A Sad Salvation

At SXSW, you couldn't hear the bad news over all that music

At the end of the beginning, "Little Danny" Lanois got it right. After all his beat-down poetry, after his self-congratulatory accolades, after a welcoming speech in which he kept referring to himself in the third person, the producer of U2 and Peter Gabriel and Bob Dylan hit it square in the grinning face. "There's a lot of optimism in the air," Lanois said at the end of the keynote address that opened the 17th South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin, which began March 12 and ended Sunday. Some of us smelled something different--apprehension, fear or maybe just the musician sitting in front of us--but Lanois, who lives in higher and more rarefied altitudes than the rest of us, has a different perspective. You can afford to be optimistic when expensive people hire you to make expensive records.

That SXSW's organizers chose Lanois as their keynote speaker was of no surprise; they like the Big Name, the Superstar Draw to bless their event, and Lanois did just that in the sort of rambling, indulgent fashion that befits a man who makes guitar wallpaper for himself when not producing men richer than everyone in the Austin Convention Center combined. He said nothing and said it for 45 minutes, insisting at one point he was going to "beeline" it out of the auditorium lest anyone give him a tape and ask him for help. Lanois did provide one of the fest's musical high points, when Richie Havens joined him at the Austin Music Hall on Thursday night for a furious performance of the Woodstock Generation anthem "Freedom," but it was hardly an apologia for kissing his own ass repeatedly that very morning. (Everything old is older again, when you get down to it.)

Lanois' remarks gave SXSW perfect context: It was a conference in denial, which is easily done when 500-plus bands--from across the country and around the world--crank up in one place and drown out the bad news and ill tidings. The usual litany of ailments that threaten to decimate the entire body--from piracy and declining sales to media consolidation and government inquiries--were spoken of in small whispers. You could hardly hear them on Sixth Street and just beyond, where bands started to play early in the morning (one, at 8 a.m. in the Four Seasons bar) and wrapped up, on some nights, in the wee small hours before the sun came up. (As Thursday night became Friday and then some, the Sugar Hill Gang were a-hip-a-hoppin' at an East Austin after-hours shindig thrown by the owners of Stubb's Barbecue; it was early morning of the living dead.)

Still got the time: Joe Jackson and his re-formed band closed out SXSW with new songs as good as--or better than--the old ones.
John Anderson
Still got the time: Joe Jackson and his re-formed band closed out SXSW with new songs as good as--or better than--the old ones.
Cat powerless: Chan Marshall couldn't make it through her SXSW set without falling apart.
John Anderson
Cat powerless: Chan Marshall couldn't make it through her SXSW set without falling apart.

There was no unifying theme this year, no single strand that looked more like a rope from which the music business could hang itself. This year, there was no Hilary Rosen to kick around; she's now the formerpresident of the Recording Industry Association of America, and someone else will have to blame everyone but the labels for the industry's plentiful woes. There was no Courtney Love to pick apart; there's no one left with whom she can feud. And there was no Norah Jones to suck up to, though crits and bizzers were chasing down the Next New Thing night after night, insisting always they'd just heard the greatest thing since...well, Norah Jones.

The outrage and disgust and suspense of 2002 had given way to the ennui and exhaustion and hangover of 2003; the torrent of anger unleashed last March had dissipated into a fine mist of anxiety. Even the panels meant to generate heat--say, the Activism and Protest circle jerk--were cool to the touch. It didn't help that this year, the label- and media-sponsored parties seemed to begin earlier than ever before; you could get your free drunk on well before noon, meaning you could go to SXSW and have legit reason never to step inside the convention center. Fuck it, right? Might as well party like it's 1991. Like Chicago Tribunemusic critic and Activism and Protest panel moderator Greg Kot said late Saturday afternoon, standing in a convention center that looked like a ghost town, "There might not even bea music industry next year."

It would have been far better had SXSW chosen for its keynote speaker the ubiquitous Jenny Toomey, the unlikely revolutionary whose Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Freedom of Music Coalition has become the record-buying, radio-listening public's best and loudest voice in the debate over government deregulation of all things media. Toomey, whose bright red hair makes her look like a flaming matchstick held over a short fuse, has spent the last year testifying about the evils of deregulation before Congress and the Federal Communications Commission; her organization has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on studies that prove the damage done when companies like San Antonio-based Clear Channel, which owns more than 1,200 radio stations nationwide, seize control of the public's airwaves. If rock and roll has a future, it will be Toomey and others like her who extend their hands to keep it from tumbling down the cliff. "But I bring 30 people into a room," she said when told she should have been the keynote speaker, implying she doesn't draw like Lanois. Never has a revolutionary been so modest; then again, this is a revolutionary whose new album is filled with nothing but torch songs, not Molotov cocktails.

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