Hit or miss

Down in Austin, the little music city that thinks it's bigger than it is, thousands of musicians get up every morning and think to themselves, Today will be the day. They subscribe to the myth as common to rock and roll as the music itself: The poor saps actually believe that if they play the clubs, create a buzz, and maybe make an indie record, it will pave the way to that big-time record deal. That is why they move to Austin, a town that sells the myth in its tourist brochures.

There are the lucky few who manage to turn a little Sixth Street success into a record deal, but that only goes on to create a whole different fantasy: You get signed for a sweet advance, make a record (good or bad, it hardly matters), get tagged as a label priority, find a heavy-hitting manager, tour incessantly, get on radio and MTV, and become a star. Of course, chances are today's label deal means tomorrow's day job. Ask every musician in Austin; you can find them behind the counter at a local record store, buying back their old major-label records for a buck apiece.

But do not tell this to Kacy Crowley, yet one more Austin-based singer-songwriter this close to waking up in a dream--and yet this far from the place where myth becomes gold-spun reality.

Crowley landed in Austin in early 1995 after knocking around Los Angeles, her native Connecticut, and New York City, where she wrote songs, played the clubs, and recorded demos in hopes of landing a record deal; hers was the usual routine of a performer with ambition bigger than her hometown. Within weeks after arriving in Texas, she started playing on the sidewalks of Austin's bustling Sixth Street strip--during the annual South by Southwest music festival no less, when the streets are jam-packed with people rushing from here to there, paying no mind to street-corner distractions. Yet not long afterward, she was heard by a local music scribe, who recommended her to the owner of Steamboat, a Sixth Street rock club.

"I just started from scratch, playing open mikes, making friends," Crowley recalls now of her first days in Austin. "It was really inspiring. It just reminded me of why I got into music in the first place, and I was not so worried about the business end of it. But at the same time, I started reading books about the music business and actually really focusing on the business end."

Soon enough, she was playing with a band at Steamboat and the famed Antone's nightclub. Her drummer then hooked her up with the Dallas-based indie Carpe Diem, which has released albums by Cafe Noir and Little Jack Melody and His Young Turks. Label owner Allen Restrepo liked Crowley's demos enough to call and offer her a deal, sight unseen. An album, Anchorless, was made for about $20,000 with the aim of trying to sell it to the majors. Restrepo took it to Los Angeles to shop it to a slew of labels, and after his second day there, he called Crowley and told her to fly out to the coast and start meeting with Atlantic Records. Island Records also came to the table and hooked her up with Lookout Management, which lists Neil Young among its clients.

By SXSW '97, all the other labels who didn't first hear Crowley's potential crowded her showcase performance. She signed with Atlantic, and the tale of how Atlantic's guru Ahmet Ertegun wooed her away from Island was only recently recounted by Island's founding father, Chris Blackwell, in a profile on Ertegun in Vanity Fair--indeed, it led off the story. Blackwell said he respected Ertegun too much to get in his way of signing an artist he liked; Crowley was Ahmet's for the taking.

In July 1997, Crowley was favorably mentioned by Time magazine in one of those perennial women-in-rock features, coinciding with last year's Lilith Fair tour. (Christopher John Farley referred to Crowley as "another one to watch [with a] confident debut.") When Atlantic rereleased Anchorless last fall, the label crowed about how she was going to become a "priority" artist.

But since then, Crowley has yet to meet those very great expectations. Have you heard of her?

Of course, Crowley insists this is part of the plan--they always do. Better to rise slow than to fall fast, she will explain; better to build a sturdy career than one that could collapse at any moment. And she has a point: After yesterday, no one will remember Natalie Imbruglia. She came from nowhere, and she will return there even faster. Crowley, who shares a label with Tori Amos and Jewel, has a good idea about the tenuousness of fame.