SXSW 2011: The artists, quotes and fights that made an impression
With 2,000 bands and more than 13,000 paid registrants -- and seemingly twice as many partiers -- the annual South by Southwest festival and conference shouldn't be expected to provide one overall theme for the current state of the music business. The Austin, Texas, tradition turned 25 this year, and the scope of the event makes it difficult to discern just who is hosting it. SXSW today belongs as much to the organizers as it does to the corporate brands that piggyback onto it. Yet SXSW still excels when it comes to capturing the varying industry personalities.
At a Friday afternoon music biz panel, Barsuk Records chief Josh Rosenfeld told a lighthearted tale of industry frustration: The members of one of his label's acts told him they were open to licensing their music. Yet it came with conditions. "They had some very strict parameters," said Rosenfeld, whose label is best known for working with the likes of Death Cab for Cutie and Rilo Kiley. "They would only license to Yo-Yos or Pop Rocks."
It wasn't a joke, as months later one of the band members called Rosenfeld to complain about their lack of endorsements. If there were any such limitations among the SXSW acts, it would have been impossible to tell. The festival closed with an unofficial party hosted by online video site Vevo, in which Kanye West, Jay-Z and pals performed till 4 a.m., while an off-site Fiat-sponsored "Fader Fort" hosted the likes of electronic balladeer James Blake and L.A. hip-hop wunderkinds Odd Future.
Throughout the festival, many were asked to survey the landscape. "I do think there will be changing notions as to what it means to break an artist," said Dorothy Hui, a former executive with Wind-Up and Universal and a vice president at the recently launched label services group TinyOgre Entertainment. The shift, she said, is moving away from SoundScan sales numbers as an indicator of success. An endorsement or some well-placed licensing, Hui said, isn't reflected in the latest pop charts.
Independent label owner and Visqueen frontwoman Rachel Flotard got more to the point: "If your primary goal is to get signed, then you have a rude awakening ahead of you."
What follows is a look at the artists and stories that made an impression at this year's SXSW.
So, about the death of the album: As CD sales dip and the industry struggles to find ways to make do with incremental revenue from a variety of digital platforms, the era of the album has essentially been declared over by industry analysts and the media. Hold on just a moment, said Simon Wheeler, who oversees digital efforts for the indie label consortium the Beggars Group. "Sixty percent of our digital income comes from selling digital albums," Wheeler said. "Now, to me, that’s not saying the album is decimated." And for all those theorists who predicted the industry would shift to more sporadic releases of single tracks and EPs? "What we find is that it’s really hard to get the media’s attention with just a track," Wheeler said. "It doesn’t seem to be enough in its own right. It’s not telling a story."
From Brooklyn, with influences via Chicago: In Theophilus London, Warner Bros. has itself one of the smoothest hip-hop and soul genre benders around. On Friday night, which he said was about his millionth SXSW appearance, London was introduced by Chicago production duo Flosstradamus, and took to the stage to a Kanye West remix. Although London is based in Brooklyn, traces of Chicago permeated his music. Effortlessly moving between singing and rapping, and feeling just as comfortable with a rock riff or a momentary blues-funk detour, London exquisitely represented a hip-hop world that's been shifted and shaped by West, whose success in drifting in and out of hip-hop has turned labels onto many a rapper who can sing. The fact that London also has some flashy dance moves doesn't hurt; dressed as a Brooklyn yuppie in a beige jacket and top hat, London somehow managed to never break a sweat.
In perfect tune: Near the end of an afternoon outdoor set, Merrill Garbus turned to her bassist and said, "Wish me luck." She then proceeded to construct a song as if it were a chemistry project. She began by amping various pitches of her voice, and then added a dash of some swift rhythmic tapping, carefully staying off the center of a bass drum, and built a harmonic backdrop of worldly beats. She then proceeded to sing like a soulful busker, with each tap of her bare foot moving in time to the off-kilter groove. This is the world of Tune-Yards, where a violin, a ukulele and a mini-horn section are used as ingredients for tightly wound indie rock with an Afro-Cuban flair.
The requisite Spotify note. Sweden's popular streaming music service is available in seven countries; the United States, of course, is not one of them. Labels have held off inking U.S. deals with Spotify, which hopes to entice users to subscribe by offering a significant portion of music for free. But it appears to be working, said Beggars' Wheeler. "It is already our second or third biggest digital account, globally," said Wheeler. "We’re seeing as many as 200 times [more music] consumption on streaming services. If you scale that across multiple territories, I’m optimistic that the business is there."
The best act I saw: As I wrote last week, Le Butcherettes singer Teri Gender Bender is something of a stunner. She can howl, she can yell, she can growl the letter "R" into multi-syllables, and she needs little more than one ferocious drum beat to have her way with a song. When she repeatedly shouts, "Take my dress off," it doesn't feel so much like an order as it does a threat. She isn't trying to seduce; she's letting you know who's in control. The Mexican punk rock trio has but one album to its name -- the forthcoming "Sin Sin Sin" -- yet already has an arsenal of throat-grabbing songs. And just in case you're not paying attention when Teri sings that she's sick of you, she'll do a backward stage dive.
