Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Whither Rock?

By Gina Arnold

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  AUSTIN, 1996. Seen from the rooftop of the 17-story Omni Hotel, the town of Austin looks somnambulant; a quiet old Texas town on the vast Edwards Plateau, basking under the big black sun. But during the four days of SXSW -- the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference, an annual conclave of some 6,000 music bizzers and 600 bands which happens every March -- the six-block stretch of Sixth Street known to all and sundry as "The Drag" 1 -- is something else entirely. During the convention, a bizarre medley of amplified music of every type of electrified rock blasts out of the wooden warehouses and square stone buildings for 96 solid hours straight. And whether you're standing on a bridge over Town Lake outside of the Liberty Lunch, or walking away from it, in Austin music follows you down the street, as one critic put it, "like perfume in the night." To the thousands of music business associates who gather here every spring, the town of Austin has long felt like the historical vortex of American rock music. It is perceived as having been a vibrant live music center since the year 1881, when a (then) unknown writer named O. Henry used to eke out a living playing fiddle for the locals in a rowdy Austin bar -- later, he started a magazine presciently entitled "the Rolling Stone."

But in actuality, Austin hasn't always been like this. According to Austin singer-songwriter Kathy McCarty, who moved to Austin in 1979 to attend UT and immediately started a band, downtown used to be a burned-out, scary old place. In 1979, most of the shops were dusty drugstores or boarded up; you could buy any building on Sixth Street for $5,000, straight up.

Places like that are ripe for punk rock: After all, large, cheap warehouses with no running water are punk rock's spiritual home. And indeed, Sixth Street soon abounded with bands like Kathy's and others; from the roof of the Omni she points out the local landmarks. "See that building with the mural down there?" she says, pointing to a place which now houses an elegant French restaurant. "In 1980, I lived there with my band the Buffalo Gals, and we each paid $85 a month rent."

A world ruled by Hootie, Mariah, Live, and Boyz II Men is not one which is going to spawn a brave new cultural frontier.

Austin began to change in the early '80s, when some proto-yuppies took a 100-year lease on the building that now houses the Pecan Street Cafe. A quick tide of urban renewal and gentrification -- similar to the tide that created Horton Plaza and the Gaslamp District in San Diego, which revamped Pioneer Square in Seattle, created the South Street Seaport in Manhattan, and was responsible for the Soma District in S.F. -- then swept downtown Austin, just as it was sweeping the rest of the country.

But the real change to Austin came via a massively successful campaign, conceived of by the City Council and Chamber of Commerce, to market Austin as "the live music capital of the world." Austin already had a certain amount of street cred, thanks to artists like Janis Joplin and Roky Erikson, who got their start there in the '60s, not to mention Willie and Waylon, who based themselves there in the early '70s, and famed clubs like Armadillo World HQ and Antone's (neither of which is on Sixth Street Drag.)

Meanwhile, in the early '80s, bands like Kathy's own Glass Eye, Doctor's Mob, the Big Boys, the Reivers, the True Believers, the Butthole Surfers, and Timbuk 3 came into being, but it wasn't until 1986, when Austin city planners invented SXSW 2 to draw outsiders into the joys of the Lone Star state, that Austin -- and Sixth Street -- really took off.



illustration by Jason Stout

The rest is pretty much history. Austin has receded as a punk rock mecca since the days when the Big Boys and the Butthole Surfers terrorized its clubs and real estate-wise, Sixth Street's on a downhill slide as well. But SXSW has -- like the alternative music business itself -- grown and grown and grown, mimicking in its economic expansion the exact same pattern that has seen the music business as a whole go from annual sales of four billion to 12 billion in the course of the last decade. This year's event -- the tenth -- drew 5,500 registrants, 600 (official) band showcases, and 12,000 wristband holders (for $40, wristband holders can attend any showcase which isn't already full of badge-holders).

Now when you walk down the street on a weekend -- or during SXSW -- Sixth Street is awash with noise: cover bands, blues bands, country bands, funk -- a disco, a three-tiered madhouse called Maggie Mae's where bands play on each floor and bleed into one another's sets, and the bright purple warehouse known as Emo's, a bar so infamous that one of Austin's most popular hardcore bands, the Fuckemos, is named for it.


ii.

