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SXSW Day 3 check-in: Indies, majors and survival of the fittest -- or fairest

March 17, 2011 |  6:01 pm


It was a tale of extremes at the South by Southwest musical festival and conference in Austin, Texas, on Thursday afternoon. On one side, heavy hitters such as Lady Gaga’s manager Troy Carter and executives from BET discussed artist development, if the term development means creating a star. About an hour later, R.E.M. attorney Bertis Downs and members of the independent label community discussed simply how to survive.

“I wouldn’t be an optimist,” said Darius Van Arman, a principle at Jagjaguwar Records. “There are more and more pressures [today]. But it feels like we’re going to make this work. The artist, the label and the manager are all working together toward similar goals, but it needs to become simpler … A lot of times things are set up so it seems like people are working against each other.”

As far as advice on how to make it as a major league star, the usual marketing buzz words were tossed around. The term “branding synergy” was used, with veteran industry lawyer L. Londell McMillan noting that consumers today want to feel that they’re buying more than just music. Create a brand, a backstory and then you’ll have something.

It was a momentary SXSW dip into the mainstream. No doubt there’s always been a divide between the Lady Gagas and Arcade Fires of the world, yet even in a year in which both can compete for a major Grammy Award the varying trajectories of the music biz seem as apparent as ever.

Jordan Kurland, who manages Death Cab for Cutie, She & Him and Bob Mould, among others, noted that majors, despite their diminishing staffs, are still pushing so-called 360 deals, which seek to take a cut of every facet of an artist’s career. And sometimes they can get a little pushy.

While he didn’t mention the band, Kurland noted that one of his artists signed to a major before 360 deals were all the rage. “I can’t tell you how many conversations we have where the label says, ‘Well, if we had the broad rights,’ ” Kurland said. “They’re not really hiding the fact that they’re going to spend more money on artists signed to 360 deals.”

The question then was raised whether labels such as Jagjaguwar, which is part of the Secretly Canadian family, could sustain its 50/50 model with diminishing returns from masters. The label group, home to the likes of Bon Iver and Okkervil River, among others, takes the traditional indie approach, splitting profits -- after marketing costs -- equally with the band.

Van Arman handled the question with caution, noting that “we don’t fight the market, and people don’t value music right now.” He envisioned, perhaps, a future in which labels could take on more management-like duties, but one that’s also more artist-friendly.

“I don’t think labels need to be predominant,” Van Arman said. "There’s less dollars in the market and less dollars for everyone to share. So maybe [the answer is] there’s less people to share.”

Added R.E.M. attorney Downs, “The companies that were around 10 years ago and were treating artists fairly are the ones who will still be around.”

Other notes from Day 3 of SXSW:

On the rootsy side. New Sub Pop signee the Head and the Heart, which happens to be managed by Kurland, has a killer song in “Down in the Valley.” The tune itself takes is constant shift of momentum, at once glorifying and romanticizing a drifter-drinker way of life, yet also lamenting 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.

Earlier, Fat Possum’s Young Buffalo was stricken with a blown generator, which delayed its set by about 20 minutes. Due to other commitments, I therefore caught only three songs, but they were powerful enough to make a lasting impression. This is wide-open, Great Plains rock 'n’ roll, where three-part harmonies emerge out of rock 'n’ roll chants. The band has a knack for building and teasing out a song, with plucked guitar notes alternating between high and low registers before bursting free with a blues-based sound that’s ready to roam.

Trade you a Lupe for a Janelle:















A shame that No. 1 artist Lupe Fiasco and Cee Lo Green canceled there SXSW appearance, but their replacement, Janelle Monáe, is no slouch, an artist this blog fell in love with in 2009.

-- Todd Martens, at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas

Images: Young Buffalo and a SXSW whiteboard. Both poorly shot by the writer of this post.