PJ Harvey are some of what SXSW brings in terms of star power in 2009 (Katy Perry canceled her appearance, and it's a poorly kept secret that Metallica will be in Austin). Instead, SXSW has showcased the diversity and enthusiasm of the independent community.
Last year, SXSW had 12,600 music attendees, a number that included paid and non-paid registrations. Swenson noted that there has been no decline in those asking for press passes, despite the perilous state of the media world, and he added that any dip in music registrations would be evened out by the growth of the five-day interactive event, which has seen a 30% upswing in registrations.
If Swenson seems unfazed by the economic downturn -- he notes that the decline in registrations in 2002, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was greater -- it's very much on the minds of the indie labels attending the conference. It may not be stopping labels from making the trip, but it is forcing them to take a closer look at how they approach the fest.
"The bottom line is that we have to look at every dollar that we spend, and we have to wonder what are we really getting for it," says Jeff Castelaz, co-founder of local independent Dangerbird Records. His company is about to start promoting a new album from one of L.A.'s most recent rock 'n' roll success stories, the Silversun Pickups. The act will perform new songs in Austin, but Castelaz says he trimmed the number of staffers he sends to the Texas capital from six to two.
"It doesn’t mean we’re lowering our sights on our core business, which is marketing rock 'n’ roll," he says, "It’s just: Really? Why exactly do we need all those extra people down there? What are they really going to be doing other than drinking beer out of plastic cups?"
THE SEARCH FOR BUZZ
But if there are labels trimming the army of staffers they send to SXSW, bands largely don't appear to be deterred. The tally of acts cited by SXSW -- 1,900 -- represents about a 100 band increase from last year.
"I know that money is tight for everyone," Swenson says. "One of the strengths of our event is that it’s based on live music. Whatever shape the economy is in, there’s still going to be bands and they’re still going to need a way to promote themselves."
The last couple years have seen SXSW shift slightly from a focus on labels. Instead, music supervisors, advertising agencies and booking agents have taken on a greater role. This year, for instance, there's an industry panel devoted to some facet of music licensing from March 18 through March 21.
"South by Southwest has always been about alternative models, and how to manipulate the system to work for you," Swenson says.
And while independent labels are still holding officially sanctioned SXSW showcases, some well-known indies -- Merge and Barsuk, among them -- are forgoing the traditional day parties. Sponsorship dollars are harder to come by, say some. Others simply say it's better buzz to get a band on any number of the unofficial day parties sponsored by magazines, websites, denim companies or bloggers.
Getting booked for some well-branded day concerts is largely what finally persuaded unsigned local band the Afternoons to drive to Austin. While the seven-piece orchestral pop outfit had never played SXSW before, four of its five members did a stint in rock band Irving, which had. The Afternoons were planning to skip SXSW.
"It never really did anything for us," says singer-guitarist Brian Canning of Irving's trips to Austin. "For a band, it can be pretty brutal. We have seven people, and three drummers, and we wanted to go, but we didn’t have any money, either. No one knows who we are, so we didn’t think it’d be a worthwhile trip. Then we started getting certain offers, and certain interest from overseas and in the U.S. Everyone was saying they’d really like us to play SXSW."
The band was a late addition, having to count on its booking agency, Windish, to get the act added to the official SXSW roster. The band is also playing day parties sponsored by L.A. Web radio outfit Little Radio, Urban Outfitters and Sweet Lea Tea.
But heading into last weekend, the Afternoons still didn't have a vehicle, or a place to stay. The band recently had a song featured in the CW's "Gossip Girl," and Canning says he's counting on the check to arrive in time for SXSW. Canning says the group plans to spend $200 per day on a van, and doesn't want to go above $250 per night to stay in Austin.
"And then we’d like to feed the members of our band," Canning says. "It’s going to be expensive. We're scraping now. It’s a little bit stressful not knowing how we’re going to make it work. But it turned into one of those situations where we couldn't not go."
Manager/booking agent Ben Dickey, who works with DJ/producer Diplo and indie rock acts Spoon and Okkervil River, among others, advises his clients to attend SXSW. "There have been instances where I wish one of our clients had gone down and they hadn’t, due to not being able to afford it," Dickey says.
But for young acts, Dickey says a trip to Austin is vital, as it gets his bands in front of local club promoters. "It’s hard with a new act who’s going to play 40 clubs they’ve never played before on their first tour," he says. "So it’d be nice if those promoters all saw them."
Likewise, Cameron Strang, who heads L.A.-centered roots label New West Records, says SXSW is still too important to be scrapped from budgets. He's sending his whole office down to Austin, but whereas it used to be a four-day trip, it's now limited to two days.
"We’re definitely feeling the environment, and slowing things down in general," Strang says. "South by Southwest is no different."
Even Dangerbird's Castelaz, who characterizes SXSW as people largely "behaving badly on expense accounts," notes that the promotional aspects can be unparalleled. "It's the economy of scale, and it's getting all those media gatekeepers and all those people who do jobs within the music industry [in one place] -- college radio and Pitchfork and Daytrotter and AOL Music and all that. If you have any kind of head of steam going, imagine how much you can get done in four days."
And if paid music registrations are down slightly, Swenson notes there is one piece of silver lining that comes with times of strife. "Our years that are not so great financially turn out to be, creatively, our strongest years," he says. "I’m not sure why that is. That’s one of those nature of the universe kind of things."
-- Todd Martens
Top left: PJ Harvey Credit: Getty Images
Top center: Brian Albert of the Silversun Pickups. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times
Top right: Tori Amos. Credit: Associated Press
Middle center: the Afternoons. Credit: Sterling Andrews