Wednesday, March 12, 2008

SXSW 2008 - Festival isn't always about signing bands

This is a reprint of an article that originally appeared in the Austin American Statesman in March 2008. Access the original story online here :

SXSW 2008
Festival isn't always about signing bands
From the casual fans to music industry players, there's something for everyone.

By Joe Gross

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The biggest myth about the South by Southwest Music Festival and Conference refuses to die, and it's this: SXSW is the place bands go to get discovered and the place labels go to sign bands.

Like many myths, there's an element of truth to this, but SXSW has never been just about record companies, major or otherwise, or any one thing at all.

The tens of thousands of people descending on Austin for the start of today's music festival include bands showcasing their latest songs; label representatives showcasing their latest bands; managers, booking agents and publicists looking for new clients; and fans looking for the next big thing.

If SXSW is about anything, it's about building and maintaining relationships in the music industry. Or as SXSW Director Roland Swenson puts it: "Our approach has always been to help artists find ways to control their destiny."

The myth about SXSW as a vehicle for stardom is almost as old as the fest itself, now in its 21st year.

"I think that started in the early 1990s," Swenson said. In the wake of Nirvana's success in 1991 and 1992, "there was a massive expansion of major labels. They were paying big money for almost anyone."

Thousands of rock bands ended up signed to major labels that didn't develop them.

"Obviously, this sort of signing binge was a huge anomaly," Swenson said.

The Internet has made discovering a band by randomly walking into a club all but obsolete. Even the idea of the unsigned band is up for grabs.

Casey Monahan, director of the Texas Music Office, said when bands talk to him about music business infrastructure and what they need, some of the first things he asks are, "Do you have a good Web site? Do you have a good server? Are you able to sell your own product?" The office serves as a promotion and information clearinghouse for the state's music industry.

With so many more ways for bands to make their music public — MySpace and Facebook pages, blogs and band Web sites from which fans can buy tracks are just a few examples — the very necessity of record labels is in doubt. Being signed might not even be a goal for a lot of bands today.

Austin band White Denim, one of the 1,700 bands selected to play SXSW, has forsworn traditional domestic record labels in exchange for the freedom of self-releasing its music.

"We don't work with labels because they talk about timing, and when you (should) release a record, and (at) what level you put this certain type of promotion," White Denim drummer Josh Block said. The band is self-releasing its debut album on vinyl and working out deals for digital distribution. There are no plans for a domestic CD release, although Block said, "We have no idea how to release music in Europe" and are talking with European labels. (Look for more on White Denim in Thursday's XL.)

"There's so much more information even from our Web site (," Swenson said. "You see a band's photo; you find a link to their Web site; you can hear their music streaming. None of that was around in 1987."

Then, to hear an unsigned band, you usually had to be right in front of it. Not anymore.

Labels, especially the independents, shop showcase acts at SXSW and still rely on word-of-mouth recommendations, but those can be accompanied by a MySpace page or file transfer of a demo. The buzz of blog hype can become deafening to those obligated to pay attention. YouTube can provide live clips. It's rare that industry folks come to SXSW without any idea of the acts they want to see.

With 1,700 acts playing at least one show apiece, festival attendees are faced with a serious time crunch. "I'm not in a position to say, 'Let's take Thursday night and wander around,' " said Matthew Johnson, general manager of the San Francisco-based Birdman Records. "I will stick my head in the door of a club, but bands should never count on a random encounter."

Adam Shore, who co-administers the label Vice, does two things at SXSW without fail: He makes sure his bands play as often as possible, and he uses the popular "Vice Saves Texas" day party to build relationships. Vice is sponsoring parties throughout the festival at venues such as Stubb's, Kenny Dorham's Backyard, the Longbranch and the Victory Grill.

"There are bands that I like and bands I want to work with and bands I want to meet, so I book them for our events," Shore said. "It's a chance for our whole company to see them and make some decisions."

Shore cracks the whip on his own bands so tastemakers such as music journalists and bloggers have as many opportunities as possible to see Vice Records bands. "There's a tremendous amount of competition for time at SXSW, so if you want to launch artists, they have to play a lot," Shore said. "I don't think any of our bands are playing fewer than five times each."

But what about folks who aren't associated with a record label?

SXSW is a live music festival, so booking agents are often watching a band the closest, gauging crowd reaction, seeing whether the band can deliver on stage. They're the ones most likely to be swayed by a powerful live show or a crowd going wild.

"Over the years, I've definitely picked up a couple of brand-new bands," said Kevin French, who runs the Portland, Ore., booking agency Big Shot Touring. "I think seeing White Rabbits last year at SXSW sealed our decision to sign them," he said, although French already had a relationship with the act. Big Shot Touring is sponsoring its own SXSW showcase, featuring White Rabbits, Langhorne Slim, Bobby Bare Jr. and Austin's White Denim.

Dan Kasin, who owns Dan Kasin Management in San Francisco, manages bands including Two Gallants, Dave Dondero and Minipop, all of which are playing SXSW this week. And, yes, he's shopping for clients.

He said managers look for three types of acts: "a band that has a buzz with some potential and attention, a band that no one else has heard of that requires you to work your ass off, and somebody who maybe has a track record and they just never had management or maybe they just recently fired their manager."

Although Kasin is bringing a schedule with him like everyone else, he's also an advocate of the "hanging around" theory of band exposure. "You go to see a band you intend to see and you end up hanging around talking and something comes on afterwards," he said.

"A lot of people doubt the effectiveness of SXSW in breaking new bands, but I disagree," Kasin said. Word of mouth is still the coin of the realm at SXSW. "I ran into (BBC Radio One DJ) Steve Lamacq on the street and wanted to get him to come (see Minipop). Turned out he had them circled on his calendar. He said he listens to all the MP3s South by Southwest posts before he comes to town. It's really inspiring for a manager to hear that people at his level still do that."

Bands attending SXSW need to know what they want and what they need. SXSW might not be the best place to establish relationships, but it's still an ideal arena to develop them positively or negatively, which at least moves everyone forward.

"I'm just as likely to say, 'I'm no longer interested in a band I've just seen' as I am to say, 'I want to take this relationship further,' " said Phil Waldorf, co-owner of the Austin-based Dead Oceans Records. "But you can't make that step if you have no prior knowledge of the band." In other words, bands shouldn't expect a revelation from a businessperson out of the blue at SXSW.

"I just saw South by Southwest as a way for bands needing a tool to move another step up the ladder to have access to those tools," Swenson said. "I've never thought it was helpful to say South by Southwest is this or that. It's a media promotional event, it's an industry schmooze fest, and it's a chance to see a lot of bands. But mostly I think of it as a meeting of the tribe, a chance for everybody in this odd world to hang out."; 912-5926

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