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 is a 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 Souljacker hit 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.
"There are no victims," insisted Rosen, the woman Courtney Love likes to call "the devil." "Everybody has been willing participants." What she's saying to musicians is this: Lie back and enjoy it.
Two days later, Love was to deliver her counterpunch, and conference attendees -- some 6,500, down 15 percent from last year's attendance -- wanted to listen and love Love; they even endured security checks, a first at SXSW, to cram into the standing-room-only Austin Convention Center ballroom. But instead of a thoughtful, rational discussion with moderator/Los Angeles Times Pulitzer Prize-winning music-biz reporter Chuck Phillips, the room was treated to Love's rambling, incoherent, self-absorbed diatribe. It was like attending a one-woman show -- Courtney! -- during which she strayed so far from the point that she rendered herself, sadly, pointless. She's the RIAA's ideal enemy: the millionaire with full pockets, a seemingly empty head and a big mouth. C. Lo does all of H. Ro's heavy lifting, gratis.
Love, who's been entangled in a three-year legal dispute with multinational Vivendi Universal, to whom she's signed, fired the "first shot in the artists' rights battle," Phillips said by way of introduction. Too bad she brought with her only a musket full of blanks: Every time she sniffed an interesting subject -- she promised to divulge secrets behind the Dixie Chicks' lawsuit with Sony Music, in which they accuse the label of illegal accounting practices -- she seemed to be snorting something else. Love preferred instead to talk about her 221-page deposition, in which she apparently divulges everything from which record exec chopped an eightball on the new Limp Bizkit record to who buys whores to who wears a hairpiece -- as though the presence of drugs and plugs in rock and roll were a revelation.
"It's a stinky-ass business...the most Machiavellian business that's also the most disorganized," she proclaimed, before going on about hanging out on a yacht at Cannes, almost getting into a fistfight with Christina Aguilera a few days earlier, recounting her days as a "sexual degenerate" with an "injectible" problem and insisting, "I'm not gonna be a house nigger anymore." The widow Cobain and self-proclaimed "Dragonlady Yoko" dropped both names (Bono, Mike Mills, Sheryl Crow, Gwen Stefani) and the ball, which was unfortunate, because she does make some excellent points.
She suggests that musicians forgo big advances for free-agency, meaning a band would no longer sign to a label for six albums (okay, maybe two before you're dropped). She reminds us that payola is alive and well at your local radio station. She talks eloquently about how the music business has a 97 percent rate of failure. She's passionate, open and able to look like she's out not for herself, but for the kid and comer just about to make it. Problem is, she seems anxious to re-sign to yet another major label once she gets out of her deal with Vivendi, which renders her point moot. The real rebel -- a Jenny Toomey, say, who heads up the Future of Music Coalition and both performed and spoke at SXSW -- would do it all herself, without the funding of the "gangsters" of whom Love so derisively (or facetiously?) spoke.
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But no one attends South by Southwest's music fest to be lectured to or to learn; that's the province of its kid-sister film festival, held just before the rock-and-roll zombies head to town. They come instead to catch what Robertson called "the music fever"; they drive to Texas to play short showcases, to listen to bands from Japan and Sweden and Germany, to bask in the buzz and perhaps sneak away with a fistful of discs from bands heretofore unknown outside their hometowns. They come to discover the secrets and speak the secret language ("They're like Can! crossed with Wilco if they were fronted by Brian Eno or Neil Finn"), to one-up each other ("Dude, I just saw the best Japanese stoner-rock-free-jazz-Kraut-rock-hip-hop band, like, ever!") and to make sure they don't miss The Best Band to Ever Play South by Southwest (that would have been Pleasant Grove...or the Eels...or the Gaza Strippers...or...). Like Robertson said, it's about finding that one thing that turns a flirtation into an obsession.
But to me, the greatest South by Southwest moment is one that replays itself each night, and has for years. For hours and hours, Mary Lou Lord -- onetime Sony Music signee and former Kurt Cobain lover -- plays on the corner of Sixth and Brazos, outside a strip mall in downtown Austin. She strums and sings from 10 p.m. until the drunks and deviants run her off the corner, usually sometime before 4 a.m. As far as the talent hierarchy goes, Lord's in the middle, the worst place in the music business; she's trapped in the quicksand, teased by the fleeting success that shouts something indecipherable at her on its way to see some bigger, better buzz band. She's still around -- her version of Daniel Johnston's "Speeding Motorcycle" recently turned up in a Target ad -- but you can only be the Next Big Thing once. You can't surprise anyone twice.
At 3:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, Lord endured the shouts ("Jewel!" screamed some smart-ass filing out of an after-hours party nearby, where OK GO and the Promise Ring entertained the free-drink crowd) and picked up pocket change every night, selling her CDs and singing in that tiny baby voice of hers. Nearby, a bearded homeless man fought with an empty cigarette pack; winos huddled around and shushed the loud and inattentive. Lord even had a showcase forthcoming Saturday night, but she serenaded the chilly night and the curious and bored and stoned for hours and hours. Near the end of her never-ending set, she sang "Thunder Road," and in that setting, it sounded sad and brand-new -- like she'd written it on the spot, for anyone who cared to listen. She whispered of promised lands, of how people scream your name at night, about how she taught her guitar to talk, and about how she was gonna get out of this town full of losers. "I'm pulling out of here to win," she sang, and for that moment, you kinda believed her.