SXSW 2011: Wed. panels: The Internet is killing music communities, but saving musicians? Maybe, but there’ll never be another Beefheart.

March 16, 2011

AUSTIN—Though the vast majority of those attending South by Southwest avoid the convention center like the plague, opting to spend their days eating free barbecue or tacos and hearing yet more bands at parties sponsored by labels, publicity firms, radio stations, or corporations eager to cozy up to the cool, the conference continues to offer a full roster of 180 discussions with some 700 panelists. And the best of these can be every bit as entertaining or infuriating as a much-buzzed gig.

Day One kicked off for me with a session entitled “Handicapping SXSW Showcases,” wherein a panel of allegedly in-the-know music-biz insiders discussed that ever-elusive quality that all of the 2,000 bands playing here are seeking—“buzz”—and then rattled off their lists of the bands we all absolutely have to see during the festival.
 
Topping the list: British electronic artist James Blake, who actually boasts that his music appeals to people sitting in their bedrooms in front of their computers because that’s how he makes it, sitting in his bedroom in front of his computer. Sure sounds like something to rush out and see live in a Texas bar, eh?
 
 
The star of this little soiree was George Taylor McKnight, a key player behind The Hype Machine, the MP3 and music blog and aggregator that other panelists praised as being the new media universe replacement for old-fashioned record-company A&R people or talent scouts and, though not in so many words, a more reliable source for critical discoveries of exciting new music than many old-school music critics.
 
The latter notion is one that, understandably, this old-school music critic has a problem with, starting with the name of the site—real critics and journalists don’t hype; they share their excitement and passions—and the fact that merely measuring the frequency with which blogs drop a band’s name or enthusiastically review that group is by no means an accurate way to determine quality, either in the act or in the review. The Hype Machine claims to have high standards—a blog must be in operation for an entire three months before the site links to one of its reviews—but there is no consideration of the ideas or specific criticisms made in that review, or the quality of the writing, or the standards and aesthetics the blogger may or may not have established over time, or the possibility that maybe his girlfriend or best buddy just by chance happens to play in the band.
 
Nevertheless, one panelist said, rising to the top in the new media universe is not a matter of an influential critic or three being lonely but confident champions of a challenging artist, the way that, say, Lester Bangs, John Morthland, and Langdon Winner were of Captain Beefheart (and more on that shortly). It’s more like the way astronomy works: The size of the telescope doesn’t matter; the science is forwarded by lots and lots of astronomers all focusing on one little piece of the sky at a time.
 
Maybe. But I’d rather bet on the sky-gazer who’s the first to notice that killer meteor hurtling toward us and threatening the end of civilization as we know it.
 
In any event, and for what it’s worth, The Hype Machine’s scientific quantification of buzz at SXSW 2011 puts these five bands in the lead: the aforementioned Blake; ’90s shoegazer revivalists Yuck, already announced as one of the performers at this summer’s Pitchfork Music Festival; Chicago’s punk power-pop band the Smith Westerns, who are fine on record but can be sketchy live; Wye Oak, an indie-folk/dream-pop band from Baltimore, and rapper Mac Miller, who’s drawing favorable comparisons to Lupe Fiasco (who may hate his new album “Lasers,” but who nevertheless just debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart).
 
 
Meanwhile, legendary Public Image, Ltd. and Pigface drummer turned Chicago-based lecturer for hire and Tour:Smart author Martin Atkins hosted a lively chat called “Welcome to the Music Business—You’re F---ed,” complete with audience call-and-response for that same catchy phrase.
 
As implied the last time I profiled dear Martin, he is as much a hustler as a visionary, but that is part of his charm. He always is entertaining, and much of his common-sense, coarse-language advice to bands is undeniable. Among the choice nuggets from this talk:
 
“It’s not a problem if 20,000 people illegally download your music. It’s a problem if they don’t!”
 
“Free is the new black!”
 
“Don’t worry about new technology! It’s now how you’re communicating, it’s what you’re communicating!”
 
“If you know that you’re f---ed, then you’re not. If you think that you’re not, then you are!”
 
Boiled down to basics: Artists need to control the means of production to maximize profits; they need to not be afraid of giving stuff away because that will pay off down the road; they need to think about every aspect of the way in which they present themselves, and they need to think outside the box in order to get noticed—a la the group of Atkins acolytes in a band called Asleep who brought their 15-foot-tall “Punchy the Party Robot” to the talk along with a mountain of free CDs.
 
 
As for the musical genius of Captain Beefheart, eulogized by this blog upon his death late last year, veteran music journalist John Morthland did a great job of celebrating Don Van Vliet’s life and legacy with a panel that included the musician’s cousin and best friend, Victor Hayden, a.k.a. the Mascara Snake, and guitarist Gary Lucas, who played in the last versions of the good captain’s band, circa “Ice Cream for Crow” and “Doc at the Radar Station.”
 
The panelists swapped tales of Beefheart’s odd telepathic abilities, surreal sense of humor, demanding musical visions—which were every bit as carefully plotted out as modern classical music, with no improvisation allowed, according to Lucas—and a charisma and aesthetic so strong that all agreed they’d never encountered any like it before or since, and doubted they ever would.
 
“The only reason really to do anything was to make everything art and music,” was how Hayden summed up the philosophy the two shared as boys along with fellow Mojave desert native and friend Frank Zappa, and which could be attributed, Hayden claimed, to the amount of nuclear-contaminated dust that all of them had consumed.
 
That philosophy—about music and art, not radioactive fallout—also was in ample evidence at my last noteworthy discussion of the day, “Our Band Could Still Be Your Life,” which, though moderated by Chicagoan Scott Plagenhoef, editor-in-chief of the king of all blogs, Pitchfork Media, contradicted almost everything I’d heard about blogs just a few hours earlier in that silly buzz/hype session.
 
 
 
Though the panel was named after the book by Michael Azerrad, the New York critic and journalist did not participate. He did, however, sit down next to me in the back of the room five minutes after the show started. “I’m a modest man,” he said when I asked him why he wasn’t on the dais. He added that though he had suggested the idea for the session, he didn’t want to be part of it.
 
Fair enough; the talk really was about the enduring influence of the ideals of bands doing things for themselves and for the adventure rather than for careerism, and of building a community with likeminded souls wherever they encounter them. In the 10 years since it first appeared in hardcover charting the inspiring but often disastrous tales of groundbreaking ’80s indie-rockers such as Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, Big Black, and the Replacements, Our Band Could Be Your Life has become a Bible for panelists Ahmed Gallab of Yeasayer, Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, and Jarrett Dougherty of Screaming Females, they all said, even though some of those bands broke up before these young artists even were born.
 
Another thing these three creative and committed participants agreed about: The Internet ain’t really all that, not in terms of bringing people together in any real way. Dougherty talked about the challenges early on in the New Brunswick, N.J. punk scene to separate people from their computers and get them to actually come out and see a show instead of just listening to music online. “The Internet kind of builds community in a very superficial way, and it doesn’t do it in a local way,” he said.
 
In other words, some things you just have to experience in the flesh… and that, in the end, is why the real music lovers have once again come to Austin.