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Dan Bryk, a frumpy Canuck who refuses to give his age but looks to be in his 20s, sits on an outdoor patio behind his Yamaha keyboard and sings his ass off, which isn't such an easy task -- the dude's heavy, literally. It's 9 p.m. on a Thursday in Austin, and the club where Bryk's performing, Melagio on Sixth Street, is nearly empty; most of the patrons consist of should-be strippers touting Jack Daniel's drink specials. Bryk's audience consists primarily of passers-by listening in from a side street, including a model-hot blonde leaning in and staring lovingly at the disheveled wreck singing about chunky girls and the pervy boys who luv 'em so.
Bryk writes and plays like Randy Newman weaned on Jonathan Richman records; the songs are pretty, and pretty unsettling. Sometimes, you can only smile at his sad-sack lyrics and beautifully overwrought melodies. Then there's "Fingers," a semi-autobiographical tale about a mentor, who taught the kid to play piano and listen to Randy Newman, turned abuser: "Oh, when Fingers touched my belt/I was too scared to say how wrong it felt," he sang, his voice cracking like old paint. "I knew that I was going straight to hell/He didn't have to tell me not to tell." A handful of colleagues look at each other as the touching tale gives way to touching; one, eyes wide open in amazement and no small amount of terror, silently mouths, "Dear God."
Bryk's one of those performers who comes to the South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival each year in search of that elusive label deal -- "a real one," Bryk reminds after his set, his round face bearing a serious smirk as he demands $15 for his latest offering. His late-2000 album, the bewitching Lovers Leap, was released in the U.S. on Scratchie Records, co-founded by Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger and the Smashing Pumpkins' James Iha and D'arcy. But Bryk says when he turned in his demos for his next album, the label informed him his songs weren't "Dan Bryk enough"; as such, he figures, maybe it's time to move on. Or maybe he's kidding: The guy's a bit of a put-on, the self-deprecating genius surrounding himself in the fat guy's deflector shield.
There was little chance that Bryk's showcase would amount to more than a long drive back to Mississauga, Canada; few have emerged from SXSW with lucrative contracts in recent years, as the music biz has cut away the fat (no pun, seriously) and tried to go lean in these downer days of Internet downloading, a post-September 11 hangover, questionable accounting practices, royalty scams, payola allegations and the megamergers that have resulted in thousands of label firings and hundreds of bands getting dropped from their deals. The other day, another writer and I were trying to recall the last time a band got signed at SXSW; best we could figure, it was Veruca Salt. Or the Chickasaw Mudd Puppies. There isa reason that in 2001, according to Lorraine Ali and David Gates in a recent Newsweek, blank CDs outsold prerecorded ones.
The conference is, to a large extent, no longer about discovering The New Thing; it's about showcasing The Same Old Thing. Labels use it as a marketing tool, a publicity vehicle for the assembled rock-crit masses: DreamWorks brought the Eels, whose brilliant Souljackerhit stores during the conference; Sony brought Lo-Fidelity All-Stars, also with new product in hand; while folks like Neil Finn, Clinic, Norah Jones, South, Elbow, Jerry Cantrell, the X-ecutioners and Starsailor were there to tout just-released or forthcoming albums. It's music to the cynics' ears: A biz built on greed and bloat is crumbling at its foundation, undone by its own arrogance and corruption. When Virgin paid Mariah Carey $28 million just to go away recently, it was reminiscent of a scene from Animal Crackers, when Groucho Marx asks bandleader Chico how much it would cost to keep him from rehearsing. "You couldn't afford it," Chico warns.
"There are a lot of people crying doom and gloom out there," said the Band's Robbie Robertson during his Thursday-morning keynote address, which seemed to last 'til Friday morning. "We're inclined to forget why we came here at the beginning. It's the music -- that thrill, that chill it gave us down our spine." Robertson, in Austin for the Friday-night re-première of a remastered The Last Waltz, warned of quick fixes and cheap thrills. At South by Southwest, sometimes that's all you get. Or all you need.
The conference, now in its 16th year, initially promised to be something of a summit on the state of the music business, a four-day-and-night symposium on the ills of an industry suffering its worst slump in years and taking its lumps from all comers, including millionaire superstars, such as Recording Artists' Coalition co-founder Don Henley, trying to reshape the landscape by taking on the antiquated language of contracts that render musicians little more than indentured servants. Problem is, the music industry's not in decline; it's in decay.
A few weeks before SXSW began on March 13, Hilary Rosen, president and CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America -- the trade outfit that reps the major labels, usually at the expense of the people who actually make the music -- told a Senate committee that in 2001, album sales were down 10 percent (or some $600 million). Most of that, she insisted, was because of the illegal pirating of music over the Internet; according to Rosen, 23 percent of music consumers said they didn't buy more music last year because they refused to pay for what they found for free. During SXSW, she also insisted that sales slumped because consumers said they can't find what they're looking for -- which doesn't quite explain how the Grammy-winning O Brother, Where Art Thou?soundtrack has sold more than four million units and, more than a year after its release, has touched the top spot on the charts without aid of any radio or MTV airplay. Maybe people just don't want what Rosen and her bosses are offering; she never considers that.