John Cougar Mellencamp -- via the auspices of a pre-punk band called the Brains -- said it first, and in some ways he said it best. "Money," he said, "money changes everything." After Nirvana released Nevermind in the fall of 1991, money did indeed change everything in rock, and it changed it swiftly, and irrevocably.

Before that moment, bands who struggled to make a living in cheap towns like Austin were happy to sell 40,000 copies of their independently released LPs. After Nevermind went platinum the first week of '92, there was money coursing through the system, great gobs of money, oozing down rivers and streams cut out of the independent label system. It was the trickle-down theory of economics seen in triple-fast action, as bands, managers, journalists, drug dealers and people who had good dirt on Courtney Love started to command huge prices for their wares and services.

As usual, the largest hunks of money came from record companies, and were given out to bands who were deemed by the pundits to be "The Next Nirvana." (In fact, more cities were deemed the "Next Seattle" than bands were dubbed "next Nirvana," but that's another story entirely.)

Some of the bands who benefited immediately from the windfall included Hole, Rocket From the Crypt, Smashing Pumpkins, Helmet, and Kansas City's little-known Paw, who somehow fired up a bidding war at SXSW '92 based on a vague resemblance to Nirvana's sound. So too did bands like Babes In Toyland, Hole, and All.

Helmet, who scored a reputed million and a half record deal with the newly minted label Interscope, were another odd choice for "next Nirvana." The New York City arty-hardcore act led by guitarist Page Hamilton had sold some 30,000 records of their first record Strap It On on the Amphetamine Reptile label when a bidding war suddenly flared up over them in the fall of '91.

Tom Hazelmyer, who runs Am-Rep, still doesn't recall how it began. "It came straight from major labels," says Hazelmyer now. "I really don't remember anyone in the indie or zine world calling Helmet the next Nirvana. They would have been embarrassed to say that. At the time, there was all this gold-chain-wearing '70s refuse at labels who wouldn't know the next Nirvana if you stuffed all four members up their ass. They were like, "It's loud and obnoxious, it's the next Nirvana!"

In the fullness of time, Helmet signed to Interscope, while Am-Rep scored a bunch of cash for back-catalog and such like -- they won't say how much, but enough to buy their own building.

Of course, Hazelmyer points out that property in Minneapolis is cheap, and that the building -- an abandoned doctor's office -- had been empty for three years before he bought it.

Helmet's record In the Meantime sold some half-million copies and was certified gold. The 1994 follow-up Betty did less well; some 300,000 domestically (with another


quarter-million abroad.) For some reason Paw, the Lawrence, Kansas band that was next up for Next Nirvana-hood, wasn't half as successful in its quest for fame, although Dragline, its A & M debut, certainly had as many likable grunge elements as, say, Everclear or Bush.

The point, however, isn't that Helmet and Paw were bad guesses on the industry's part. After all, Stone Temple Pilots, Candlebox, Bush, and Silverchair (who, incidentally, claim Helmet as their biggest influence) proved that there was a gaping maw in the public just waiting to be stuffed to the brim with Pearl Jam and Nirvana-be bands.

No, the point is, that just after Nirvana broke, there was a moment in time when it seemed like everything -- radio, MTV, the music industry in general -- would change. The music business was like a governmental cabinet changing ministers and parties; younger people started getting better jobs in it in A & R and management. Good bands -- like Ministry and the Butthole Surfers and Soundgarden -- could suddenly be heard on radio and MTV; unusual bands, like Rocket, Shonen Knife, and the Melvins, were being treated with respect.

It was such a strange time that even the Melvins, a turgidly slow band whose leader Buzz Osborne had taught Kurt Cobain to play guitar and was often referred to in a complimentary fashion by Cobain, was courted heavily by majors despite his band's rampant un-commerciality. At one point, Osborne was approached by T-Bone Burnett, who said he desperately wanted to produce them.