So, about that advance? Kill Rock Stars records president Portia Sabin fielded an attendee's question on what kind of money an indie label typically gives an act upfront. "I don't give money to artists," she said. "I give money to the producer, to the studio, to [marketing initiatives]. I just pay, but I don't give money to artists and say, 'What are you going to do for us?' "
Tamed, but no less effective. Philly's Kurt Vile and the Violators had to make do without their peddles and samplers, as all were stolen Friday night. Yet the downtrodden garage rock survived fine without the effects. These were songs about getting a job and a girl, and then losing both and struggling to scrape by working in a car wash. Maybe it was the afternoon sun and heat, but Vile's melancholic and stoned-out tone served the working class tales perfectly.
Big down under: Australia's Megan Washington, whose latest band is simply dubbed Washington, has become an indie sensation in her native land, and her music should definitely translate globally, if given the proper chance. First, she can sing, and there's an effortless quality to her voice that makes one think she could be fronting a jazz band. Yet Washington channels her energy into crisp pop songs. When she slows things down, she could be an NPR chanteuse, yet her more upbeat numbers come with bite. "Don't give me more than I want, I will take just what I got," she sang at one point, turning sweetness into a snarl.
Punk rock? Suburban Chicago's Screeching Weasel is a much-adored pop-punk band, taking the urban rush of the Ramones and bringing it to the 'burbs, ultimately paving the way for the likes of Green Day and Blink-182. Yet a 50-minute set Friday night came to a close in somewhat shocking manner. Lead singer Ben Weasel is known for his irritability, and his rants, even at their most angry, have a healthy dose of sarcasm and humor. Yet after some time spent railing against the media, the audience and SXSW, Weasel was hit with either a cup of water or beer, and moments later was hit near the eye with a chunk of ice. Weasel then jumped into the crowd. A video posted online shows him hitting the woman he believed to be the perpetrator in the face.
Later that night, there was no violence at the Wild Flag show, but there were plenty of guitar heroics. The band features the Sleater-Kinney team of guitarist Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss, as well as Helium guitarist Mary Timony, and was a punk rock rush of heavy, effects-drenched psychedelic guitars. The band hasn't recorded a debut album yet, and the songs existed in a constantly moving space, with forceful drums and inter-slicing guitars hinting at a myriad of new directions.
Not to be forgotten was coed four-piece No Joy, whose churning guitars recall the alt-rock era. Yet No Joy knows how to create drama within a time-tested formula. Songs evolve into cascades of rhythms -- or devolve, rather -- and the vocals are coolly calm amid the racket. Indeed, it's as if the songs' very arrangements exist to keep singer-guitarist Jasmine White-Glutz from drifting off into her own world.
Feedback is beautiful: As EMA, Erika Anderson takes what could have been folksy conventionals and then adds and strips away with a multitude of sounds -- a scraping fiddle, background tape hiss, sharp and minimalist guitar strikes and a sampling of electronics. Songs may start low-key, but just when one thinks Anderson is going soft, momentum gradually builds into a more rapacious release. In Austin, she performed an abbreviated version of her take on Robert Johnson's "Kind Hearted Woman" -- the blues reshaped into a slow-burning rock song, complete with curt, effects-laden guitar notes. "I have a 17-minute version of that song," Anderson told a small but appreciative crowd. "It's all feedback. Feedback is beautiful, right?" In Anderson's hands, no doubt.
The next Fleet Foxes? Sub Pop has what a music booker said to me was "one of the label's most commercial signings" in the Head and the Heart. No need to be put off by that comment, as the band appears to be the real deal. Just check out “Down in the Valley,” a hook-filled constant shift of momentum. At once it's glorifying and romanticizing a drifter-drinker way of life, yet it also laments a lack of focus. “I wish I was a slave to an age-old trade,” sings Josiah Johnson, summing up an outlook and a sound that lovingly aches for a more simple time that likely never existed. This is detail-oriented roots music, with violin-led slow-burners and harder-edged songs that shake like horses on a stampede.
ETC. This post could go on forever, but it will not. There are a few other acts worth mentioning, perhaps the most notable being L.A.'s Foster the People. The locals were definitely one of the more talked-about acts in Austin, and its dance-driven rockers got a convention crowd moving in the aisles. Some thought it was shtick, but I was smitten with Austra, a synth-pop band that was beautifully weird. Also, Michigan's poorly named Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. took roots traditions and dusted them up with multi-part harmonies and hip-hop-influenced grooves. Also, the gloomy grandeur of Esben and the Witch, which teased numerous emotions out of its aggression and spooked electronics. Acts I wanted to see but missed included Still Corners and Small Black; acts I got moments of and wanted to see more of were Chikita Violenta and Little Scream.
-- Todd Martens
Images: Theophilus London, Tune-Yards and Washington. All poorly shot by this writer.