Austin, TX—Another long day and night at SXSW started out with my Sound Opinions colleague Greg Kot and I sitting on a panel called “Adult Rock Music Meeting” with several legendary radio programmers, including Norm Winer of Chicago’s WXRT and former Chicagoan Sky Daniels, now of L.A.’s KCSN, listening to a minute and a half of mystery tracks and evaluating their merits—or lack thereof)
This is the second time Team Sound Ops has done a session like this, and each time I’ve felt compelled to point out that this is not how critics listen to music. Once an artist has pinged the radar as someone of interest from a number of sources—blogs and other press, streaming radio stations or podcasts, good word of mouth, and so on—this reviewer almost never listens to an album less than four times through, and often much more. But it’s a fun game, and it yielded one discovery.
No one else on the panel—and few in the audience—really liked Chic Gamine, a quintet from Winnipeg/Montreal fronted by four harmonizing young women working in a style they call “not a cappella... a’capulco!” That is to say, on a self-titled five-song EP, they layer gorgeous girl-group harmonies over a subtle sound that’s equal parts ’60s French pop/spaceage bachelor pad music and Motown. Unfortunately, I discovered them after they’d already played their one and only SXSW showcase, but they’ve made me a believer.
By far the most revealing panel of the day for this reporter was a session later in the afternoon entitled “Pennies from the Celestial Jukebox,” in which a distinguished panel of artist managers and music business attorneys discussed the pros and cons of the new revenue stream represented by streaming audio, especially Spotify. A considerable success in Europe, the service is just ramping up in the United States, but it’s poised to dominate all competitors (unless Apple gets into the game) because of the licensing agreements it’s made with the major labels.
Clearly, some sort of subscription model that allows listeners to stream as much music as they want on their digital devices is the next step forward from digital downloads (with the sale of physical product soon headed for extinction, except perhaps for collectors of vinyl and specialized CD/multimedia box sets). But many artists are concerned since, to date, the income from these streams has been miniscule compared to the income from the sale of MP3s.
“We’re not talking about pennies,” lawyer Edward Pierson said as he brandished a roll of the copper coins. “But pieces of those pennies.”
All of the panelists held some optimism that as streaming audio “scales up” (my favorite bizspeak of the conference), those pennies will become significant dollars. But all of them—including heavy-hitter Bertis Downs, R.E.M.’s longtime attorney and manager—are disturbed that the major label deals with Spotify were done in secret, and artists have no idea what kind of royalty those labels’ musicians are getting compared to everyone else.
Shouldn’t a stream be worth what a stream is worth for everyone, Lady Gaga or the garage band in Wicker Park? Is this another attempt by the remnants of the old-school major label system to insert itself between the artist and the fan and siphon off as much cash as possible as a needless middleman? This reporter certainly left the session with that pessimistic suspicion (and you can read Mssr. Kot’s take on the talk here).
Just as mind-blowing in a different way was a session called “Blood Music Sex Magick” pondering the aura of the occult in a lot of rock ’n’ roll, “from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to Led Zeppelin, and from Tool to Jay-Z,” as moderator Howard Wuelfing put it.
Panelist Joshua Sharp, “the founding Master of Alombrados Oasis, the New Orleans-based body of the Ordo Templi Orientis, a Thelemic initiatory fraternity,” nearly derailed the session with an endless introductory speech about… well, I really don’t know; some nonsense involving Aleister Crowley, who he admitted was part legit and part fraud, though he claimed that the greater “the haze of confusion” (read: “b.s.”) around all things occult, the closer one is getting to the “hidden truths.”
Much more cogent—and illuminating—were the comments of Alison Fensterstock, a contributing writer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, who traced the development of American voodoo or “magick” to the musical chanting and rituals of slaves in the Crescent City, which she correctly credited as the birthplace of all of the greatest sounds this country has produced, including jazz, R&B, funk and rock ’n’ roll.
In other words, there’s more than a little magic in all of these sounds. But we already knew that, didn’t we?
In between, I caught a set by the much-buzzed Punch Brothers during a showcase by New York’s WFUV at the radio day stage. The quintet—violin, mandolin, acoustic guitar, standup bass and banjo—plays a sound it calls “progressive bluegrass,” though some have termed it “supergrass.” Fans of Andrew Bird no doubt will be charmed, but I can’t help thinking of the Portlandia skit “The Dream of the 1890s” whenever I hear them.
As for my third night in the clubs, so far, my tried-and-true method of keeping the list of must-see’s short and wandering into as many clubs as possible in search of surprising discoveries has so far failed me in 2012. I’ve seen a lot of music, and by no means has all of it been bad; it’s just that little beyond what I’ve chronicled in these dispatches has been extraordinary. Maybe it’s the record-breaking crowd and ensuing chaos on the streets that’s slowing me down, or maybe it’s just that sort of year—a period of artistic transition to match the dramatic changes on the business side of things.
In any event, my one true highlight Friday night was a show by the reunited power-pop legends the dB’s at a tiny club called BD Riley’s. Giants in that genre, the band put out two undisputed masterpieces—Stands for Decibels in 1981 and Repercussion in 1982—and two other very good records after one lead vocalist and songwriter, Chris Stamey, went on to other projects (including the Golden Palominos) and before the other, Peter Holsapple, spent much of the ’90s as the multi-instrumentalist genius hired hand in R.E.M. during its last great run.
Though the combo—consisting on this night of the two bandleaders plus Will Rigby on drums and the great producer Mitch Easter on bass, plus an extra keyboardist/guitarist—played some of its most enduring tunes from back in the day (“Neverland,” “Big Brown Eyes,” “Happenstance”) and a mesmerizing cover of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” (“We haven’t played that for 30 years, but I did see it on YouTube,” Stamey noted”), this was no oldies show, and every bit as strong as the classics were the new tunes from Falling Off the Sky, which will be released in June.
The dB's back in the day.