Column 60: An early glance at SXSW

Category: Blog — @ 1:00 pm January 19, 2006

I’ve been told by a number of local bands that are not on the “the list” that they’re going to SXSW anyway. I assume they’re playing in non-sponsored showcases somewhere in Austin that week. Since they won’t be listed on the SXSW site, I’ll pass on their performance details when (or if) I get them.

Bring on the Major Leagues
SXSW is the Indie World Series of Rock

The fine folks at Austin’s South by Southwest Music Festival have announced this year’s participating bands for the four-day event that begins March 15. If the current list — available via the Internet at www.sxsw.com — is true, than this year’s fest will be one of the least-represented by Nebraska artists in quite a while.

The only bands I recognize from our neck of the woods are Saddle Creek acts Broken Spindles and Criteria (Saddle Creek’s latest signing, San Francisco’s Two Gallants, also made the list as part of Creek’s SXSW showcase). But if you read the fine print, you’ll notice that the current online list (which already exceeds 850 performers) may not be complete. The final list won’t be online until mid-February, so fear not, local bands whose dreams are tied to this hype-filled spectacle. There is still hope… but only barely. Something tells me this is pretty close to the final cut.

Interesting bands that caught my eye upon a cursory glance: Aloha, Arab Strap, The Brunettes, Centro-matic, Goldfrapp, Her Space Holiday, Damien Jurado, Ladytron, Ted Leo/Pharmacists, Mogwai, Metric, Willy Mason (once of Team Love Records, now of Astralwerks), The Silos, Stan Ridgway, Robert Pollard, The Twilight Singers, World Party (now there’s a name I haven’t heard in a couple decades) and X.

(Over)Hyped bands on the list include Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah (Who’ve just been booked to play at Sokol Underground March 31), Brazilian Girls, The New Pornographers, Death in Vegas, Earlimart, Erase Eratta, Flogging Molly, The Go! Team, Susanna Hoffs & Matthew Sweet, Juliette (Lewis) and the Licks, Morningwood, Beth Orton, Radio 4, The Secret Machines and The Willowz.

And then there are all those familiar bands from days gone by. Mary Lou Lord, Eleventh Dream Day, The Apples in Stereo, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Mates of State, The Starlight Mints, Tristeza, (the horrible) Dashboard Confessional and Echo & The Bunnymen come to mind.

It’s interesting that SXSW quotes UK newspaper The Guardian regarding its origins: “In its 19-year history, it has grown from being a jolly spring get-together for a few hundred U.S. indie labels and musicians in search of a deal, to an international gathering that is the most important date in our music industry calendar.”

In fact, SXSW doesn’t claim to help unsigned bands at all, instead boasting that the event “presents new opportunities to make your vision reality. Musicians and the companies they work with have used SXSW as a cost-effective way to promote themselves since 1987. They come back year after year because SXSW works!”

*Gag*

Look, it’s easy to bag on SXSW. Yes, the event’s glory days were in the ’90s. Yes, they’ve strayed from their original intent — almost all the bands listed already are signed to some sort of record label. In fact, I’m not sure exactly what the point of the showcase is anymore other than to give music industry wonks a vacation after a long winter’s nap. Everyone argues that the CMJ (College Music Journal) Festival in New York is more important these days, but the only way to get invited is to be part of a label showcase, which means all you unsigned bastards are out of luck.

No, there’s another reason why SXSW still reigns as the king of festivals. We live in an era when major labels — already on creative life support — are starving for artistic sustenance. Like head-trauma patients waking from a decade-long coma, they’re just coming around to the idea that there might be something to this whole “indie rock” thing. After all, just look at the popularity of movies like Garden State and Teevee shows like The OC. Hell, nowadays every TV commercial sounds like an instrumental track off the last Postal Service album.

The best way for the big labels to get in on the trend is to steal some indie for themselves. As a result, SXSW could become a big feeding ground for majors looking to pluck bands out of indie obscurity.

The talked-about deals after this year’s SXSW won’t be centered on needy unsigned bands and needy indie labels, but hot indie bands stolen by needy major labels. SXSW is a virtual Minor League World Series of Rock, where the home run hitters will be bestowed with tour buses, music videos, Clear Channel airplay and, of course, plenty of signing-bonus money.

What’s a lowly unsigned band to do?

Instead of bemoaning your omission from the invitation list, get a gig at one of the many non-SXSW-sponsored venues the week of (or the week before) the big showcases. Sometimes the only Field of Dreams is the one you make yourself. Build it and they will come.

–Got comments? Post ’em here.

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