SXSW 2012: The artists, the stories that made an impression
As the hour passed midnight on the final night of the South by Southwest festival and conference in Austin, Texas, country firebrand Lydia Loveless may not have known it, but she was echoing the blues that had been sung by the industry the last five days: "Why don't I get paid to feel this way?"
When Loveless sings the line, she does so with traces of scorn and bitterness. Her voice is sweet, but there's some damage around the edges, either from sleeping too little, smoking too often or drinking too much. When business executives sang the blues at SXSW, their frustration was pointed at the diminishing returns of new business models.
Someone, of course, is footing the bill for this.
SXSW is five days of near 24-7 music, with nightly showcases and full-day parties sponsored by shoe companies and snack chip outfits. For the more than 2,000 acts that made the trek to perform at one of more than 90 venues, the hope was to gain a little momentum, maybe score a bit of press and, if lucky, play an afternoon or evening party that had corporate expense accounts to drain. Acts, at least of the non-superstar Jay-Z-level variety, are said to be able to command as much as $50,000 for headlining shots at some of SXSW's parties.
Standing out amid the din is an increasingly tougher task. Los Angeles groups that can make a racket, such as FIDLAR and Bleached, drew high marks all week and left Austin with a greater national awareness, but Rich Bengloff, of the indie label trade group the American Assn. of Independent Music, made it clear that "getting access and getting noticed is harder, because everyone has access."
Rising above the heap isn't going to get any easier, thanks largely to the proliferation of home and digital recording techniques. "In 2016," said Alex Asseily, founder of the audio company Jawbone, "everyone will have their own studio for $29.95."
Artists didn't necessarily come to SXSW with any answers. Brad Oberhofer, who leads the high-speed, frenzied melodic pop of his namesake Brooklyn band Oberhofer, declared Austin his second favorite city as audience members raised free fast-food tacos in the air. Brittany Howard of rock 'n' roll scorchers the Alabama Shakes went a more humble route. "I come from Alabama," she said. "I don't know much more than you. I just know that this is something I enjoy."
To be sure, there's plenty of money in Howard's passion. Jeff Price, who runs online distribution company Tunecore, said that in the fall of 2011, his distributor alone earned $200,000 for on-demand online streaming services, a group that includes Spotify, Rhapsody and Rdio. That's a more than tenfold increase in one year.
"It's money. It's shifting. It's happening," Price said.
But is it happening fast enough, especially for an industry that over the last decade has suffered through a rapid decline in CD sales? George Howard, a music-business consultant, said: "Artists, labels, content owners have had their per-unit revenue decrease at a rate that's almost impossible to comprehend."
Spotify, which uses a free, ad-supported streaming model and hopes to entice users to pay for a premium edition, had a massive presence at SXSW. The company rented out an Austin rooftop to showcase the electronic atmospheres of Grimes, and painted an Austin coffeehouse green and white, where rootsy M. Ward played acoustic sets. While Spotify was going all out to make its presence known at SXSW, it's still up for debate just how much of an impact it and other subscription, all-you-can-listen-to models will have on the industry, as they pay labels less per listen than the entity would get per sale.
Rhaposody's head of product, Jon Maples, said comparing streaming services to retail is a misguided move, as streaming focuses on different consumer habits and its success is based on scale rather than a single purchase. "We compensate artists per every play," Maples said. "I understand the difference between retail. It's not as much money, but it's a lifetime play ... We're going from retail to a service."
Naspster co-founder and Spotify board member Sean Parker said the company was currently on pace to soon become a label's No. 1 revenue source. “Spotify is returning a huge amount of money. We’ll overtake iTunes in terms of what we bring to the record industry in under two years,” Parker said.
Not everyone is buying it. Seth Hyman is an attorney and owner of Boston hard rock label Negative Progression. He pulled his label's music from Spotify and Rhapsody, arguing that it took approximately 50 plays of one song to equal the amount of revenue gained from one sale on iTunes.
