AUSTIN, Tx—South by Southwest was in year six when I first made the trip to the Texas capital in 1993 for what’s become the biggest gathering of the music world in the United States. Prompted partly by the daytime conference panels relocating that year from one of the city’s hotels to the vast, sterile and still-under-construction Austin Convention Center, I listened to considerable grumbling from veterans that, “SXSW has gotten too big for its own good—it’s lost its soul!”
I’ve heard repetitions of that complaint (or variations thereof: “too corporate/too dismissive of local bands/too political,” etc.)—every March since, but I’ve usually dismissed them. As festival co-founder Louis Black makes distressingly clear in Echotone, the 2010 documentary about the negative impact that development and gentrification have had on independent musicians in “the live music capital of the world,” SXSW was envisioned from the beginning to be as big, as broad and as bottomless a gold mine as possible.
The level of corporate hype and the number of weasels here long have been a distraction at best and an annoyance at worst; the deal-making, eruptions of egotism and endless schmoozing during the gold rush of the alternative-rock ’90s was epic. The determined music lover always was able to block all of that out and make more profoundly rewarding musical discoveries in one place at one time than anywhere else. But everything has its tipping point.
While I had some fine experiences at SXSW 2012 (see the links to those reports below), they were fewer than in years past, while the annoyance level was off the charts. I’ve been pondering why since the last fest ended, finally concluding that with many of the folks from the interactive confab now staying right through music, the film festival happening simultaneously, and Austin-bound party-crashers multiplying the number of badge-holding attendees by what must be a factor of 20 or 30, there simply are too many people here for the infrastructure to support. Cabs, hotels, and restaurants are unavailable, oversold or gauging on prices; events with any buzz at all instantly fill to capacity, and with the overall number of people being at an all-time high, the inevitable proportion of jerks in those crowds is, too.
Simply put, SXSW 2012 was less fun than ever, and I seriously questioned whether I wanted to return for another round. But return I did, and here I am in 2013 determined to once again spend the days taking the temperature of the new-millennial music industry while spending the nights searching for musical epiphanies. My plan for the latter is simple: Wherever the hype or the hipsters are, I plan to go in the opposite direction. So, no, I will not be seeing Green Day, Dave Grohl’s “Sound City” All-Stars, the Flaming Lips, Justin Timberlake or Prince jamming with Bruno Mars, thank you very much, and I hope to be the happier for it.
Getting down to business, the first panel I caught was entitled “The Rise in Image-Based Marketing,” which moderator Scott Perry synopsized as “using the visual image to market properties.” By “properties” he meant “musicians,” though the preferred word for that antiquated term now seems to be “brands.” Nate Auerbach, the self-described “music evangelist” at Tumblr, talked about the ability of brands such as Shakira to make the platform “her own,” connecting with fans and telling a story through images—and ideally nothing else. Headlines or any other text, we were told, are distracting and best avoided.
The irony here was that SXSW techies failed to get the projector to work. The planned visual illustrations for the session never materialized during the first half-hour, leaving the moderator thoroughly flustered and this particular vision for a brave new world of post-verbal communications severely compromised.
“Brands” was again the most common word uttered at the next session I hit, “Jingle Is Not a Four-Letter Word,” wherein experts explored the variety of ways musicians can sell their sounds (and souls) to corporate America as it in turn tries to sell us products we probably don’t need. Here the clarion voice belonged to a Chicagoan: Gabe McDonough, music director at the giant ad agency, Leo Burnett.
“Who benefits more?” McDonough asked, pondering the relationship between the musician and the advertising client. “It can be a nice payday when a musician gets some money, but mostly it’s the [corporate] brand: We need X, Y, and Z to get what we need to get out of this.”
What the client needs is a particular feeling that only the right pairing of music and image can create. So ad agencies work with clients to find tunes that will resonate with consumers, obtaining them either by licensing existing songs from musicians, or commissioning composers to write stuff exclusively for the project. What happens when the creator of the “perfect” song refuses to sell it for an ad? “You get as close as you can without getting sued,” said Michael Fitzpatrick, the one musician on the dais.
