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
idea by the Ramones
and burgled one from the
Sex Pistols. He shouted,
"The airwaves belong to
everybody!" And "We have to have
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."
Connor maintains that about a dozen groups have been signed from the first two SXSW conferences and that "lots of other smaller deals have been made."
With a band's chances of catching the eye of a major-label talent judge about one in fifty, the music part of the conference became a kind of lottery--the bands walking around with that glazed look you see on the faces of the shmendrick actors on billboards and TV ads who can just feel it in their bones that the next time they play the lottery, they'll hit the jackpot, bay-bee. The only time groups dared to degenerate into sloppiness was if they'd established themselves in their press-kit biographies as a "sloppiness" kind of group. Overall, the bands were careful to sweat harder, grimace more purposefully, play more raucously but controlled, sing more feelingly, and segue from one song to the next crisply. Talk about an O.D. of earnestness.
Sometimes this pressure to overachieve inspired bands. Sometimes it broke them. And at rare points during the evening club showcases, bands played as if they were virtually above it all.
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One journalist covering the grounds on Saturday night, Bill Wyman of the Chicago Reader (not of the Rolling Stones), insisted that Scottsdale's Gin Blossoms was a shining example of the first kind of band. He was impressed by the seemingly infinite drops of perspiration pouring off lead man Jesse Valenzuela and guitarist Doug Hopkins.
The Host, from Tucson, came up in the second category. Sort of. Midway through the band's set, guitarist Larry Vance popped a string. This threw the band's set into chaos, and bandleader Odin Helgison snapped at Vance while the rest of the Host waited sadly for the set to continue. Eventually, the band picked itself up and dusted itself off until the final song, which Helgison dedicated to a woman friend of his who'd been attacked in an alley recently. He announced, "This song's about women who carry swords and cut guys like that's balls off!" Helgison's rap mesmerized the audience, whose members cheered righteously and robustly. When the song ended, Helgison wasted little time basking in the warm afterglow of the bond he'd created with the audience. Instead, he began firing copies of the band's self-produced cassette into the crowd. The Host's newly converted fans furtively elbowed one another and snapped their hands greedily in pursuit of the flying plastic missiles.
Mr. Mojo Nixon headed up the third category. Almost. Nixon made the Austin hipsters swell with repeated belly laughs. Accompanied by an acoustic guitar--which he strums most minimally--and a washboard played definitively by his pard, Skid Roper, Nixon sings songs like a Woody Guthrie suffering from scatology. His songs bring to mind a leftist, or anarchist, if you will, Morton Downey Jr. You should've seen the crowd bare its teeth and roar ironically at the mention of Michael J. Fox or Joan Rivers or Jon Bon Jovi or "power ballads."
But before you start scratching your chin and musing on subjects like, "What if Mojo ran the record business?" check this out: Nixon has an LP coming out in a few days called Root Hog or Die that might do for joke-rock what Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols did for punk. While he was having a ball calling the collective slime of the major-label record industry a bunch of naughty names, he was absolutely careful to mention that he does have a new album coming out and that people at the show should consider buying it. He also slipped in a plug for the new Jerry Lee Lewis film, in which he says he will appear. How convenient that Mojo was able to time a gig as the keynote speaker at one of the industry's premier schmooze-fests to coincide with the release of a new album and a movie. It was an example of, as the record industry likes to term it, "brilliant timing.