The Bands Keep Playing 

Glum predictions, vibrant music at SXSW

Glum predictions, vibrant music at SXSW

Recording industry leaders moaned the blues during daily panel discussions at this year’s South by Southwest Music/Media Conference (SXSW). The musicians, however, responded by loudly and confidently demonstrating that the problem isn’t a lack of talent. Vital, vibrant sounds burst out all over Austin, Texas, as more than a thousand bands set up in more than 40 nightclubs over four nights. At every turn, an intelligent songwriter or a seasoned musician or an energized young group proved that pop music, in all its forms and hybrids, remains an endlessly inventive and entertaining art form.

“The problem is,” as Matador Records co-owner Gerard Cosloy put it, “record labels are doing a lousy job.”

More than 28,000 albums came out in America in 1996, according to a recent study by the National Association of Record Merchants. There are more record companies, more talent scouts, more nightclubs, more record stores, more promoters, and more performers than ever. Yet the same study revealed that the public doesn’t feel well served by record stores or by radio, nor do they believe pop music is as good now as in past decades.

These facts and figures weighed heavily on the minds of the SXSW panel participants. Tim Devine, a vice president at Sony Music Group, noted that of the thousands of new acts introduced in recent years, only “a minute fraction of a percent” have established themselves with a strong sales base; what’s more, many of the breakthrough acts aren’t sustaining sales past an album or two. “The public is ticked off,” Devine added, “and they don’t care about what we’re trying to sell them.”

The seminar’s daily forums and panels repeatedly underlined the industry’s gloomy outlook. One panel was billed, “What’s Behind the Recent Drastic Slump in Record Sales?” Then there was “Somebody’s Gotta Sell Records” and “Can Real Independent Labels Survive?” Topics included the alarming rate at which smaller labels are going out of business and the diminishing fan base for recently hot genres such as country music and rap. Listeners are moving away from country and rap, it was pointed out, because record labels have invested heavily in copycat acts instead of forging ahead with fresh, innovative artists (of which plenty are available). Thus newly devoted fans have grown bored and have stopped paying attention.

The person cited repeatedly as an example for young artists to emulate was Ani DiFranco, a singer-songwriter who’s making a good living putting out her own records and setting up her own concert tours. “She’s the hero of our time,” said A&R executive Tony Ferguson, one of the founders of Interscope Records. “Although I shouldn’t be saying that, because I’m biting the hand that feeds me.”

Over and over, speakers and panelists suggested a return to basics and a move away from inflated advances, bidding wars, and a bloated system built around high-priced producers and studio musicians. When a new band or performer signs a contract for six or seven figures up front, there’s a “pressure to sell immediately in big numbers rather than to build a career and a following slowly and solidly,” Devine said. “That practice has hurt a lot more careers than it’s helped.”

Once a band has been signed for hundreds of thousands of dollars, most of the money goes to lawyers and managers, while equally enormous sums are poured into a recording budget and into promotion and advertising. As a result, the artist must sell millions of albums to break even with the company’s investment; when that doesn’t happen, the artist is viewed as a failure.

“There’s no reason an artist shouldn’t make money after selling 20,000 to 30,000 albums,” Devine said. “We’re setting impossible goals.” With impassioned vocal support from other executives, Devine suggested a drastic realignment in the music business. With less money invested in signing contracts and in the recording of albums, expectations could be lower while profits continued to grow. The corporation would do better on its investment, and more artists would be able to make a livelihood from their music. In the end, there would be more diversity, and music fans would be better served. As Cosloy added, “There are careers to be made, if people were more willing to accept a modest living at this. Most musicians I know would be happy simply to give up their day jobs and make music for a living.”

The music at SXSW backed up the panelists’ seemingly pie-in-the-sky proclamations. With high-profile appearances by Carl Perkins, Tony Bennett, and Elvis Presley backup musicians Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana, examples of longevity seemed to be ever-present. Perkins and Bennett have enjoyed 40-years of ups and downs, riding out the low points in their careers with talent still firmly place. Meanwhile, veteran performers like the Texas Tornados, Swamp Dogg, Terry Allen, Guy Clark, and Del McCoury all drew rave comments from those who caught their performances. My personal highlight was Jo Carol Pierce’s hour-long musical monologue about a colorful Texas woman trying to reconcile her desires for salvation and sexual variety.

I caught thrilling shows by the Japanese rock bands Cocco and Lolita No. 18, as well as New York-based Jane Jensen. All three groups played melodic pop music set to punk tempos, but they all scored partly because of their willingness to pour themselves completely into the music. Their enthusiasm spilled over into the crowd and swept away the self-consciousness that plagues ’90s rock ’n’ roll.

Other delights were just as unexpected, such as the 14-piece mariachi band that followed a memorable invitation-only guitar pull by Joe Ely, Rosie Flores, Doug Sahm, Augie Myers, and Rick Trevino; indeed, this one performance proved as exhilarating as anything else I saw all weekend. So did Nashvillian Tommy Womack, who drew the attention of a large crowd of beer drinkers at an outdoor alternative-country party at an art-and-objects store called Yard Dog. As Womack tore through “Skinny and Small,” the crowd buzzed with questions, wondering who this upstart rocker was.

While electronic music, the style of the moment, drew over-capacity throngs with shows headlined by Spring Heel Jack and Gus Gus, soft-spoken songwriters held up almost as well. The sweet and raucous sounds of Buddy and Julie Miller, the mesmerizing songcraft of Richard Buckner, the hallucinogenic pop of Joe Henry, and the tangy country soul of Canadian band Crybaby all provided notable moments, as did the straightforward guitar rock of Buick MacKane, a group led by Alejandro Escovedo. Just before the band tore into its first song, Escovedo announced that he had been dropped by his record company. A 20-year veteran of the music business, he’s made some good music, both as a solo artist and as a member of the Nuns, Rank & File, and the True Believers. As his SXSW set suggested, he’ll keep making outstanding rock ’n’ roll, no matter what the circumstances. Maybe someday someone will figure out how to sell it.

Whatever happens in the music industry, the music will survive. There will always be people willing to perform, and there will always be people willing to listen. As keynote speaker Carl Perkins told a packed ballroom, not everyone will become a superstar, but that doesn’t mean artists shouldn’t follow their muse. “Shoot for the stars,” he said. “Maybe you won’t make it as high as you hoped, but more than likely you’ll fall in someplace along the way that will do. Don’t give up. It won’t be easy, but don’t give up. You must keep chasin’ that dream. Fill your heart with as much love as you can, and don’t hold it in. Share it with everybody you can, and you’ll be all right.”


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