SXSW: C Minus

Last month, Revolver's special investigations team (me) went undercover at the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference, the music industry's largest, most (in)famous artist showcase/convention/trade show. Cynicism grates on the soul after a while, and my trip was an attempt to find a glimmer of artist-oriented purity in an industry summit founded 11 years ago to bring the mountainous music industry to the Mohammed of new, underexposed bands.

Visions of idealistic young critics and modest indie-label owners drinking free beer together while watching the most talented unknown bands from all over the world bounced around in my head. Wandering around the near-empty streets of downtown Austin, Texas, on a sticky, overcast day about an hour before registration opened, my dream almost seemed possible.

Yeah, sure, kid.
Two hours of studiously examining the official SXSW program of bands and panels--and one hour dodging the name-badge hounds who scurried around the Convention Center with eyes darting from one badge to the next, calculating whose ass they could profit the most from kissing--made one thing obvious: I had just entered the music industry's biggest mutual masturbation ritual.

You want evidence that this "cutting edge" music showcase was a crock of shit? I offer exhibit A--Tony Bennett. His panel appearance and evening performance (the biggest draw of the conference) just happened to coincide with the release of his new album of Billie Holiday covers. No offense to Tony, but come on. Yeah, I'm really hopin' that Tony's grandstanding for the press and industry execs helps him sell some records, 'cause he needs the exposure.

Other than Bennett, the big buzz around the conference was for the cavalry division of "alternative country" bands on the schedule (I know this was Texas, but gimme a fuckin' break) and a trinity of alterna-cancers--Soul Coughing, Cake, and 7 Mary 3--that already have label deals, managers and national tours. What was the point?

When I wasn't hiding my name badge on the streets so the Austin locals wouldn't pelt me with black beans, I did manage to see a lot of good bands. But these kid-tested, Revolver-approved artists (like Portastatic, Pansy Division, Mary Lou Lord, the Hi-Fives and several others) were virtually ignored by the conventioneers--much to the delight of the local kids, who were allowed paid entry if the club wasn't filled with badge-wearers.

Here's how the SXSW hierarchy broke down: Badge holders (registered conferencers) had priority at the door, followed by folks who bought showcase-only wristbands (at $60 a pop). After that, everyone else (read: fans) was allowed in for the venue's standard cover.

Several of the bands I saw were disillusioned by the whole process. Mac from Portastatic talked smack about SXSW onstage for not allowing the band even one guest, and Pansy Division told me it didn't even get wristbands, let alone badges, for the night it played. Conference officials told the band members to choose between getting paid and wristbands (they took the cash--you go, boys!).

Celebrity encounters were a redeeming feature. I missed Uma Thurman playing kissy face with Ethan Hawke at the Columbia Records party, but I did share an intimate cigarette break on the Convention Center's terrace with a beautiful woman who just happened to be "Snoop Doggy Dogg's engineer's manager." So there.

Free beer was scarce--blowing another hole in my fantasy--but, hell, upon reflection, I knew better than to expect more than a sham. I'll just close with a quote from the SXSW program, under the heading "Nature and Exercise":

"The trail on Town Lake can be accessed right behind the Hyatt and Radisson hotels, and is a fabulous place to get some fresh air and exercise, or relax and get away from the weasels, or just hide out and smoke some crack."

The New Ache of Indie Folk
Elliott Smith, the craggy-faced troubadour of Portland, Oregon's Heatmiser, knows his shit when it comes to negotiating record deals. After a year of bargaining with Virgin Records, Heatmiser signed on the condition that the band retains absolute artistic control and complete freedom to pursue independent projects (without slapping "appears courtesy of Virgin Records" on every release). Which is a damn fine thing, 'cause Heatmiser's recent album Mic City Sons is lackluster at best. On the flip side, Smith's solo efforts have been consistently extraordinary. The rise of the new folk began in 1994 when Smith released Roman Candle, a basement acoustic LP filled with tales of shattered relationships and emotional ache. His 1995 self-titled LP went one step darker, musing on drinking and drug addiction ("Needle in the Hay" contains one of the best lines ever written about a junkie: "You ought to be proud I'm getting good marks"). Now, just in time to make us forget about the Heatmiser recording, Smith has put out his third installation of uncomfortable squirming intimacies.

Either/Or, just released on Kill Rock Stars, puts a slightly poppier spin on the songs than his previous solo work, but it's not any more pleasant to sing along to. Paul Simon comparisons aside, listening to Smith sing is like hearing your best friend whisper dark secrets in your ear. The album's turmoil ranges from the comatose slacker lament of "Speed Trials" to the profundity of opportunity versus motivation on "Ballad of Big Nothing." Musically, Smith's a little slicker than usual, but his acoustic dirges still fit squarely in the lo-fi scene. Either/Or shows Smith to be the preeminent storyteller of the down-and-out singer/songwriter set (although I'm told he's dropped out of the action to chill in Paris for a while). It looks like Smith is the late '90s successor to Lou Barlow's title as "the most sensitive boy in indie-rock," but don't look for gushing love ditties in his catalogue--even his sweet pieces are bitter in the middle. (Kill Rock Stars, 120 NE State Avenue, Olympia, WA 98501)

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