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For many of the performers who shlep down to Austin for the South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival each year in search of that elusive label deal, the effort rarely amounts to more than a long journey back to Mississauga, Canada, or Aliceville, Alabama, or Dayton, Ohio, or Vienna, Austria. Few have emerged from SXSW with lucrative contracts in recent years, as the music biz has tried to go lean in these downer days of Internet downloading, a post-September 11 hangover, questionable accounting practices, royalty scams, payola allegations and the mega-mergers that have resulted in thousands of label firings and hundreds of bands getting dropped from their deals. The other day, another writer and I were trying to recall the last time a band got signed at SXSW; best we could figure, it was Veruca Salt. Or the Chickasaw Mudd Puppies. There isa reason that in 2001, according to Lorraine Ali and David Gates in a recent Newsweek article, blank CDs outsold pre-recorded ones.
To a large extent, the conference is no longer about discovering the New Thing; it's about showcasing the Same Old Thing. Labels use it as a marketing tool, a publicity vehicle for the assembled rock-crit masses: DreamWorks brought the Eels, whose brilliant Souljackerhit stores during the conference; Sony brought the Lo-Fidelity All-Stars, also with new product in hand; and folks like Neil Finn, Clinic, Norah Jones, South, Elbow, Jerry Cantrell, the X-ecutioners and Starsailor were there to tout just-released or forthcoming albums. It's music to the cynics' ears: A biz built on greed and bloat is crumbling at its foundation, undone by its own arrogance and corruption. When Virgin paid Mariah Carey $28 million just to go away recently, it was reminiscent of a scene from Animal Crackers, when Groucho Marx asks bandleader Chico how much it would cost to keep him from rehearsing. "You couldn't afford it," Chico quips.
"There are a lot of people crying doom and gloom out there," said the Band's Robbie Robertson during his Thursday-morning keynote address, which seemed to last until Friday morning. "We're inclined to forget why we came here at the beginning. It's the music -- that thrill, that chill it gave us down our spine." Robertson, in Austin for the Friday-night re-premiere of a remastered The Last Waltz, warned of quick fixes and cheap thrills. But at South by Southwest, sometimes that's all you get. Or all you need.
The conference, now in its sixteenth year, initially promised to be something of a summit on the state of the music business, a four-day and -night symposium on the ills of an industry suffering its worst slump in years and taking its lumps from all comers, including millionaire superstars such as Recording Artists' Coalition co-founder Don Henley trying to reshape the landscape by taking on the antiquated language of contracts that render musicians little more than indentured servants. But the music industry's not in decline; it's in decay.
A few weeks before SXSW began on March 13, Hilary Rosen, president and CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America -- the trade outfit that reps the major labels, usually at the expense of the people who actually make the music -- told a Senate committee that in 2001, album sales were down 10 percent (or some $600 million). Most of that, she insisted, was due to the illegal pirating of music over the Internet; according to Rosen, 23 percent of music consumers said they didn't buy more music last year because they refused to pay for what they found for free. During SXSW, Rosen also insisted that sales slumped because consumers said they can't find what they're looking for -- which doesn't quite explain how the Grammy-winning O Brother, Where Art Thou?soundtrack has sold more than four million units and, more than a year after its release, touched the top spot on the charts without aid of any radio or MTV airplay.
Maybe people just don't want what Rosen and her bosses are offering.
Rosen was invited to speak at the conference, as was Michael Greene, the head of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Greene failed to show for his panel, "The Case for Recording Contract Reform," when he discovered he would be surrounded by musicians, attorneys, journalists and not a single representative from a major label. That's right -- the man who had balls enough to ditch his original, safe Grammys speech and instead proclaim piracy a "life or death" issue for the music industry chickened out.
Rosen, who spoke after Robertson on Thursday morning, had no reason to stay away: Tamara Conniff, music editor for the Hollywood Reporter, served up soft snowballs, and Rosen smashed them to powder. Conniff let Rosen slide through her panel like a kid at a water park; when Rosen insisted that consumers "never" complain about the price of CDs -- 68 cents to make, $19 to buy -- Conniff should have taken her on, Paula Jones-Tonya Harding style. Instead, she let Rosen get away with her multinational-sponsored gibberjabber about how the RIAA really does care about the musicians. Never mind that there's never been any proof of that.