This year's crop of Texas-bound talent shakes stereotypes of Colorado music like a bull bucking a drunk cowboy. While non-residents may generally associate the state's sound with the country-roads comfort of John Denver, the tambourine-and-thyme stylings of the Big Head Todd lineage or the indie-pop prowess demonstrated by local representatives of the Elephant 6 collective, the SXSW folks seem to fancy us a bunch of urban hipsters. Local MCs Kingdom (who won in the Hip-Hop category at last year's Westword Music Awards Showcase, and whom we can't wait to see in a cowboy hat) and Don Blas and the nGoMa hip-hop crew make up three of the five selectees, which should please those who've been saying for a while now that Denver's scene is hot despite a lack of coastal cred. And for all we know, the upcoming SXSW gigs may mark the first time anyone has seen Blue Zone or the Denver-based space-opera trio Sci-Fi Uterus perform live music before a proper audience.
We would have loved to have been flies on the wall as the selection committee riffled through the applications from some of the area's more popular local bands. Just imagine: Music from outfits capable of filling up the Cricket, Herman's, even the Fox or the Boulder Theater are sent to the bins while the electronic weirdness of Sci-Fi Uterus and the crafty wordplay of nGoMa keep making cut after cut after cut. According to festival director Julia Ervin, the showcase committee receives more than 4,500 submissions per year; from that, about 800 are selected to play. Stop for a moment and try to envision that: 800 bands. With that image in mind, it should be easier to understand why Ervin and her ilk might embrace, say, a band whose members claim extraterrestrial alliances -- as do the Uteri -- just to keep themselves interested.
Something to ponder during soundcheck, eh? The fact that an impartial judging body chose some of the area's less obvious exports and eschewed its more predictable fare demonstrates once again that popularity ain't always the best barometer of quality, talent or originality. Maybe what's really going on in the scene is best measured not by a good draw at the door but by the reactions of strangers. This area has a lot of good music -- good singer-songwriters, good garage, pop-punk and hardcore, good country -- and much of it won't be heard by the beer-swillin' barbecue-heads in Austin. But it also has some weird little secrets hiding in its nooks and crannies. (Come out, please come out, wherever you are.)
Three of Denver's more recognized bands will participate in the conference, but not via the usual selection process. The Minders and the Apples in Stereo will join out-of-town labelmates the Fastbacks, Poster Children and Squatweiler in a night of music from spinART records, and Dressy Bessy will be featured in a KinderCore Records showcase. The pop trinity rests among "second-tier" bands -- already signed acts looking for increased exposure for themselves and their (usually) indie labels.
Yet those who didn't receive the "this-is-what-you-do-once-you've- been-accepted-to-the-conference" packet in the mail shouldn't sweat it too much. It's a fairly safe assumption that the unsigned bands who applied to SXSW harbored some hope of being "discovered" there, but that's an increasingly rare occurrence these days. Though unknowns used to dominate, the already label-affiliated have become a larger and larger presence each year, which makes things that much more difficult for struggling artists like Blue Zone and Kingdom. And the aforementioned second-tier-band phenomenon is only complicated by the presence of first-tier bands: successful, critically lauded acts who perform at major venues during the festival's peak hours. So while it might seem an honor to be given an 11 o'clock slot on Saturday night when everyone's out, drunk and looking, how can an unknown expect to draw a crowd when the Flaming Lips or Aimee Mann or Elliot Smith is performing next door? And there's sure to be enough industry slime and grime oozing around to make any band consider whether this racket is really worth it. Plane tickets to Austin are expensive, anyway.
And to those bands who are going: Have fun. Play your ass off. Put it on your bio and your Web site and go ahead and boast. But just ask the LaDonnas or the Nobodys or the Czars, all of whom played the conference last year: SXSW ain't what it used to be, and chances are you won't be coming home to a rock star's welcome.
Isn't rock and roll fun?
Those who do attend SXSW will undoubtedly spend every daytime moment hopping between the exciting -- and informative! -- seminar and guest-panel discussions offered to conference-goers, where industry mongers drone under fluorescent lights for hours and bandmembers fight to pass on glossies and demo tapes to snooty A&R reps. Chances are the first annual College of Arts and Media Music Summit, jointly sponsored by the Music Entertainment Industry Student Association at the University of Colorado at Denver and CAM Records, will actually prove a bit more beneficial to locals looking to brush up their musical moxie and skills of self-promotion. The Summit, which is open to the public, is scheduled for Thursday, January 27, in UCD's Auraria campus Turnhalle building, and showcases performances from Scheherezade, decanonizeD, S.U.B., Surpass Flavor & Noel Z., nGoMa, Apostle, Afterworld, Sarah and Taz from No Coast Entertainment, the Radio Bums (aka DJ Chonz and DJ Vajra), and Cira from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., as well as information booths from local music-related organizations. Panel discussions on marketing a band, the Colorado Music Association and music-industry law (led by CU professor and author Dick Weissman, Colorado Music Association president Dolly Zander and attorney Ira Selkowitz, respectively) will also be a part of the ambitious first outing for the student-run MEISA. In addition to your band's CDs, remember to bring your notebook, since it is college and you will be tested. Call 303-556-2727 for more.
Congratulations are again in order to those nonstop skankers in Judge Roughneck, who outshined all but three other bands at the Ernie Ball Battle of the Bands January 15 in Dallas. The band now moves on to the final battle -- or the final countdown, as I like to call it, in honor of my favorite band, Europe -- to take place in Las Vegas on Thursday, February 3. There the Roughneckers will compete for 25 Gs, as well as the attention of judges, including members of Savage Garden, Buckcherry, 311, Save Ferris, Powerman 5000 and Lisa Loeb (who, by the way, was recently described as "just sooo cute and perky" by the National Enquirer's fashion editor). Fans and friends of the band can help out the rude boys by voting online, as the performances will be broadcast via a live Webcast at www.camcity.com from 7 to 10 p.m. Pacific time, and Internet votes will count for 20 percent of the total. And though nothing particularly great has happened to last year's winner, a band by the name of the Buzzpoets, Roughneck's inclusion in the battle (countdown!) will certainly expose the band to the very same industry mongers who'll be sniffing out fresh blood at places like SXSW. Did we mention there's $25,000 involved? Skank on, you crazy diamonds.
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