South by So What?

In defense of Austin's overhyped, overblown music fest

Over the past few weeks, acceptance letters have been arriving in the mailboxes of local musicians. Baboon got one. So did Pleasant Grove, and [DARYL], and the Riverboat Gamblers, and Speedealer, and 21 other acts from the Dallas/Denton area. The good news: They're playing SXSW in Austin, March 17 through March 21.

In other mailboxes across North Texas, however, acceptance letters have not been arriving. And I've already heard gripes--from musicians, from managers, from fans--that SXSW is a stinking pile of maggot-infested excrement. Or, you know, overrated and unfair. It's a cash grab. They've forgotten the independents. They have rotten taste.

"My experience is there's nothing you can say to convince people otherwise," says Louis Black, one of the founders of SXSW (who also happens to be my former boss at The Austin Chronicle). "As often as not, [SXSW] doesn't turn a profit. Even when it does turn a profit, it's nowhere near the revenue people think it is." It ain't cheap luring marquee names--Little Richard is this year's keynote speaker, and the music lineup includes stalwarts Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and The B-52's, next-big-things Dizzee Rascal and Athlete, and underground favorites N.E.R.D. , British Sea Power, The Decemberists, our own Polyphonic Spree, TV on the Radio and Aesop Rock. But therein lies another concern: Has SXSW sold out?

"We bring in more unsigned and under-known bands than we ever did," Black says. That's a consequence, at the very least, of sheer scale. The first SXSW hosted 200 bands. In 2004, the number nears 1,200. But, Black says, "People who think it's all political favors should come in when the music staff is practically screaming at each other."

The real problem with SXSW is the inherently flawed process of artistic selection, which relies on such slippery metrics as "taste" and "preference." This year, SXSW received close to 7,400 entries. Creative director Brent Grulke says these selections are graded "according to originality, technical ability and performance, career establishment, songwriting and/or composition, and overall artistry." About 1,200 make it to a final elimination round, and that doesn't include the established musicians already booked. ("We're not gonna grade Willie Nelson," Grulke says. "That would be ridiculous.") Of course, great bands get missed. Mediocre bands get booked (especially from Austin, whose bands are favored, and rightly so). "The vast majority of the acts who apply to SXSW tend to be quite good at what they do," Grulke says. So if you don't get in this year, try again.

That's what Salim Nourallah of Happiness Factor did. Of course, he had to wade through a little bitterness. "I didn't even bother to enter the last couple of years," he writes by e-mail. Eventually, though, "I stopped focusing on the commercial aspect of it and stopped moaning about not getting picked." He applied this year and made it as a solo act. "I know I'm not going to come home with a big record deal, East Coast management or an imminent write-up in the NME." Instead, he can enjoy the music--as a participant rather than a bystander. "It's an incredible event, and although other cities have tried, there really isn't anything that touches it. That's why it's so nice to finally be included."

A schedule is available at www.sxsw.com/music.


This week's cover story, "Fretting," is by Ken Bethea of the Old 97's (also playing SXSW). During the band's two-week East Coast tour, Bethea recorded his thoughts, experiences and, more often than not, worries. What I love about the piece is the way Bethea punches through the rock-star mythology. A married 41-year-old with two children, Bethea isn't interested in groupies. He's trying to eat better. He's worried about his kids and the pains in his joints. When a fan asks him to sign her boob, he nearly goes apoplectic. But he's still rock and roll--just check out that cover shot, which he assured me took many takes.

This week, Bethea is in Woodstock, New York, recording an as-yet-untitled Old 97's album, due in mid-June. After being dropped by Elektra, the band has signed with New West, which carries Slobberbone (also playing SXSW). "The emphasis at a label like Elektra is to sell a million records," Bethea told me recently. "We're not that kind of band." New West, on the other hand, has allowed the band to refocus on its sound. And what will that sound be? Bethea suggests it may hearken back to Hitchhike to Rhome days, especially "Stoned."


And if you're going country, this is the week. Willie Nelson's show is sold out, but more legends are a'comin': Wayne "The Train" Hancock (with locals Rocket DeVille) at the Wreck Room on Friday; Loretta Lynn at Billy Bob's on Saturday; and Ramblin' Jack Elliott at Dan's Silverleaf on Sunday. Hot twang.
 
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