SXSW Music Festival (2010) - by Jon Stewart (© April 2010)
Austin, TX- SXSW and its music festival were held this year from March 17-21, 2010 and it was my 5th year to attend this century. The evolution of this event and its direction has been most evident this year, so much so that I wanted to share some of the associations that crossed my separate thresholds of thought and experience.
The weather was beautiful and crystal-clear until Saturday morning so there were huge crowds (over 11,000 registered, up 20% from 2009) in the 6th Avenue section of Austin where most of the venues were provided for bands looking to be discovered. Night and day (day begins at noon during SXSW), the crowds of gawkers, music-industry professionals, musicians, fashionistas and press were overwhelming; all moving around within the sound of street musicians, sound checks within the nightclubs and the dulcet tones of fans talking up their favorite musicians. The number of foreign visitors must have been at an all time high as I heard several languages that only my friend in the diplomatic corps could identify. England, Israel and Japan were very well represented.
The first thing that occurred to me was so superficial that I was at first guilt-ridden; then I resolved to simply enjoy it. New this spring, in a mall near you, will be young women wearing the shortest skirts since the ‘60’s; whether they should or not, it is a fashion trend that should last at least 4 months. I couldn’t help but think the hippies won, at least as regards fashion, when I add in the look of the majority of the males in attendance. How counterintuitive is paying $300.00 for new jeans that have been distressed to look as if you inherited them from your father, the day-laborer? Esquire magazine calls it the “Workman” look. I prefer to wear out my own clothes.
Observation number two; never have I seen so many beautiful women. My investigation of this continued throughout the festival and while time-consuming, intense and cause for interviews with several club owners, beautiful women and other attendees, I came up with a somewhat viable, anecdotally-researched answer: due to the recent laxness in the requirements for attending specific concerts (those that require badges for attendance), discretion is left up to the front people in the clubs as to who gets in after most badge members have been seated. So, imagine you are a pretty girl, you haven’t paid the $695 for the badge, but you want to go see Band of Skulls play and the venue is packed. What do you do? Use your looks to get in the club, of course.
Based on my interviews, this occurs generally with the offer to “flash” their two most prized possessions, if not a downright solicitation of a sexual act. And according to one source, these were young women who looked like they were going to church that Sunday; somebody’s pretty sister.
So once I got that important matter settled, I looked for other anomalies that might not occur to the more casual observer of popular culture. Then I got slap-dashed with recoil-lections.
Five years ago, I was amazed at the number of “tight” bands that performed during the course of the festival. Buzz was everywhere about how tight the bands were and that fact alone would contribute to attendance at their events; even to the event of mobs outside a few venues. Not nearly so much this year. For those of you who need definitions, a tight band is one that is in such a groove with their music that it is performed flawlessly in a live venue. A band can usually be termed tight within the first 13 seconds of the song by the drumming. I heard the worst drumming in my life during some of this year’s acts. Singing off-key is another major sign of a lack of tightness in a band. Had we been out in the “Hill Country” west of Austin, the coyotes might have joined in with several of the singers, to help them harmonize, you know.
Which brings me to another anomaly: where are the harmonies? Nobody was doing them. I don’t mean the C&W practice of harmonizing for most of the song because the good-looking singer doesn’t have enough depth and texture to last through song-after-song. I mean strategic harmonies that add dimension to a song, not a voice. Few of these artists view a song properly; they see it as music and lyrics put together, occasioned to run through a producer; I see it as a “song” and in this manner, I can view as art and not as craft. The ultimate accomplishment is poetry within the setting of musical enhancement, including the vocalist’s interpretation. To me, a song is the most powerful medium for conveying human emotion in less than 4 minutes.
Which brings me to one of my favorite aspects of music festivals- the Demo Reviews, where audience members provide a demo song for music-industry professionals to give the artist immediate feedback. This year had an a cappella performance by a young, near-beautiful, near-undressed C&W singer who dutifully engaged the crowd and got the Reviews off to a rousing start. According to the panelists, this had never happened before at SXSW. I thought it was about time and kept wishing for an encore. For the rest of the allotted schedule, demos were heard from all types of artists including Southern blues, hip-hop, pop and rock. Of the approximately 15 songs they reviewed, only one was thought by the panelists to have much promise and commercial appeal. I couldn’t have agreed more on every CD they reviewed.
Too many people fall in love with the idea of celebrity in the current, kamikaze pop culture. Although historically musicians, actors, and singers were seen as the some of the worst elements a culture had to offer, we now see a worshipful class of easily manipulated media-lovers who start their day wondering who is doing what to whom in Celebrityville. And they actually seek guidance and advice in their lives from these same celebrities.
Several panels were available to direct artists on creating a website, using MySpace and Facebook as marketing tools; they even touched on promoting your band and managing a career in music. I thought the majority were creepy and misinformed. Most of the panelists from the music business had achieved some success through the use of the mediums listed above. They were exceptional in many different ways, each having some interesting facet of their personae; each of which contributed largely to their success. However, to use their anecdotal success as some global, universal solution for aspiring rock singers was downright malevolent.
