SXSW: Festival excess contradicts biz climate, but plenty of acts make an impression
There isn't much that can slow the music industry's annual spring break party that is the South by Southwest conference. Despite continued declines in CD sales, concerns over a major industry merger and the recent passing of the beloved pop craftsman Alex Chilton, nearly 2,000 bands played over four days in Austin, Texas, some as many as three of four times per day, and all hoping to snare a bit of the spotlight -- or simply reclaim it.
When the sponsors leave town and the last beer can is swept up, the industry that most of the artists at SXSW are still trying to penetrate won't always be a welcoming one. The fest played host to big acts trying to snare some critical love (Muse), artists on the comeback rant (Courtney Love), indie cult heroes in need of a larger audience (the Besnard Lakes, above) and hyped artists making the best of their first trips to Austin (the Dum Dum Girls, Sleigh Bells).
It's easy to say there's something for everyone in Austin during SXSW. If one wants only to listen to live hip-hop or noise bands for nearly 96 hours, there's no place easier to do that than the Texas capital during mid-March. If one wants to forgo registering for the fest -- and clearly many do, as a SXSW spokeswoman said registration was expected to match last year's total of around 12,000, and yet the parties and crowds swell every year -- one can easily still see all the buzzed-about artists.
Yet once everyone has retreated back to his or her respective starting cities, the business that awaits them won't be offering the free flavored mix drinks as in Austin, to say the least. Many artists at SXSW tend to the artier side -- the sweepingly grand electronic soundscapes of Sweden's Björk-influenced jj come to mind -- yet Matador head Gerard Cosloy noted that for all the success the Internet has brought to the underground community, it isn't getting any easier to make a living.
"We have to work twice as hard and spend twice as much money to sell half as much as we used to," Cosloy said, adding that the market for mid-level success for indie artists -- about 15,000 in sales -- has "completely disappeared."
There are, of course, the media-hyped sources of revenue that are supposedly going to save the music industry -- we've all read countless stories with someone saying a cliche like "TV is the new radio." After all, even the XX, a band that experiments with song structures at their most tense and minimal, can shoot up the charts after having a cut in an Olympics-themed advertisement.
But such things are luck, not a business model, said SXSW participants. "They're quite amazing windfalls," said Domino head Kris Gillespie, before quickly adding that purses are getting tighter. "The money has dropped off the edge of a cliff, in terms of advertising money."
It's now an industry of niches, and nowhere is that more evident than SXSW. Whether taking in the off-kilter, blues-spiked rock of Holly Miranda, or the devastating crush of guitars and harmonies that is Australia's Beaches, much of what was heard at SXSW has a targeted audience. Although the distinctions between cult and mainstream are getting blurred.
"The majors are looking at us, the indies," said Portia Sabin, who oversees Kill Rock Stars. "The business model of the majors, where you need to sell 250,000 just to recoup your investment in a new band, that's not practical anymore. So how you can make money if you only sell 5,000 copies? That's what we know."
In other words, they know how to survive. That's a trait that's going to come in handy as the industry further consolidates. For those who opted to stick close to the convention center rather than consume free cupcakes and watered down beer all day, the recent merger of Ticketmaster and Live Nation became a contentious subject.
The Department of Justice's assistant attorney general for antitrust, Christine Varney, was on hand to defend the government's approval of the merger, although the industry's skepticism and concerns weren't really answered. Varney stayed on point, telling SXSW that the Justice Department had attempted to create more competition in the ticketing space, and not dismantle Live Nation Entertainment's massive vertical integration, which puts ticket sales, promotion, concert venues and artist management under one roof.
Domino's Gillespie slammed the green light as "immoral," and Varney urged angry SXSW guests to write the Justice Department. Comments on the merger are being accepted until early May, and will be reviewed to see whether further court action is necessary, she said.
"I know it's not a satisfying answer," Varney said when pressed as to why the Justice Department didn't force Live Nation Entertainment to A) sell its management firm, B) sell its venues or C) allow competing promoters to leave their contracts with Ticketmaster. "We are constrained by the law. The overlap that we found was in ticketing. That's why the remedy rests in ticketing."
There is a so-called consent decree, which will allow competitors of Live Nation Entertainment to report anti-competitive practices. And if you have a problem with that? "The only thing I can tell you to do is to continue to try and work your deals and let us know if you think the consent decree is being violated," Varney said.
As the big guys get bigger, SXSW was a fitting reminder that while the music industry may still like to party and channel its reckless past, endurance is rarely sustained by indulging in excess.
"There's a lot less money being advanced for tour support," Matador's Cosloy said. "That's due to not just shrinking record sales, but what's happening in the live music business. When someone says to me, 'What do you do for tour support?' I say, 'We'll be very supportive. If you need to call someone in the middle of the night, we'll be supportive.' "
And now for the music: After the jump, some of the acts that made the biggest lasting impression on me:
Beaches: Five women from Australia who can make a racket, and have the ability to howl right through it. What's striking, however, is not the wall of shoegazey guitars, but the way the band is able to stretch, distort and toy with seemingly simple pop melodies. Listen.
Memory Tapes: So the lyrics can be a little corny, but guitarist-composer Dayve Hawk, performing in Austin with a drummer, crafts crisp instrumental soundscapes of the highest order. Filled with sugary, bright backing effects, Hawk's jangly power-pop riffs melded with the digital sounds and a disco euphoria to create lush, friendly and sunny retro rock with an eye to an electronic-driven future. Listen.
