All of Your Biz, Wax and More

It's not enough to play your best at South By Southwest. You've also got to play the game.

If you're not exactly sure what South by Southwest is, you're not in the record biz, pal. This year's SXSW music and media conference, the third, was similar to the SXSW confabs of the other two years. In short, it's this "thing" held in Austin, Texas, for four days in mid-March where 250 original-music acts (the Reivers and Alex Chilton among them) play and where 1,500 schmooze-hounds from all areas of the record industry press one another's clammy flesh to enhance their position in this biz.

There are panels for HIGs (stands for "huge industry giants") to shoot off their big mouths about everything from songwriting to artist development and marketing. There are workshops for HIGs (also stands for "hardworking industry grunts") quietly to flap their traps about biz topics including the future of alternative music and women in the music business. That's in the daytime. At night, the conference rents out twenty clubs, mostly on either side of a strip of pavement known as Sixth Street, and the bands play 45-minute sets before HIGs of both types and curious onlookers who paid ten bucks to see as many of the 250 bands as they can.

With all those smarmy record-industry sycophants, club fiends and musicians hanging out with Austin's finest--cops, loiterers, hookers and junkies galore--on Sixth Street, it would be easy to imagine the scene as Sodom and Gomorrahville with a frightfully loud soundtrack. But for those who've been to the New Music Seminar in New York--where the industry's absolute sleaziest dealmongers congregate in the summer--the SXSW was as calm as one of the cow pastures just outside Austin city limits.

And who better to rub their noses in the trail o' slime than Mojo Nixon, the Enigma Records singer/comedian/songwriter/guitarist, who was brought in to deliver the invocation at the conference. Which, by the way, was co-sponsored by New Times and fifteen other publications.

Mojo's job was to make sure that the high rollers at SXSW didn't leave without tasting a teaspoon of moral castor oil. While waiting for his bags at the airport the day before he was scheduled to speak, he revealed, "I hope to scare the shit out of a hell of a lot of record companies. And we'll see if that happens."

"That" didn't happen. What did happen was Mojo righteously defending the maverick spirit of creative music-making and sassing the conservative dogma of both major labels and wanna-be-on-a-major-label-even-if-I-have-to-dress-like-Poison bands. And just as Tracy Chapman sold a million-plus records last year by plucking a sensitive chord in the hearts of guilt-laden white liberals, Mojo's ranting made the industry feel bad about itself, but in a therapeutic sort of way. Like joke therapy. He said things like, "I want to say, `Fuck you,' if you think making good money is more important than making good records."

Then he picked on Guns n' Roses,
Bon Jovi, et al., saying, "What the
fuck is a power ballad? You can't
get a boner to a power ballad."
Mojo went on to call major-
label record industry types
"putrid purveyors of
pusillanimous pus,"
"butt sniffers,"
"farts,"
"chickenshits"
and several
other
unprintable
words.
Finally, Mojo
paraphrased an
idea by the Ramones
and burgled one from the
Sex Pistols. He shouted,
"The airwaves belong to
everybody!" And "We have to have
anarchy!"

Don't think that when Nixon finally dismissed class the naughty industry giants vowed among themselves to atone for their sins. Many went back to their hotel rooms to take naps or sit by the pool and wait to see the bands they had come to check out in the first place.

The few who did venture on the grounds were certain to be bombarded by a stack of demo tapes. Apparently, the demo-tape hander-outers weren't familiar with the old industry axiom: For every band that insists on giving a furry A&R type a demo tape, there is a demo tape virtually certain to find its resting place in the nearest garbage can.

The bands at SXSW were far more idealistic. At any given moment from Friday through Sunday, from 9 at night 'til 3 in the morn, Austin reverberated with the sounds of twenty bands in twenty clubs playing the twenty most important sets of their lives. These groups actually believed that A&R reps from a dozen major labels were just hanging out, waiting for just one good reason to pounce on them after their set with eight-album contracts.

Now for the reality part: One publicist from a major label, bombarded by tapes from any and every lead singer who found out who she was, confided that she and the A&R dude from her company were there to look seriously at one band. Maybe two.

More reality: An independent publicist who works to get the word out on several major-label and almost-major-label acts was there to sign exactly one band. One.

Kevin Connor, the conference's media relations coordinator, says that the bands who come to SXSW prepared to rock, but not to schmooze, lose. "It's really up to the bands how much they get out of it," he says. "If they just play, they're not doing their whole job. They have to go out and find those people, get to the conference early, see who's coming to the A&R panel. Bands can't just show up and expect to have all the A&R people looking for them."

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