Take, for example, their direction on using Facebook. To wit: The site should be the primary communications between the artists and their fans. According to these directives, the artist should put every bit of personal information he or she can think of on these websites. The artists should be finding people with similar likes and dislikes as the musician, ultimately joining chat groups with these people and discreetly mentioning that they would like to send them a link to their MySpace pages to hear their music.
A delusion must set in with the artist to make this work. For everyone that likes something, there will be some who dislike it; for those who like the salient details of every rock star’s personal life, there will be some who prefer mystery and aloofness. As every small business owner knows, it is best to keep your idiosyncrasies to yourself. But this isn’t in keeping with the celebrity phenomenon of today. For this concept was the one in the forefront of the panelist’s minds: Spill your guts out. Act like you’re a celebrity from Day One. Assume you really have “fans” when you have done nothing but a lot of geekwork on the internet. Assume “hits” on the internet means something. Assume all the reporting by the website means something. I have listened to so much music on the internet that should be piped into outerspace or used to torture the nation’s enemies I am sick of it. You can get lost in the echoes of all the compositions that should be permanently purged from all web servers.
Imagine this. You are music-industry executive in a room with a CD player with a powerful amp and huge speakers. Someone hands you a CD and says, “Play the first two songs.” You insert the disc, turn the volume to the max, hit the Play button and you are listening to “Just Dance” and “Pokerface” by Lady Gaga at dance club levels. And no one else had ever heard of her or these songs. Only you can make a decision.
Do you think that executive would care about Facebook, MySpace or anything else? No. He would put her under contract right on the spot, even if he had to mortgage the house. They really believe in this stuff. These people can tell the smallest details of recordings. They can tell you what the songs were recorded on; they can spot a missed beat like they can feel a missed pulsation in their own heart. What I’m trying to get through to the artists reading this article is that a good song is all you will ever need in the music business; and good goes through cycles. Keep in mind that it takes nearly two years to get a song you wrote today on the radio, so you must be 2 ½ years ahead of what you are hearing today. And keep in mind that only 1 out of every 6,000 songs will become a hit.
This fact alone should scare the hell out of most “wannabe” songwriters and musicians. Warning, do not buy that Porsche until you have the cash in hand. My intimate knowledge of the music business is only as good as the last advice I gave someone who wants to write C&W. “Write 4 fast songs for every slow one. Use the same time signatures as AC/DC for the fast ones. Use a “big” piano for the slow one that is the same time signature as all C&W slow dance songs. It all starts with the beat. The beat determines what dance will go along with that tempo. Try for this in every song; a singular, universal emotion meets its musical equivalent in an original display of poetic vision and aural harmony matched to a cascading, often thundering beat.”
My last comments regard the future of the music industry as seen by many experts in the business. Wouldn’t you know, they didn’t agree on anything? It’s either the best of times or the worst of times. I thought they would be predicting the anti-Christ by the convention’s end. They tended to agree with the post-modern concept that promotion was what set bands apart, that knowing someone is the key to success.
And if that doesn’t work, try “branding”. You know, like Pepsi is a brand. Come up with a cool name for the group and some cool logos and T-shirt designs. Use the same logo for everything and get it out everywhere. Have the superficial brand overpower the music. Have cards printed up with this. Have some mousepads made up with your logo on it. Hand them out at your concerts. Blah, blah, blah. That determination will be the same in every walk of life in business, the majority will have to look past it and see the future for what I think it will become.
And the future is bright for the talented because I think the age of celebrity-for-celebrity’s sake is drawing to a close. The problem with this cynical logic by the industry is that it excludes what you as an artist really are; a small businessman. With all the connotations associated with that distinction: maverick, idiosyncratic, with a bad attitude regarding authority. Not wanting to work for someone else, you gravitate to things you like and when you find it is music you give it a try-to see if you have any talent, to see if you like the spotlights, to see if you can make it. And this must all be done at an early age.
My gripe with the direction of the “It’s my soul- and here are all the details,” approach is the fissure that will result when the artist realizes that all the input from these “helpful” industry experts is what they have previously exposed as “horrible” business practices in other industries including other “brand names”. For me, private enterprise is defined by risk and joining a band is one of the riskiest ventures one can undertake; it might even be heroic in view of the odds for success.
When approached like this, you will soon know what the market thinks of your product (your songs). You won’t take it personally, you will learn from the feedback of every performance and you will grow as an artist by writing songs and performing for a live audience. You should know within two years if you are going to make it if you’ve spent the time identifying and improving your talent.
After two years, the crowds should be there, just like they were at SXSW. Individuals won’t find you. The crowds will find you. And if they don’t, there are all sorts of small businesses that may appeal to you.
About Jon Stewart:
The author has spent the last 30 years developing, managing and observing creative people in order to gain insight into the creative process. This background includes managing architects, engineers, and interior designers as well as songwriters, artists and musicians. His education includes a BBA and MBA with a focus on psychology. Mr. Stewart managed and booked rock bands that offer original music for several years. He attends many music events and conferences each year. Mr. Stewart was a music reviewer for the Muse’s Muse from December, 2005 to January, 2007. He is currently working on a novel about Texas border towns.