Sleigh Bells: The Brooklyn duo weren't on the list for an official SXSW showcase, but they played a host of hot parties, and kicked up a messy, dance-rock storm. Already signed to M.I.A.'s new Interscope-affiliated label, expect to hear more, and if the pair can harness their old-school hip-hop beats and fist-in-the-air hard rock riffs, as they do on "Infinity Guitars," Sleigh Bells will be a force to be reckoned with. Listen.
The XX. A must-see at Coachella, the XX are all mystery, minimalism and cool contemplation. Live, they're even a bit spooky, as bassist Oliver Sim stalks around the stage like Vincent Price in a vintage Universal horror movie. The cool and calm electronic grooves create a seductive, sci-fi backdrop for the trio's modern, soul-searching cuts. Listen.
Broken Records. Like Frightened Rabbit, these Scottish boys know how to wail about heartbreak. With violins and accordions ramming up against rootsy, folk-rock guitar riffs pushed to the max, the Broken Records stage a war on last call. This is pub music at its most baroque. Listen.
Uffie. The American-born Paris-based rapper has chosen a ridiculous name, and she has the pop-tart poses down pat. Yet as she enthusiastically sings on her upcoming "Sex Dreams and Denim Jeans," Uffie showed she had far more to offer than just salacious, wannabe-shocking lyrics. A world-conquering hit? Perhaps not, but spry electronics and a dash of sarcasm allow her to have her fun while winking at it. Listen.
jj. Björk fans should take note. Sweden's jj -- the duo of Joakim Benon and Elin Kastlander -- are eccentric. At a SXSW showcase Friday night, many in the audience were downright uncomfortable, as Kastlander sat nearly still, didn't say a word and bolted from the stage while her backing loops continued playing. A stage presence would be nice, sure, but this is zoning-out music, with lush, world beat-influenced electronic terrain holding Kastlander's delicate voice. The ambient arrangements can be borderline New Age -- computer-harpsichords and the like -- but the scope is fantasy-film grandeur. Listen.
The Besnard Lakes. The Besnard Lakes have a stunner of a new album in "The Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night," and the band's majestic harmonies and oceanic waves of guitars feel as if they could move canyons. Songs materialized out of bass notes so low that passersby could be forgiven for thinking a storm was coming, and the back- and-forth vocals of Jace Lasek and Olga Goreas were as transfixing as any instrumental flourishes. Listen.
The Ghost Songs. The Austin band at times struck a vintage "Nuggets"-era garage-rock sound similar to Roky Erickson's 13th Floor Elevators, although the Ghost Songs went for something far more charming and approachable. Led by the woozy-voiced Chris Catalena, the band, performing what it said was its second show ever, wrapped its melodies with a sense of adventurousness. The multiple vocals -- sometimes deliberately out of sync -- add a sense of mystery, and Stephanie Hunt's violin added a slight back-porch feel. It's a bit tripped-out, and more than a little playful. New songs with Hunt taking the lead on vocal show a greater pop appeal, although the "Friday Night Lights" actress said after the show that they weren't ready to be debuted to an audience. Listen.
Nneka. Walking onstage and picking up an acoustic guitar, Nneka immediately struck a coffeehouse vibe. That lasted maybe 45 seconds before she began a trip around the globe. With reggae-thick bass notes and a colorful keyboard, she sounded equally as influenced by island sounds and the minimal production of Dr. Dre. These are politically tinged numbers, but Nneka's cause is only about spreading the groove. Listen.
Sleepy Sun. The act specializes in hard rock of the more hypnotic kind, merging a metal backbone with a folsky influence. Singer Rachel Williams, though she shares vocal duties, could be fronting a soul band, but one also got the sense that Sleepy Sun could easily devolve into a lengthy stoner metal jam session, if it so desired. Thankfully, the band is more interested in genre-hopping than showboating. Listen.
Fine print: The above includes acts I had never seen before, or hadn't seen in years. That's why I did not mention Titus Andronicus, the Dum Dum Girls, No Age, who came to Austin as a three-piece, or She & Him, for instance. All gave strong performances, and the Dum Dum Girls proved themselves worthy of all the pre-release blog attention.
And I already forgot one: I didn't get to see as much of Norway's Serena-Maneesh as I wanted, but the band whipped up a riveting mix of dance and rock. In the span of just one song, the melodic experimentalists married wind chimes with techno beats, gothic textures and crushing waves of guitar. Listen.
Acts trusted people recommended to me that I did not get to see:
-- The U.K. pop band Everything Everything. On my way to see the XX, I bumped into a respected indie label president, who I'm keeping anonymous since I didn't specify I might quote his tips. But after he lamented failing to sign Sleigh Bells, he noted that Everything Everything performed three of the best songs he had seen at SXSW. The rest of the set, I was told, didn't hold up to those three songs, but I was left curious nevertheless. Listen.
-- New Zealand's Surf City. This tip came from Matador's Cosloy, who I pulled aside after a Saturday morning panel. By that time, I couldn't track down any more of their performances, but I like what little I've had time to listen to online thus far -- anthemic indie rock with with a love for early rock 'n' roll sounds. Listen.
My SXSW facts and figures:
Total number of bands seen for at least one song: 51
Total amount of barbecue consumed: Zero
Total number of meals had over four days: 2
Best local microbrew consumed: (512) IPA -- although I wish I would have known about its plus 7%-ABV on a stomach that hadn't had food in 28 hours.
Total hours slept over five nights: 21
Times I introduced myself to someone I had met just hours before: 2
Days before I was hit with a cold: 5 (that's a new record)
-- Todd Martens
Photos: (Top) The Besnard Lakes at SXSW, in Austin. (bottom) Paris-based electro-rapper Uffie plays to the concertgoers at SXSW. Credit Jack Plunket / For The Times
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