McDonough claimed to hate that approach. Music, he said, still resonates with people in a deeper and more profound way than anything else; this is why advertisers need it, and they want it to be “authentic.” The current economy is “devaluing” music—“the problem is one of monetization,” this modern-day Don Draper said—and for some musicians, doing what once was quaintly called “selling out” simply is a good alternative for making money while gaining exposure.
Even if the payday for an underground band is far less than the money for a superstar selling a hit song (what the panelists called “the golden Apple” model), the musician can build on the exposure from an ad to develop their… wait for it… brand. “Ultimately, building their own NBC will be way more valuable than any pop song they’ll write,” McDonough promised.
Of course, musicians have to be able to swallow their pride and emotion when hearing sounds they crafted from their hearts being used to sell, say, an erectile dysfunction medication or a dishwashing liquid. But presumably those are concerns best left to the idealists of the world, not the ad men and “futurecasters” (another word I’ve already heard three times at this conference).
Me, I always identify with the idealists, and the standing-room-only session called “The Anatomy of Amanda F---ing Palmer: An Inside Look” spotlighted a great modern example of one such heroine.
Palmer, a singular voice in the goth/alt/unique singer-songwriter underground since her earliest days with the Dresden Dolls, made big news last Spring when a crowdfunded Internet campaign raised $1,192,793 from 24,833 contributors eager to hear her latest album, This Is Theatre, released in September. Sharing the stage with her managers, her overseas/traditional record label partners at Cooking Vinyl, and representatives from Kickstarter and Topspin, the artist explained how she did it, an answer that can be boiled down to a little imagination and a heck of a lot of hard work.
“It’s a f---ing zeitgeist what’s happening now with art and crowdfunding,” Palmer said, noting that only a few hours earlier, fans of Veronica Mars hoping to see the TV show resurrected as a movie raised more than a million dollars in a few hours.
The artist’s direct connection with fans can overcome any obstacle in a new music industry reinventing itself by fits and starts hourly, Palmer believes. Of course, that relationship can be fickle, and when she ended her session by breaking out a small four-stringed instrument and paying loving homage to this most twee of axes (“Ukulele, banish evil!/Ukulele, save the people!”), this fan’s loyalties were severely torn between his Palmer love and his previously well-documented uke hatred.
Finally, the afternoon ended for me with the world premiere of Born in Chicago, a new film by director John Anderson that left very mixed feelings.
By far the most exciting parts of the documentary were the performance clips, interviews and photographic tours of the blues scene that rose on Chicago’s South Side after the post-war migration, with greats such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Rush, Hubert Sumlin and Sam Lay. But the focus is less on these legends, whose sounds remain as vital and immediate today as they were nearly 60 years ago, than it is on the first generation of white musicians to embrace, adopt and—some would say—exploit their music.
This group includes some artists and other folks who are undeniably charming (keyboardist Barry Goldberg, who co-produced the film, and guitarist Elvin Bishop), some who are much less so (Nick Gravenites and the problematic Marshall Chess, who narrates the movie) and some who died before their time (Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield). For this critic, none of them ever approached the genius of the older African-American artists they often slavishly imitated, and it’s hard to deny that they were responsible for a lot of wretched and clichéd excess—the “bloofs” peddled to tourists today via the post-Belushi sanitization of these once-great Sweet Home Chicago sounds—especially in comparison to the newer, fresher directions pursued by similarly thieving British peers such as the Yardbirds, the Pretty Things, the Animals and the Rolling Stones.
“In a way, it’s very pathetic,” Keith Richards says, mulling over the question of white appropriation of black music by him and others. “But in a way, it’s also very heartwarming.”
The latter is easier to see in the loving way that Richards writes about his influences in his autobiography Life, or even in the film’s snippet of footage from that famous gig that the Stones played with Waters at the Checkerboard Lounge in 1981. But heartwarming is the last word I’d use for describing the heavy-handed, often soulless jamming of the Chicago Blues Reunion, Goldberg’s nostalgic touring act, which is given entirely too much screen time, and which will take part in a panel discussion here on Friday before another screening of the film.
Looking back at SXSW 2012