Showcases and Panels and Weasels, Oh My!
A South By Southwest Report
Every year in mid-March, the music industry gathers in Austin, Texas for five days of bands, beer and barbecue… with a little business thrown in for good measure. More than any music industry event of its kind, SXSW creates the atmosphere of being a grand-scale party at which the guests aim to get as drunk and wild as possible while still attempting to do business. This year’s experience in Austin showed me that the industry is approaching a kind of Fall-of-Rome level decadence. Frankly, I have no problem with that.
Once your plane lands, the first order of business on the agenda is hotel check in, followed by a trip to the convention center to get your badge and pick up what will be your souvenir of the week for years to come: the Goody Bag. 1998’s bag of swag featured the fine visage of Chef from South Park. Once back at the hotel, the contents of the bag are dumped onto the bed, 90% of the magazines thrown in the garbage, and out comes the SXSW Pocket Guide, which reveals what bands are playing where and when. This will be your Bible for the next four nights.
In the Beginning
Showcases begin on Wednesday night, but the official kick-off to the conference is marked by the Keynote Speech on Thursday morning. This year’s keynote speaker was Nick Lowe, someone I’ve been a huge fan of since his Jesus of Cool days. Lowe joked that his invitation to make the keynote address resulted from political correctness gone mad, as in “We need a foreigner, does anybody know one?” Lowe seemed a bit uncomfortable with his speaking duties, but kept a sense of humor, addressing the room as “Industry insiders who get my records for free” and almost apologizing that his strong opinions about pop music were limited to “the time when I thought there was too much Supertramp on the radio.” He then eased into performing a short acoustic set: a few new songs from his current release (which I did not get for free) and Elvis Costello’s massive hit, “What’s so Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?” It brought tears to my eyes.
The Art of the BBQ
Before heading out to a long night of frantic showcase hopping, every conventioneer has the same question on his or her tweaked little mind: “Who will feed me for free this evening?” The problem here is one of there being too many choices. The TVT Records BBQ Thursday afternoon competed directly with five other parties. CD Now, the online music store, scored a major coup and drew a huge crowd by snagging Sonic Youth as their featured band. But I think Sonic Youth blow, and since they were on my plane from New York to Austin, I’d seen enough of them already. I also missed MFPR’s first annual Rock & Roll High School Ball, the theme of which was “Smack My Bitch Up.” I vowed to stay at the TVT party until Brian Jonestown Massacre played, which gave me time to scoot over to the late running Columbia Records BBQ and showcase at Stubbs, where we caught a great set by Shift on the outdoor stage and little snippets of acoustic sets by Bic Runga and David Rice on their indoor stage. The “Anal Probe” episode of South Park was featured between set entertainment, always a safe bet if you’re aiming at the lowest common denominator. My only regret is that I was too full from the TVT BBQ to eat the better food at Stubbs.
The Greatest Show on Earth, Not
The Trade show is generally pretty lame, and this year was no different. There are two reason to visit the trade show floor: Free Candy and Free stuff. The third reason is to look for cute guys. The best booth was the Ink Nineteen booth, where we gave away free copies of Ink Nineteen, the greatest music magazine on the planet Earth. Unfortunately, the Giant Electronic Brain that Ian Koss constructed was too big for the booth, so we had to exhibit our own brains instead. My brain was, of course the cutest. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame had a worthwhile exhibit with amazing photographs and copies of various bands tour riders. Reading these tour riders lets you know who the prissiest rock stars are. Worst booth award goes to Winston, who gave away free packs of cigarettes. What a bunch of idiots.
Lots of attendees skip the panels in order to sleep off the previous night of drunken debauchery, but not me. I’m into getting my bang for the buck, so I was usually at the Convention Center by 10:00 AM. I made a bad call, however, when I skipped quality time at the International House of Pancakes to catch the deceptively entitled But I Said It Off The Record: The Art of the Interview. I’m sure I was not the only journalist who thought this panel would be about ways to improve interviewing techniques and get juicier inside dope from your subject. Rather, it was a workshop lead by a former TV Anchorwoman, aimed at teaching closed-mouthed, lame wannabe rock stars how they can keep from looking like dolts when they go on camera. I walked out after 10 minutes, which was 10 minutes too late.
In an effort to avoid the dreaded Complete Waste of Time, I slipped in to another panel discussion called How Record Companies and Artists Torture Each Other. Perhaps a better title would have been How This Panel Tortures the Audience. Not only were the participants poorly miked (Who could tell what they were saying?), but the banter consisted of a moderator assuming the role of a rock star on the edge (a Kurt Cobain type if you will) with a panel member, playing the role of a manager or label executive saying, “Well, if you take heroin I won’t work with you!” Pointless and ridiculously stupid is much too flattering a review for this colossal exercise in crap. I believe several people were injured in their mad dash to leave this panel.
Generating the Right Publicity was a lively and at times heated discussion with active audience input, exploring the symbiotic relationship between writers and publicists. The methods employed by publicists to get the “friendliest” coverage for their artists brought up questions of political motivation and maybe too much “hands on” manipulation. Likewise, Larry Jenkins of the Columbia Records media department brought up the need or desire to “match” an artist with the right writer. Panelists included moderator Holly George Warren of Rolling Stone Press, Mark Satlof of Brooklyn’s Shore Fire Media (who worked the Poptopia tour for U2 as well as 1997 critical favorites, The Verve), and Steve Karas of A&M Records.
After a breakfast get together on Saturday morning with my personal Patron Saint of Rock Criticism, Jim DeRogatis, my roommate, Michelle, writer, Jim Testa, and Ron Richardson, Editor of Spin Online, I did some time in the Ink Nineteen Booth promoting our fabulous magazine before heading off to the best panel discussion I witnessed, “So, IS Paul Dead?” (See feature article this issue).
Rock and Roll All Night & Party Every Day
Saturday evening’s feeding frenzy took place at the N2K and Allstar magazine/Rocktropolis party with make-your-own tacos and Kyle Davis, a singer/songwriter who does a nice ballad called “Dancing In The Rain” that I like very much. Once sufficiently engorged with tacos and beer, we split from the party to head over to the Four Seasons for their way Bacchanalian happy hour, where you can become obliterated with alcohol on the tab of a lovely publicist while you watch the sunset on Town Lake. I drank so much I almost fell out of my chair.
I’d been pretty conservative in my indulgences all week, but Saturday night was the last hurrah that could not be missed: the SPIN after-hours party. Michelle and I somehow managed to catch the only cab available outside the Electric Lounge at 2:00 AM and sped off to The Naked Grape, a former gay bar, for free booze, pizza, and rampant hugging. (The additional free cigarettes and cigars were the reason we left at 4:00 AM when the party was really just starting to kick into high gear.) An A&R guy I know from a record label downtown had been flatteringly persistent all week in his efforts to find out if I am a “Real Blonde,” but owing to the likelihood I will run into him at shows and/or work with his bands in the future, I declined. Casual convention sex only works for me if the guy lives in another state, so I never have to see him again in this lifetime. Hilariously, it was at the SPIN party — where everyone was desperately trying for that last minute Sex By Sex West hoochie coo — that I saw A&R guy furiously making out with someone. It’s sad when a rare chance at meaningless hot sex goes swirling down the toilet, but I don’t need the cooties.
Next year I will use the knowledge gained at SXSW 1998 and do it up even better.