But five years after the revolution, those execs -- bred in indie label hothouses -- are buying homes in Silverlake, and little has changed in the trenches. It was as if a window opened briefly, then seemingly slammed shut. It's meet the new boss, same as the old boss in the boardrooms, and on radio?

On radio, it's even worse. Radio somehow missed the boat, and instead of Fugazi or Team Dresch, a slew of faceless bands with names like 1,000 Mona Lisas and Deep Blue Something reside there.

This, of course, was only to be expected. "Look at what happened in the Top Forty from 1967-1976," points out Hazelmyer. "Somehow, totally wild, psychedelic songs like "Purple Haze" gradually turned into the Eagles. You watch, pretty soon there'll be some Seals & Crofts for the nose-ring set."

The Melvins' Buzz Osborne concurs with this theory. The Melvins sell some 50,000-100,000 of each record they've released since 1992, and have gained a large touring following thanks to gigs opening for Primus and White Zombie. The Melvins have a new album out, entitled Stag, and a slot on the second stage at Lollapalooza. But they have seldom, if ever, been played on the radio.

"I'm not foolish enough to say that (the punk/grunge tag) hasn't helped," says Osborne now, "but radio and MTV, that's very arbitrary. Who says they can't play us on radio? Kids accept what they accept, because that's what they've been given. It's like our bass player, Mark, says: If you shove a bowl of CheeriOs under the door of a prison once a day, the prisoner will come to like it. That's what radio is like."

"I have no idea how KROQ or MTV comes up with their playlists," adds Osborne. "Well, I have an illicit idea, how worthless untalented crap gets played there, but... actually, I've lost faith."

So has Hazelmyer. "On the one hand," he says, "it's great that the Poisons and the Motley Crües are being replaced," he adds; "but [the money in the system] has skewed even the most pure people."


iii.

Time, of course, tends to date even the most forward looking of cultural statements. Viewed in that dispassionate light, perhaps it's a good thing that grunge -- a reaction to 12 years of repressive Republican rule and the concomitantly enforced cheery conventionality of radio and TV, has outlived its usefulness.

But in some ways, the Battle of Seattle was lost before it began, when it pinned half its zeitgeist onto the so-called glamourousness of heroin addiction. In a 1995 article in Spin magazine about Mia Zapata, a Seattle musician who was brutally murdered by an apparent drifter on her way home from band practice one night, a local musician said, "(that kind of incident) is the reason we do heroin." But that's a cop-out. People do heroin because their friends do heroin -- just as people play grunge because their friends listen to grunge, and so on. And heroin kills.

You'd think, at this point in time, heroin would have lost its cachet, but no. In 1996, for example, Scott Weiland, lead singer for one of grunge's top acts, the Stone Temple Pilots, was convicted for the second time for possession of heroin and remitted for treatment, thus scotching plans for an STP summer tour in support of their then-new record "Tiny Music."

STP isn't the only big grunge band to be adversely affected by drugs. Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley has also been prevented from touring due to heroin problems, as have members of Mudhoney, Seven Year Bitch, Unsane, Hole, Porno for Pyros, and the Breeders.

And of course there's Kurt Cobain, the largest star of the idiom, who killed himself after escaping from a drug treatment center in 1994, setting off a slow chain reaction of what can only be called copy-catters, ranging from Blind Melon's Shannon Hoon to Sublime's Brad Nowell; Kevin of Skinny Puppy, Material Issue's Jim Ellison and Jason Thirsk of Pennywise.

In short, the question of which grunge bands have been affected by heroin isn't really half as relevant as which bands haven't. It's no coincidence that the members of grunge music's two beloved, successful and consistent acts, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, are drug-free, and anyone who thinks that doing heroin will add to their glamour, talent, or chances of making it in the music industry, would do well to keep this fact firmly at the forefront of their brains.


iv.

Grunge has other problems as well. Although Weiland's trouble with drugs is symptomatic of its sickness, the genre as a whole is also suffering from a lack of inspiration within its flagship bands. It shows no spiritual, emotional, or musical growth -- in fact, it shows the opposite. Grunge is now the soylent green of rock, an ultra-processed and uninspired melee of sounds.

