Nine -- that's the number of Denver bands officially making the trip to South by Southwest this year. Okay, seven, if you want to get technical, since Uncle Earl is from Lyons and the Great Redneck Hope hails from Colorado Springs. And those are just the local bands that were invited. More than a dozen other area acts will crash the party in Texas this week -- a stunning increase over the half-dozen groups, total, that made the trip from the Mile High City in 2004, the first year I covered SXSW for Westword.
"People didn't really get it yet," says Morning After Records' Dan Rutherford. "They didn't understand that South by Southwest is an important thing."
Rutherford did. He and I first met two years ago in Austin, back when he was a PR pipsqueak for Indiego Promotions. Then more of a fan than the industry player he's since become, Rutherford was in charge of his company's party. But even though Indiego was based in Denver at the time, Rutherford couldn't entice any homegrown acts to perform there. "I busted my ass that year trying to get a Denver band to come play that party," Rutherford remembers, "and no matter who I asked, nobody would come."
Rutherford returned from Austin singularly focused on increasing Denver's profile at SXSW 2005.
"Most of the bands from Denver are just as high a caliber as the people who were playing down there," Rutherford points out. "I think that's what people started to realize last year. They realized, 'You know what? We can hold our own with these people.' For some reason, we've been sworn off as some little podunk town with nothing for eight hours either way. But we've got something here, and we can actually hold our own and be viable on a national scale."
Suffice it to say, there's no shortage of bands phoning Rutherford to volunteer their services these days. And with good reason. With the help of Ben DeSoto and Matt and Allison LaBarge from the hi-dive, Rutherford's vision became reality at "Mile High Fidelity," a fully sanctioned Denver-centric day party in Austin last year that featured Munly and the Lee Lewis Harlots, Matson Jones, the Swayback and Porlolo, among others. And even as Rutherford has raised Denver's profile, his stock has risen as well. Although his burgeoning label -- two acclaimed releases have charted well on CMJ -- is obviously his top priority, he remains committed to serving as the Mile High City's quintessential emissary. This year at SXSW, he and the hi-dive crew are putting on "Mile High Fidelity II," featuring Bright Channel and Vaux (two of the top bands in the country right now, in my book), Porlolo, Dressy Bessy and the two flagship Morning After acts, Hot IQs and the Photo Atlas. Rutherford will also host a slew of other events, including a few high-profile after-hours parties (where the real action is), one of which is being co-sponsored by PureVolume.com, as well as some showcases with SpinArt and Warner Bros. Records.
Dude is committed. He's gotta be: Throwing parties at SXSW isn't cheap. Just ask Scott Campbell, who's hosting the second annual Larimer Lounge SXSW BBQ, which will feature locals Black Lamb, the Omens, Machine Gun Blues and the Funeral on a bill that also includes the Datsuns, Gogogo Airheart and the Apes.
"The event was pretty pricey to pull off this year," Campbell says. "We almost called BS on it, but at the last minute, I thought I would see if any other local businesses were interested in promoting themselves with a BBQ at SXSW, and much to my surprise, they all were."
You bet they/we were. (This fishwrap is one of the co-sponsors of the Larimer BBQ.) Because ultimately, everybody at SXSW has an agenda. For businesses, it's a chance to increase visibility and build their brands. For industry folks, it's all about scouting and networking -- which is code for drinking themselves comatose. For bands, it's all about being scouted and networking with like-minded acts or booking agents. That's no doubt what's prompting bands like Signal to Noise (which recently finalized a deal with Eyeball Records), Storytyme, Drug Under and Epilogue to make the trek to Austin for a few one-off performances.
"I tell everyone who's involved with anything that we're doing the exact same thing," says Rutherford. "All it comes down to is, get what you want to get out of it. I mean, for a band like Born in the Flood, what do they want to get out of it? They want to get bigger labels potentially seeing them for future releases. Same thing for a lot of people. In a lot of cases, you want to go to make relationships with bands from other towns. Because there's a lot of bands that are at the same level as a Swayback or a Photo Atlas or a Hot IQs that are going to be there and that are just looking for people to hang out with. And that can translate to trading shows or whatever. It's not the same as it used to be. Gone are the days of going down there and expecting Columbia to walk out and hand you a big recording contract, because it just doesn't happen anymore."
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To be honest, I'm not sure that ever really happened. But I wasn't there during SXSW's supposed glory days, when unsigned bands were being cherry-picked by the truckload. Or so legend would have it. This will be my sixth year, and for that entire time, SXSW has always seemed more like an alcoholiday strictly for the music industry. But not so much anymore. Thanks to MTV's most recent Real World -- which was set in Austin during SXSW '05 -- this has now become the spring break destination. For everyone, unwashed masses included. This year's attendance is expected to be the highest ever; most area hotels were completely booked before the start of the year.
But that's all good news for the home team. Even if the bands don't get in front of anyone prominent in the business, they'll make new fans from across the country. And that alone should be worth the trip.
Upbeats and beatdowns: I hate Battle of the Bands contests, but when an act named Bodragaz -- which recently won the "Have a Nice Gig" contest and opened for Bon Jovi at the Pepsi Center -- recently asked for my support to "help to put Colorado on the musical map" (by voting on www.bonjovi. livedaily.com for the band to open for Jovi at a much larger venue), I surrendered. I don't care much for Bodragaz, but drummer Mike Taft won me over with this earnest, heartfelt plea (read: guilt trip): "The other large cities the winning bands hail from -- Chicago, LA, etc -- are giving boatloads of coverage and support for those bands representing them, and we could really use your help." Okay, I voted. Now have a nice gig, pal.