It's almost too easy to slam South by Southwest.
The cynical among us--and how can you observe the music industry at close range and not be cynical?--like to hold up the annual Austin confab as a case study of how greed and bloated ambition can submerge good intentions. You know the scenario: Small, grassroots event is developed to showcase obscure, unsigned regional talent and becomes so successful that major-label veterans start using it to plug new albums, while poor locals are forced to stand at the back of club queues, sadly dangling their $80 eyesore wristbands.
So, cynical lot that we are, we head down to Austin, run up formidable drinking tabs, stuff our faces at Las Manitas, schmooze with fellow badge geeks, catch a bunch of good bands, and come home to whine about what a wank-off the whole experience was. It's a bit like showing up every weekend at a topless bar and complaining that the decor is tacky.
Besides, SXSW has, from its inception, been somewhat schizophrenic about what it hoped to achieve. How else to explain the organizers' bizarre 1988 decision to pay big bucks to a washed-up A Flock of Seagulls for a showcase? As early as the event's third year, in 1989, the University of Texas' paper The Daily Texan headlined a preview story with this unmistakable message: "SXSUX."
The big question isn't whether SXSW has sold out. That question was answered years ago with a big affirmative. The bigger concern, as seven bands from the Valley--Jimmy Eat World, Phunk Junkeez, Azz Izz Band, Grievous Angels, the Pastry Heros, Keith Secola, and Beat Angels--travel to Austin this week, is what the showcases really provide for young bands trying to reach a wider audience.
We've all heard the mythical tales of bands like Whiskeytown and Veruca Salt playing star-making shows at SXSW, of their vans being surrounded by a wild pack of rabid label reps ready to Hancock a deal. However, logic and 11 years of evidence strongly suggest that bands don't get signed as a result of SXSW, that a record deal is either in the works or it's not, and one gig won't transform your prospects.
When local bands with SXSW experience talk about the confab, they inevitably praise Austin and say they had a good time while they were there. But you'll also hear some of them say that it's just not worth the expense to drive to Austin for a bad showcase slot that's poorly attended and completely overshadowed by the high-profile label showcases. Much as SXSW clings to its image as a springboard for unsigned talent, it actually ends up working more as a coming-out party for signed acts, who use their showcase as just another stop on a tour to promote a new album. Even then, if an Austin swing is out of your way, it can be of dubious benefit.
For example, Trunk Federation has a new album out, and it's heading out on tour at the beginning of April. But it pulled out of SXSW a few weeks ago because its label, Alias Records, didn't consider the showcase beneficial enough to justify the cost.
Jimmy Eat World played a showcase last year at the Atomic Cafe, about six months after the release of its Capitol debut album, Static Prevails. This week it began a monthlong tour with The Promise Ring, and it's hitting SXSW along the way. Nonetheless, band member Jim Adkins has no illusions about the SXSW experience.
"It's pretty surreal," Adkins says. "It's all these industry people who don't give a shit about you, and I don't know why they're there. Meanwhile, the kids who want to see you have to pay $10."
Showcasing bands are offered a choice of payment: $175 or a badge that gets you into such scintillating panel discussions as "Retail: Ignore at Your Own Risk" and "The Future of Publishing." Adkins says, "We need gas money," wisely indicating that he'd just as well do without a stinking badge. He sums up the SXSW circus as "a big masturbatory trip for industry people."
It's a view echoed by Brian Smith, singer for the Beat Angels, who also make a return trip to SXSW this week. For the second straight year, the band has been saddled with a Wednesday-night slot, although last year's showcase was amazingly well-attended, particularly considering that many SXSW attendees had yet to arrive in Austin. Smith recalls that the show was "full of A&R weasels, but nothing came of it."
"From people who are personal friends of mine, who are in A&R, I know for a fact that it's a goddamned good way to get out of their chosen work and drink on somebody else's tab for a week," Smith says. "They're far too drunk to know what's going on in the clubs, for the most part. But it's fun, though. I'm glad we're going."
Rather than curse the darkness, Smith chooses to use it for a game of blind man's bluff.
"I think it's a good little microcosm of what the whole music business is about these days, just a fucking big mass of bands that nobody gives a flying fuck about," he says. "And they're all playing in Austin in one week. It's a good excuse to get drunk."
Who's in town: This is one of those rare weeks when there are so many worthy bands hitting the Valley that some tough choices will be involved. Possibly foremost among them is The Negro Problem, a kaleidoscopic Southern California quartet that gets great ironic mileage out of its singer being a black man besotted with Brian Wilson and Burt Bacharach. Song titles like "Doubting Uncle Tom" and "Ghetto Godot" merely hint at the way the band twists racial stereotypes. It's often overly verbose and too ambitious for its own good, but it doesn't lack for ideas. And you've got to have a soft spot for any band that covers "MacArthur Park" and turns the line "Someone left their cake out in the rain" into "Someone left their crack out in the rain." The Negro Problem will be at Hollywood Alley in Mesa on Saturday, March 21.
Los Straitjackets, one of the undisputed contemporary giants of instrumental surf-rock, return to the Valley this week. Opening for the masked marvels from Nashville will be Phoenix guitar legend Al Casey, playing a rare surf-only set in honor of the occasion. Los Straitjackets and Al Casey will be at the Rhythm Room on Thursday, March 19.
Connoisseurs of great, Farfisa-fueled garage soul won't want to miss The Delta 72, who'll be at Stinkweeds Record Exchange in Tempe on Monday, March 23, along with Thundercats. Another show worth catching is a Sunday, March 22, performance at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe by Princess Superstar. At least on record, this white hip-hop quartet from New York's East Village sounds like a canny, sample-heavy mix of the Beastie Boys and Luscious Jackson.
Contact Gilbert Garcia at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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