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 is a 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 Souljacker hit 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.
Rosen was invited to speak at the conference, as was Michael Greene, the head of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences -- who failed to show for his panel, "The Case for Recording Contract Reform," when he discovered he would be surrounded by musicians, attorneys, journalists and not a single representative from a major label. The man who had balls enough to ditch his original, safe speech and go on the Grammys last month to proclaim piracy a "life or death" issue for the music industry chickened out.
Rosen, who spoke after Robertson on Thursday morning, had no reason to stay away: Tamara Conniff, music editor for the Hollywood Reporter, served up soft snowballs, and Rosen smashed them to powder. Conniff let Rosen slide through her panel like a kid at a water park; when Rosen insisted consumers "never" complain about the price of CDs -- 68 cents to make, $19 to buy -- Conniff should have taken her on, Paula Jones-Tonya Harding style. Instead, she let Rosen get away with her multinational-sponsored gibberjabber about how the RIAA really does care about the musicians, though there's never been any proof of that.
"There are no victims," she insisted, this woman Courtney Love likes to call "the devil." "Everybody has been willing participants." What she's saying to musicians is this: Lie back and enjoy it.
Two days later, Love was to deliver her counterpunch, and conference attendees -- some 6,500, down 15 percent from last year's attendance -- wanted to listen and love Love; they even endured security checks, a first at SXSW, to cram into the standing-room-only Austin Convention Center ballroom. But instead of a thoughtful, rational discussion, with Los Angeles Times Pulitzer Prize-winning music-biz reporter Chuck Phillips as moderator, the room was instead treated to a rambling, incoherent, self-absorbed diatribe from the Hole. Pardon, that should read "from the Hole front woman." It was like attending a one-woman show -- Courtney! -- during which she strayed so far from the point she rendered herself, sadly, pointless. She's the RIAA's ideal enemy, the millionaire with full pockets, a seemingly empty head and a big mouth. C. Lo does all of H. Ro's heavy lifting, gratis.
Love, who's been entangled in a three-year legal dispute with multinational Vivendi Universal, to whom she's signed, fired the "first shot in artists rights' battle," Phillips said by way of introduction. Too bad she brought with her only a musket full of blanks: Every time she sniffed an interesting subject -- she promised to divulge secrets behind the Dixie Chicks' lawsuit with Sony Music, in which they accuse the label of illegal accounting practices -- she seemed to be snorting something else. Love preferred instead to talk about her 221-page deposition in which she apparently divulges everything from which record exec chopped an eight ball on the new Limp Bizkit record to who buys whores to who wears a hairpiece -- as though the presence of drugs, frugs and plugs in rock 'n' roll is a revelation.
"It's a stinky-ass business . . . the most Machiavellian business that's also the most disorganized," she proclaimed, before going on about hanging out on a yacht at Cannes, almost getting into a fistfight with Christina Aguilera a few days earlier, recounting her days as a "sexual degenerate" with an "injectible" problem and insisting "I'm not gonna be a house nigger anymore." The widow Cobain and self-proclaimed "Dragonlady Yoko" dropped names (Bono, Mike Mills, Sheryl Crow, Gwen Stefani) and dropped the ball, which was unfortunate, because Love does make some excellent points.
She suggests that musicians forgo big advances for free agency, meaning a band would no longer sign to a label for six albums (okay, maybe two before you're dropped). She reminds that payola is alive and well at your local radio station. She talks eloquently about how the music business has a 97 percent rate of failure. She's passionate, open and able to look like she's out not for herself, but for the kid and comer just about to make it. Problem is, she's a millionaire wanting to re-sign to yet another major label once she gets out of her deal with Vivendi, which renders her a moot point. The real rebel -- a Jenny Toomey, say, who heads up the Future of Music Coalition and both performed and spoke at SXSW -- would do it all herself, without the funding of the "gangsters" to whom Love so derisively (or facetiously?) spoke.