To make matters worse, for an act that's signed to a label, the money that's ultimately funneled to the artist is first subject to complicated royalty and publishing schemes. Price tried to outline the path to SXSW attendees, but after a five-minute presentation, Howard interjected and said, "Confused yet?" There's a "lack of transparency," Howard said, meaning artists "can't make good business decisions about where money should go."
Spotify's head of licensing and business affairs, James Duffett-Smith, said that securing the rights to stream music in the U.S. required navigation of so many entities that there was "no absolute guarantee that all the rights have been granted." Thus far, artists such as Coldplay and Paul McCartney have opted out of streaming services, but no one has accused Spotify of not having the proper paperwork.
It was a shame, perhaps, that Bruce Springsteen couldn't always have the floor. The artist came to Austin to deliver the SXSW keynote address, having just released the socially conscious work "Wrecking Ball." Yet Springsteen wasn't here to talk business or politics; he came to Austin to inspire.
He spoke of his influences, as well as modern acts that continue to impress him. He directed his speech toward the young artists at SXSW. "The elements you use don't matter," Springsteen said. "Purity of human expression is not confined to the guitar ... There is no right way of doing it."
In the fractured music industry that comes to party at SXSW, Springsteen was able to offer a few moments of clarity. "You musicians," he continued. "Learn how to bring it night after night after night. Your audience will remember you."
Below, a look at some of the artists and observations from SXSW. Regular readers of this blog may note that some of the write-ups are culled from earlier updates.
Rock for a chamber hall: New York trio Bear in Heaven turns its synthesizers into a full orchestra. Leader Jon Philpot uses his voice as an instrument, opting for patterns over melodies, and guitars recall the Cure while reaching for the stars. What's striking is how expansive the sound is for a trio. A bass-driven dancey undercurrent drives many a Bear in Heaven tune, and digital effects gradually add layers that the beat must fight through.
Indie rock, remixed with a worldly bent: The duo of keyboardist-percussionist Jesse Cohen and guitarist-singer Eric Emm take recent rock and dance trends and blow them out to incorporate influences from the world over. The songs performed Friday, largely from the duo's debut for Matador-affiliated True Panther Sounds, "Mixed Emotions," gradually grew in sound and scope. The synth-aided beats of "Yes Way" clattered as if they had been fashioned out of wooden sticks and planks, a globe-trotting beat that had the groove of LCD Soundsystem and the international step of Yeasayer.
The kids, they're more than alright: Chicago hip-hop group Kids These Days came to Austin without a record deal, but don't expect them to be free agents for long. The model here is the roots, no doubt, with elements of blues and soul mixed in with hip-hop aggression. The band, whose members are just out of high school, can be nightclub-vampy, and alternates its rap breakdowns with extended bluesy rock solos. In Austin, the band, which includes a brass section, was amped up, so much so that its members were sometimes so excited to be dropping verses that they didn't realize their microphones weren't turned on. Forgive them, they're young, although their limited recorded output shows they know how to play to their diversified strengths.
A religious experience -- kind of: Denver folk rockers the Lumineers, which will release their self-titled debut April 3, had festivalgoers in an Austin church stomping their feet on the wooden floors. This is roots rock delivered with Arcade Fire-like grandeur, as singer Wesley Schultz was walking the aisles and strumming his acoustic guitar while standing on church pews. It's showmanship, sure, as Lumineers songs are packed with crowd singalongs and call-and-response vocals, but it's also irresistibly fun. More important, though, is the fact that they're good storytellers, as Schultz sings of finding a gun in his father's sock drawer.
Punk rock: SXSW is good -- very, very good -- to bands that keep things straightforward. There was much to recommend, including the swampy, down 'n' dirty rock of Bass Drum of Death and the sleek, late '70s influence of Ceremony. A favorite moment was when Ceremony announced it had one more song, and then proceeded to play a 30-song cut. Perhaps having more of a wider appeal is Brooklyn punk act the Men. The quartet's guitar work felt as if it were constantly threatening to trip over itself, as solos, diversions and out-and-out fist-raisers were expertly jammed into tightly packed anthems. The band sang of matters of the heart, but made clear there was no room for a dissenting opinion.