Sadly, the results of the opening up of the airwaves has had just as many bad aspects as good ones. On the one hand, new bands have finally broken through the barrier raised by the clueless gatekeepers of the early and mid '80s. On the other hand, despite the breakthroughs, a look at which acts are really succeeding still gives one pause. After all, a world ruled by Hootie, Mariah, Live, and Boyz II Men is not one which is going to spawn a brave new cultural frontier.

These acts may well be the people's choices -- but their bounden mediocrity is bound to have a dampening effect on the future -- and in fact it already has. Whereas 1994 was a banner year for record sales in general, with people flooding record stores to buy titles ranging from the Offspring to the soundtrack to The Lion King, 1995 was an entirely different story, colored by the slow sales of acts previously considered surefire hits. Lucy, Candlebox's follow-up to its smash debut, bombed bigtime, as did follow-up LPs to former hit acts like Blind Melon and the Spin Doctors. Even Green Day's Insomniac was nowhere near as big as Dookie was. And 1996 is a downright disaster, with growth in sales down to a minuscule 2%.

According to articles in Rolling Stone, Billboard magazine and The New York Times, the industry believes that this year's big downturn in sales is due to a huge rise in CD-ROM and video game sales, as well as personal computer and Internet software. They believe that people's disposable income is being stretched between an ever-increasing number of entertainment choices.

But another possibility is over-saturation. Too many records are being released, and too many of them sound like bands that came before them. Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, and Green Day soundalikes abound, and although critics are loathe to believe it, there is some justice in the marketplace. Most people don't like to throw bad money after good any more than they enjoy doing the opposite; and judging by the extreme blandness of bands like the Toadies and 1,000 Mona Lisas, the margins -- once so vital -- have been swallowed up. Alternative rock is a wasteland of nobodies, and all of them are Better Than Ezra.

And yet, there seems to be a perception that the music business is booming right now, because there are simply so many bands being signed and so many records on the shelves -- a flood of product in the system. The truth is that, ever since 1994 -- the year that the Eagles dared to charge over $100 per ticket in some markets, and Woodstock '94 drew some 250,000 people (all of whom probably had a pretty bad time there), the rock market has been less easily led -- more judgmental; more careful with its money... or something.

In fact, record sales and concert revenues are down by a lot. And none of the bands that are now out there are really able to break through on a huge level that Nirvana's sudden success seemed to promise. Only one band has made a run for such a thing, and that band is Green Day, a Berkeley-based trio who reclaimed punk soil for their generation at an all-ages club called 924 Gilman Street. When Dookie, and later the Offspring record S.M.A.S.H. went platinum in 1994, people took that as a sign that punk -- brought to the masses' attention by the concerted championship of bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana, who talked about their influences incessantly -- really had finally broken.

Unfortunately, their success has merely ensured a devastation of their scene and others like it, as it, like grunge before it, has been co-opted by the industry -- often with disastrous results. Consider the unfortunate case-history of the Berkeley band Jawbreaker, who signed to Geffen for six figures in 1994.

From the start, it was a transaction which surprised many a longtime Jawbreaker fan, since Jawbreaker had long been one of Gilman Street's most popular, but one of its most vocally anti-corporate -- acts, thanks to three independently released LPs, Unfun (1989, Shredder) Bivouac (1991, Tupelo/Communion), and 24-Hour Revenge Therapy (1993, Tupelo/Communion.)

Jawbreaker formed at NYU in the late '80s, when singer Blake Schwarzenbach and his high school buddy Adam Pfahler, also a student at NYU, answered an ad they saw in the dorms placed by soon-to-be bassist Chris Bauermeister. After releasing Unfun on Berkeley's Shredder Records, Schwarzenbach booked a two-month tour of the U.S. -- by calling all his favorite clubs -- with the help of his father's phone card. In 1991, the band relocated to San Francisco; by 1992, they were selling out clubs in Berkeley, Seattle, and L.A. After three U.S. tours and two European ones each of Jawbreaker's three independent records sold upwards of 20,000 copies with no press or radio play.