There was one small nugget of brand-new info to be gleaned from Love's speech: She noted, almost off-handedly, that Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban once offered to purchase Napster, which Cuban confirmed in an e-mail Monday. "I told them if they did the deal they ended up with, it was like doing a deal with the devil and they would never recover which they haven't and won't," he wrote. "I also told them I would move it off-shore, where there is no DMCA," he added, referring to the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which makes it a crime to circumvent technologies that protect copyrighted material. Had Cuban been successful in his bid, it likely would have reshaped the entire legal landscape. But the file-sharing system, at the center of so much discussion and litigation, has been rendered moot, buried by a long line of successors and so much paperwork in federal court.
But no one attends South by Southwest's music fest to be lectured to or to learn; that's the province of its kid-sister film festival, held just before the rock 'n' roll zombies head to town. They come instead to catch what Robertson called "the music fever"; they drive to Texas to play short showcases, to listen to bands from Japan and Sweden and Germany, to bask in the buzz and perhaps sneak away with a fistful of discs from bands heretofore unknown outside Aliceville, Alabama, or Dayton, Ohio, or Vienna, Austria. They come to discover the secrets and speak the secret language ("They're like Can! crossed with Wilco if they were fronted by Brian Eno or Neil Finn"), to one-up each other ("Dude, I just saw the best Japanese stoner-rock-free-jazz-Kraut-rock-hip-hop band, like, ever!") and make sure they don't miss The Best Band to Ever Play South by Southwest (that would have been Pleasant Grove . . . or the Eels . . . or the Gaza Strippers . . . or . . . ). Like Robertson said, it's about finding that one thing that turns a flirtation into an obsession; on the drive back from Austin, I realized I'd found mine, Dan Bryk.
Unlike Bryk, Norah Jones -- Dallas-raised, New York City-based -- came to Austin the possessor of the mighty buzz; Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly had already proclaimed her one to watch in 2002, and her Blue Note debut, Come Away With Me, has been the top-selling album at Austin's beloved Waterloo Records for the last two weeks. Her trip to Austin wasn't to be wasted: During the span of three days, she performed a handful of times -- an exhausting pace, one likely to reduce the buzz to a withering blur. She played a Blue Note party at Stubb's, a Friday-afternoon gig at a Starbucks across the street from the University of Texas campus, a Saturday-afternoon in-store at Waterloo, an in-studio at KGSR-FM and her Thursday-night showcase at the Clay Pit. She even gigged in the Four Seasons bar at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday -- where "she knocked my dick in the dirt," said one wary Texas journalist, his face cracked in half by a giant grin. Her Clay Pit gig was a major miscalculation on the part of SXSW organizers: Not only do you not put a hot artist in a small room, thus stranding dozens of irate badge-wearers out in the humid night, but it's also kind of, well, offensive to stick the offspring of Ravi Shankar in an Indian restaurant.
But the keybs-playing-soft-singing Jones, backed only by guitar and bass, weathered the chattering of attendees who preferred to listen to their own droning voices. Bless her, she possesses the kind of voice, the kind of soul, that cuts through the static and chitchat of the disinterested and disaffected for whom she's just another Next Big Thing fresh off the RIAA assembly line. (Robbie Robertson showed up, sat down and visited with passers-by; after the Austin American-Statesman's Michael Corcoran wrote about how Robertson was among the loud talkers, Robertson sent a nasty e-mail insisting quite the contrary.) During one song, the crowd suddenly, and finally, became still and quiet -- as though the audience was standing in the eye of the hurricane. They applauded the single "Don't Know Why" as though it were a hit, an old friend, and from then on you could hear -- no, feel -- the reason Jones is burdened by expectation from label and listener alike.
Maybe the most amazing thing about Jones is how sweet and naive she sounds, like a newborn unfettered by the bullshit. She provides a small dose of purity amid the sweat and slime of a business that's taken people like her and made licensing properties out of them. She's contagious, this carrier of the music fever: At her Starbucks gig the next day, people were streaming out with copies of Come Away With Me, for which they happily paid full price.
