Lots of bands, lots of talk and this year's SXSW fest.
By Michael McCall
MARCH 30, 1998: Los Angeles rocker John Doe, sitting alone with his guitar on a small stage in the dining area of the Austin (Texas) Convention Center, told a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd that his visit to the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) music conference had inspired him to write a song. He then flashed a crooked smile, fiercely strummed his acoustic guitar, and began piling up short, punchy lines about the disposable quality of modern rock 'n' roll. His words built toward a climactic chorus "Too many goddamn bands!"
Doe repeated the line throughout the song, tagging it with a mad rush of a chant, "CDs and CDs and CDs and CDs and MORE CDs!" By the final chorus, the entire crowd--most of whom had been loaded up with a dozen or so free compact discs when they registered for SXSW--shouted the line along with him. The song was more than just a memorable rock 'n' roll moment. It sounded a rallying cry against the insanity currently running through the U.S. recording industry, which appears to be steaming along like a monstrous cruise ship ready to capsize at any moment.
"Too Many Goddamn Bands" also summed up the theme of many of the panels and speeches that were delivered during the annual music-industry gathering. CD sales are declining, yet record companies spend more money each year producing more albums than ever. "As an industry, we have to recognize that we're flooding the market with more music than it could ever handle," said Joe Fleischer, vice president of Hits magazine and moderator of the convention-opening artists-and-repertoire panel. "We need to record fewer artists, and we need to give more concentrated attention to those records we do put out."
From radio programmers to record retailers, from talent scouts to marketers to critics, the convention's panelists pounded out one theme with the single-minded relentlessness of a techno drum track: Too many damn bands! Or, to put it another way, it's becoming hard for even the most dedicated fans to weed through all the music and all the information to find the few recordings that will mean something to them. This endless stream of "product," as many in the industry call it, results in fewer passionate music fans and a longer list of here-today, gone-tomorrow artists.
That said, however, Doe's presence represented an unstated, and far more encouraging, motif of the conference. Twenty years after his first band, X, originally formed, Doe still fronts a damn good band, the John Doe Thing, which performed to a capacity crowd on the fourth and final night of SXSW. This year, the event seemed to be overrun by survivors like Doe. From Ray Price's much-talked-about performance at the Broken Spoke on Wednesday to Jason & the Scorchers' barn-burner on Thursday to Nick Lowe's much-praised show on Friday to blues hero Buddy Guy's sweat-soaked Saturday-night throwdown, the festival stood as a monument to those who stay committed to performing and recording even after the major record companies withdraw their all-important support.
Maybe it's a sign of the times that SXSW--originally a talent showcase for performers who had yet to sign major contracts--is now an event that focuses on those who already have or once had contracts but still have yet to achieve superstar status. Plenty of unsigned performers do appear; among them was Owsley, a new pop-rock band led by Nashville resident Will Owsley that drew a horde of record executives to its set Friday night. There were certainly some young bands there as well; among them was Flick, a rockin' band of teens who, with the help of Nashville producer Joe Baldridge, recently signed a seven-figure contract with Columbia Records.
As is the case every year, the festival also featured a number of acts who deserve the hip industry standing they currently hold: Apples in Stereo, High Llamas, Imperial Teen, Olivia Tremor Control, Amy Rigby, Solex, Imani Coppola, Cut Chemist, Come, and Richard Davies, along with Nashville-area performers Kim Richey, BR5-49, Matthew Ryan, and Self. The event also continued to expand upon its international flavor, with showcases presenting bands from Japan, the Netherlands, Germany, Ireland, and Canada. Other specific lineups toasted Tejano and Native American musicians.
More than ever, though, SXSW was overrun with the musicians who've garnered cumulative years of respect rather than pie-in-the-sky paper trails or flash-in-the-pan success. The list included a few performers who reign as pop icons, including Sonic Youth, Johnny Winter, Jerry Jeff Walker, Janis Ian, and Jimmie Vaughan. More typical, however, were one-of-a-kind artists like Joe Ely, Alejandro Escovedo, Jules Shear, Robyn Hitchcock, Loudon Wainwright, Lynn Miles, Peter Case, Lisa Germano, Giant Sand, The Silos, Swamp Dogg, Syl Johnson, Tommy Keene, Don Walser, and Johnny Bush.
Few of these artists have ever gained star status; but all of them have constructed good, long-lasting careers while touching scores of people with their music. For the most part, they've done so without the lavish hype or financial support foisted on younger performers who, despite everything, never last beyond an album or two.
If the music industry and those hoping to enter it want to look for lessons from SXSW, the answers may lie in the enduring strengths of the festival's veteran performers, many of whom have been ignored or discarded by the major powers-that-be. Rather than spending so much money and energy trying to pump up the next multimillion seller, maybe the industry should shore up solid, proven talents who could appeal to a broader, more diverse group of record buyers--including those who have stopped keeping up with current music because it's no longer worth the time and effort.
In such a rearranged business environment, younger talents would have time to develop. With smaller investments in their careers, these budding artists wouldn't face the pressure to become instant stars, nor would they be coerced into sacrificing their individuality for the sake of fitting into a specific radio format. If record companies allowed artists to build an audience slowly, performers wouldn't be as likely to get swept into the vanity and destructiveness that tend to envelop those who shoot quickly to stardom. And in this kind of system, there could be less wasteful spending, for even SXSW makes it abundantly clear how many dollars go toward the endless streams of parties and suites and limos and useless giveaway items that serve little purpose.
Are there too many goddamn bands? Looking across the schedule of the more than 800 bands that performed at SXSW over four days, the answer would appear to be yes. But running around town, trying to hear so many of those performers, prompts a different reponse: There are too many damn good bands who don't get heard. That said, I did catch memorable performances by newcomers such as Vancouver's Neko Case & The Sadies, Ottawa's Holly McNarland, Ontario's Fred Eaglesmith, the Netherlands' Solex, Kansas City's Jeff Black, Chicago's Waco Brothers, and Nashville's Allison Moorer and Chris Knight. All of these acts' noteworthy sets suggested that they have a life full of compelling music-making ahead of them--so long as they don't get too caught up in the music-industry race to the top.
"I think what's missing today are bands that have an individual sound," Texas music legend Doug Sahm said while performing at a private party on Thursday afternoon. Truth is, SXSW made it clear that individual sounds are out there; the music industry just doesn't know how to sell them to us. SXSW also made it clear that, no matter what happens to the record execs and radio programmers, the artists will remain. It's only the industry and its extensive web of high-paid workers who are in peril.
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