By contrast, in the year since its release, Dear You, with all Geffen's backing, has sold a reputed 9,000 units. Why? Well, for one thing, Dear You, produced by Rob Cavallo (who also did Green Day's smash Dookie) sounded quite a bit different than previous Jawbreaker releases: It exchanged the raw and vicious sonics of previous LPs for a smoother, richer, and a lot more radio-friendly sound -- a sound some people have characterized as sounding much like the Smiths. (Dookie, by contrast, sounded remarkably like Green Day's previous Lookout! releases.)

This could be interpreted by former fans as "sell-out" moves, but Schwarzenbach vehemently denies that this was his intention. "I got a lot of letters to that effect, like, 'Rumors say that they made you do this,' or, 'On the internet it says they made you remix it,' and it's just not at all true. In the studio, we were basically unsupervised. Part of it (the sound change) was just that this record took a longer time to make -- six weeks -- and our other records took three days, literally. Also, I wrote this one differently, in a key I could sing and not have to yell this time. As for our sound, we'd already changed it, before we signed."

But another reason for Jawbreaker's demise is that it lost its entire fanbase without -- as Green Day did -- picking up a new one. Before signing to Geffen, they had been more outspoken against major deals then Green Day or the Offspring ever were.

"[Before we signed the deal] I really didn't know that much about [major labels]," admits Schwarzenbach. "And I'd seen plenty of bad models. But once we checked it out more... it was like, well, we could do another indie record; or we could do this. It wasn't a hungry thing, that's where some bands shoot themselves in the foot and get into bunk deals.

"We didn't just jump into the Geffen deal," adds Schwarzenbach, "like, this is our shot, let's go for it! We got a good deal because we didn't need it. But it was a really big thing for us, we agonized over it, and we all got really paranoid after we did it."

Jawbreaker took a risk by signing to a major label after so much cavilling against it. Sure, other bands had done the same thing: Sonic Youth, for example; and Hüsker Dü. But those bands survived in part because, however much their original fanbase kicked against them, the records they released on major labels sold more than the records they released on indies. Not so Jawbreaker's, and less than a year after the release of Dear You, Jawbreaker broke up.

Jawbreaker's failure may well have begun a backlash against major labels signing punk rock; and at the same time, it indicates a terrible crossroads that face indie bands -- and their labels. At the indie trends panel at NXNW in Portland in the fall of 1996, for example, indie record label owners discussed the near-impossibility of breaking an indie band today -- an impossibility that's based in part on the oversaturation of the marketplace, the wide availability of major label deals to bands (like Jawbreaker) who aren't really mainstream material, and finally, the shrinking of media and college radio's interest in indie label product.

"There are now only three ways to make money as an indie label," says Mike Jones, owner of Schizophonic Records, "1) to sell a million records by one band, 2) To take money from a benefactor, and 3) To let a band go and get money for them from a bigger company."

The last way is the one most indie labels take -- partly because bands are often so eager to jump ship that they get on a major before they're ready to go. The problem, of course, is expectations. In 1985, bands like the Replacements had none whatsoever. Nowadays, even the smallest band has the sense that they could make some cash. "I don't want bands that expect me to sit around and write checks to turn them into celebrity monsters," sighs Candyass Records owner Jody Bleyle. "But that's what I have...."

What emerges from the discussion is the fact that indie labels are trying to figure out a way to streamline who will hear their records. If they attempted to service (i.e. provide product) to everywhere interested in "alternarock," they'd go broke. One thing these labels need to do is narrow their databases down a bit, but that just begs the question where there are still the vast numbers of great, unknown, bands who desperately need the indie label network in order to be heard at all.


v.

To date, rock & roll has been cyclical -- sometimes exciting, and sometimes very dull, and unfortunately this is an extremely fallow point in its history. Moreoever, it'll continue this way, until kids stop forming bands in the hopes of getting popular and rich. Only when people return to being hopelessly creative will a new set of subversive icons emerge, who will in turn influence the mainstream as did Public Enemy, the Talking Heads, and the MC5 before them.