The biggest problem, if one can call it that, with South by Southwest is one of plentitude: To catch one potentially good band, you run the risk of missing a dozen great ones at any given moment. The thousands who rushed to hear Clinic left feeling misled; same for those eager to catch a ride with Starsailor. (Look, one's the new Radiohead, the other's the new Coldplay -- which adds up to the new Radioplay, leaving one feeling like you've just caught a Headcold. Mopey motherfuckers.) Drive-By Truckers, who packed 'em in at Antone's Thursday night, sound like they oughta be playing monster-truck rallies with Confederate flags behind them; they proved you can't be any good if you're just a band singing about another band (Lynyrd Skynyrd, in this case, whose moribund echoes still managed to drown out the Truckers' stale Southern-fried rock). Lo-Fidelity All-Stars, at La Zona Rosa, banged out something that sounded like dance music (for those without legs, perhaps); Loudermilk's grunge-rock had passed its expiration date; the much-loved OK GO were just OK (rock critics, who still confuse irony with talent, just adored their note-for-bloat version of "Jessie's Girl"); while Elbow made passable background music for any room you just happen not to be in.
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The Eels, on the other hand, were astonishing from jump: Two songs in, front man Mark "E" Everett led guitarist Joe Gore (of PJ Harvey's band) and drummer Butch through a dank, sinister rendition of Missy Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On"; you couldn't tell whether to grin or run. For its efforts, the band was rewarded with that rarest of SXSW occurrences: an encore. Just as perfect was Neil Finn, the former Crowded House front man blessed with a band that features Wendy Melvoin (ex of Prince's Revolution), Lisa Germano (who's released her own excellent albums on 4AD) and ex-Soul Coughing bassist Sebastian Steinberg. Finn proved, over the ruckus made by most SXSW attendees (who still wanna be the next Nirvana, apparently), that a man in his 40s can still make rock pop.
The best thing you can say about any band is that after hearing it once, you want to hear it forever -- and you'll even pay for its albums, which, coming from someone who gets a bunch for free, pretty much says it all. It was disappointing, then, to discover after hearing My Morning Jacket twice that most of the songs the Kentucky band performed during SXSW were from its still-unrecorded third album. My Morning Jacket plays something not easily described -- country, sorta; Southern rock, kinda; pop, maybe; rock, no duh. To not have that music in hand, to not be able to revisit it again and again when you want and need it, is like having someone whisper you the greatest secret without being able to tell anyone else.
But to me, the greatest South by Southwest moment is one that replays itself each night, and has for years. For hours and hours, Mary Lou Lord -- onetime Sony Music signee and former Kurt Cobain lover -- plays on the corner of Sixth and Brazos, outside a downtown Austin strip mall. She will strum and sing from 10 p.m. until the drunks and deviants run her off the corner, usually sometime before 4 a.m. Lord is no Norah Jones (might have been, once upon a long time ago), and she is no Dan Bryk, a comer forever looking up and wondering what might have been. She's in the middle, the worst place in the music business -- trapped in the quicksand, teased by the fleeting success that shouts something indecipherable at her on its way to see some bigger, better buzz band. She's still around -- her version of Daniel Johnston's "Speeding Motorcycle" recently turned up in a Target ad -- but you can only be the Next Big Thing once. You can't surprise anyone twice.
At 3:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, Lord, clad in red jacket and a black wool, endured the shouts ("Jewel!" screamed some smart-ass filing out of an after-hours party nearby, where OK GO and the Promise Ring entertained the free-drink crowd) and picked up pocket change every night, selling her CDs and singing in that tiny baby voice of hers. Nearby, a bearded homeless man fought with an empty cigarette pack; winos huddled around and shushed the loud and inattentive. Lord even had a showcase forthcoming Saturday night, but she serenaded the chilly night and the curious and bored and stoned for hours and hours. Near the end of her never-ending set, she sang "Thunder Road," and in that setting, it sounded sad and brand-new -- like she'd written it on the spot, for anyone who cared to listen. She sang of promised lands, of how people scream your name at night, about how she taught her guitar to talk and about how she was gonna get out of this town full of losers. "I'm pulling out of here to win," and for that moment, you kinda believed her.