Pop, at its most exquisite: New Merge Records act Hospitality was a SXSW revelation. Amber Papini isn't an extravagant singer, and instead acts as an anchor for songs that unfold like symphonic daydreams. With a standard guitar, bass, drum and keyboard setup, Hospitality creates rather elaborate arrangements. Whether it's a rhythm section groove that appears to be skipping circles around Papini or guitars and keyboards that ebb and twist around her like carnival mirrors, compositions seemed to act out the images in her head.
Equally impressive was the metropolitan pop of Chicago's Wild Belle. Singer Natalie Bergman has a can't-put-one-over-on-me husk, and she marches to and fro with the microphone between verses, appearing coolly dapper as she puts a realist spin on adult relationships. There are touches of the blues and dips into reggae, but mentioning those genres runs the risk of giving the wrong impression. Wild Belle works a mood -- guitars are used so sparingly that when a few notes are struck it's memorable -- and keyboard trickles in to give the act a technological sheen. "I'm just another girl," Bergman tried to claim in one song, but here's betting she's not anonymous for long.
Classical, meet pop: North Carolina's Lost in the Trees has a stunningly gorgeous second album in "A Church That Fits Our Needs." Though I saw them after working for 18 hours and it was after 1 a.m. -- these are less than ideal conditions, FYI -- the Ari Picker-led act definitely made an impression. The violin and cello arrangements are some of the most intricate around, and Picker uses his songs as healing devices. There's a mystical quality to the band, and not just because its female members have stars painted above the eyes for each performance. Folk-based, classically informed and cinematic in scope, Lost in the Trees songs are aural escapes, filled with nature references and fit for a philharmonic.
The shakes! Alabama Shakes singer Howard is a performer who instantly demands the spotlight. She stomps, she howls, she hollers and she grooves, tackling vintage soul and blues with the rock 'n' roll ferocity of Jack White. The band's debut, "Boys & Girls," isn't out until April 10, but the band came to SXSW ready to conquer. Howard haughtily saunters around Heath Fogg's slow-stepping melody on "Boys & Girls" and leads "Be Mine" to a cauldron of passion that is the song's rousing grand finale of keyboards and guitars. It isn't always pretty -- there's a roll-up-your-sleeves grit to many of the Alabama Shakes' songs -- but such tuneful efficiency shouldn't be taken for granted.
Old favorites: Austin isn't necessarily the place to see established bands, as the famous can distract attention from new discoveries. I was going to avoid, for instance, Canadian electronic artist Grimes, as I saw her last year, but she's come a long way in 12 months. Playing a Spotify party, Grimes started the set outfitted in a camouflage jacket, yet it's her voice that blends into the surroundings. These are dark, moody atmospheres -- songs that illuminate the shadows -- and on a rooftop in Austin, Grimes shook and grooved to each change in the melody, making it clear that these songs are ultimately meant for the dance floor.
Twice I caught a song or two of the Heartless Bastards, and each time I wished I had seen a full set. Led by the scorched-earth vocals of Erika Wennerstrom, Heartless Bastards updates the blues for modern times, bringing in elements of folk and rock. Early Saturday, I caught a bit of the Shins at a Vevo-sponsored event. Now essentially a revolving door of musicians around James Mercer, the band still excels at building anticipation. When Mercer hits the chorus, his voice shifts to a falsetto, but sometimes, the band doesn't hit the chorus until three minutes in, and the release is hair-raising.
Now this is country: Loveless was the final artist I saw at SXSW 2012, her set ending at close to 1 a.m. Sunday. It was a high-energy, don't-mess-with-me take from a rising young should-be-star with an outlaw bent. Loveless questioned anyone with an answer on "Jesus Was a Wino," shot down any would-be industry suitors on "Steve Earle" and celebrated being a loner on "More Like Them." The latter is equally relentless and stubborn, indicative of an artist who isn't interested in hearing your advice. With songs like these, she doesn't need it.
-- Todd Martens from Austin, Texas
Image: Grimes playing a Spotify rooftop party at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. Credit: Todd Martens / Los Angeles Times.