Some people, however, contend that this is a better time for bands to be signed then just after Nirvana broke, because there's more uncertainty in the industry right now. At the moment, A & R people are looking not for the next Nirvana or even the next Green Day, but the next... something else.

Rob Cavallo is the man who signed Green Day to Warner Bros (and who produced Jawbreaker's LP.) "Right now, there is no one strong sound on radio," he says. "So there's more of a window of opportunity for new bands. From my point of view, it's a more dangerous time to sign bands."

"As an A&R guy," says Cavallo, "the easiest thing in the world to do is to sign a band that sort of sounds like someone else, take it to a producer who did a band that sounds like that, and deliver it to your company and say, 'This sounds like so-and-so.' And that totally sucks, and what's more, most of the time it doesn't work. I think the greatness of A&R is recognizing the quality of music that has nothing to with a time and a place -- has merits outside of trends."

Cavallo says he's committed to finding a band that sounds like nobody else, but adds that it's a hard road. "Right now there's no real scene, just England, and none of those bands are even close to doing great here. We get a lot of tapes that sound like the Gin Blossoms, and a lot that sound like -- what's that band that does 'Breakfast At Tiffany's'? Whoever they are."

Even on an indie level, the creativity level seems stagnant. "I used to hear one good band out of every five hundred I listened to," says Hazelmyer, "now I'm down to one in two thousand. No one's rising up anymore. A band like Brainiac," he adds, "10 years ago would have had the impact of a Sonic Youth. Now they're lost in the shuffle. There's just too many bands in the system."

Most people agree that what we are waiting for is a new catharsis; that it is up to the artists -- nay, the kids themselves -- to come up with something saleable, and meaningful, and righteous, and good. But be that as it may, what really needs to change in the industry isn't the labels or the music itself (which is cyclical) but the medium of dissemination itself. Technological changes, such as the invention of the CD and synthesizers -- have helped other aspects of the industry improve; perhaps another such change will come along affecting communication. If, for example, a person could pick up every station in America, stations might actually have to compete with one another in a real way -- become different to one another, rather than more similar.


vi.

And so rock'n'roll ebbs and flows and is regenerated, usually by a band that takes as its inspiration some earlier act, like the Beatles. And yet, you can take that model too far. In 1988, the Los Angeles Times ran a piece on a little-known Orange County band called Dexter, which had won Musician magazine's "Best Unsigned Band In America" contest in 1985... and two years later, was still unsigned.

The reason? Dexter sounded like the Fixx at a time when A&R people were searching for Whitesnake clones. At the moment, the industry is looking for Nine Inch Nails and Green Day clones. But Green Day's last LP Insomniac tapped out at two million -- eight million copies short of Dookie. Clearly, nouveau punks' days are numbered.

And is the window shut for grunge as well? "I wouldn't sign anything grunge," says Cavallo, who just inked a deal with a band called Kara's Flowers, who he says sounds "like the Beatles but not Oasis." "I wouldn't even sign anything punk right now."

Cavallo thinks there's a possibility that metal may make a comeback. "There's definitely room for something heavier on radio," he says, and others agree. (Osborne: "Whenever I see Weezer on TV I wish that Slayer would come out and slit their throats.")

Hazelmyer: "Somewhere, some kid is rebelling against this stuff. True, it's a weird time right now because the high school mutants can go pick up a Melvins record at the WalMart, whereas you used to have to search it out. But whenever shitty music is predominant, you'll get a handful of mutants in suburban U.S.A. to fight back.

And then the cycle will start all over again. Will the industry have learned anything this time? Unlikely. As Marx once said, "History repeats itself -- the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."


1 The all and sundry of Austin know Sixth Street is not "The Drag" and that Guadalupe Street by the University is "The Drag."

2 The South by Southwest Music and Media Conference was conceived and executed by Roland Swenson, Louis Black, Nick Barbaro adn Louis Jay Meyers. "City Planners" wanted little to do with it.


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