Column 215: SXSW Postmortem…

Category: Blog — @ 6:38 pm April 2, 2009

Here’s the final word on SXSW. First, the full story — all three days of Lazy-i blog entries from Austin — all 5,000 words — cleaned up and compiled into one cohesive story, with all the photos, too. Take a look.

And here’s this week’s column: Three different views of SXSW by three people who had three different reasons for being there. The summations:

Jeremiah McIntyre: “It’s fun. You get to get in front of a lot of people. Parking can be a pain in the ass, but both times we played the 6th St. area we got lucky and got spots right in front of the club.”

Robb Nansel: “One of the downsides of living in Omaha is that you don’t have access to all those people all the time. And South By Southwest and CMJ are the two times a year that everybody you want to talk to and do business with is going to be in the same city.”

Eric Bemberger: “It was not only an opportunity to see things that changed my life, but to converse with someone who’s responsible for it.”

Column 215: SXSW Epilogue
For bands, was it worth it?

It’s only been a week since the South By Southwest Festival ended and it already seems like it never happened. We’ve all gone back to our little corners of the world, wrote our post-coital summations in blogs and columns and articles and podcasts, told our stories at our respective bars and hang-outs and begun planning for next year with Austin in the rear-view mirror.

From a music journalist’s standpoint, not only is SXSW a blast but also a real opportunity to see and hear new music in a condensed, compressed setting. But what about the bands and labels who actually participated in the festival? Was it worth their time to drive or fly cross country, figure out (or actually pay for) lodging and then perform in the center of the cyclone to 15 or 50 or 500 or 5,000 strangers?

Case in point: After seeing our very own Box Elders play at punk wonderland Red 7 on the last day of the festival, I tracked down Jeremiah McIntyre to congratulate him. The first words out of his mouth after saying “thank you” were “Buy us some beers, man, we are so broke right now.”

Look, if you’re PJ Harvey or even Cursive, you’re probably doing SXSW in style, but if you’re an up-and-coming band just signed to a label — or one of the few that’s unsigned — the decision to play SXSW comes with a financial cost that may make you think twice before accepting the invitation. Then again, you’d be stupid to turn it down.

“We’d never been to South By Southwest,” said McIntyre a week later. “I’d do it again as long as I didn’t have to do any of the work.” Box Elders, which also include brother Clayton McIntyre and drummer/keyboardist Dave Goldberg, played five times at the festival. Jeremiah said other than the performances, SXSW was a chance to meet the folks from Goner Records, the label that’s releasing their new album in July.

“Goner wanted to get everyone together to meet and do some work,” he said. “It was really informal. We met the publicist who’ll be working on our record and a couple people who might do booking for us. Booking our own shows is a real drag.”

Does SXSW provide advantages for unsigned bands to find a label? “I guess,” McIntyre said. “The whole signed/unsigned thing seems irrelevant these days. Signed to what? Do people really buy records on labels anymore?”

Robb Nansel, executive at Saddle Creek Records, certainly hopes so. He’s gone down to Austin for the past nine years.

“I do feel like it’s worthwhile to be there,” he said from a conference room in his Saddle Creek offices. “You may only be playing to 10 people, but the likelihood is that three of them are booking agents, two are writing for a magazine and two are at record labels.”

As an example, Nansel said that Saddle Creek fleshed out its relationship with Two Gallants at SXSW. “We met them down there, we saw them perform and then we went up and spoke to them and set up a time to spend a couple hours together to talk and not watch bands,” Nansel said. “And the rest is history.”

He insists that there are plenty of unsigned bands still invited to the festival, and that it provides a great A&R opportunity to scout talent. “From a label’s perspective, I go there for four reasons,” he said. “To support our bands, to hopefully see new bands we’re excited about, to see all of our friends that we don’t get to see that live in other cities, and to conduct business with managers, booking agents, press people and publicists. The whole industry is there.”

I was surprised to find that labels aren’t charged to host showcases at SXSW. Saddle Creek, who tries to do a showcase annually, merely makes the request and sends the list of participating bands, then SXSW organizers decide on the venue. Last year, Creek’s night showcase was at The Dirty Dog. “We’re never playing there again,” Nansel said. This year they got the larger, nicer Radio Room. I also thought that bands were playing for free. Not so, said Nansel. Participating bands can choose between getting $200 or a single badge that will get one of the members into all the clubs. The rest of the band members get wristbands, which means dealing with long lines.

Among those playing the Saddle Creek showcase was Beep Beep. Frontman Eric Bemberger said playing SXSW was worth it for a myriad of reasons, but for him it was a chance to see a lot of bands he might never have had a chance to see, like punk legends The Homosexuals and Canadian indie band Mother Mother. “It was the adult equivalent of Disney Land,” Bemberger said.

“As far as propelling the band, I can’t think of too many examples,” he added. “There was someone that attended our show that said, ‘I run this venue in Sacramento, give this card to your booking agent.’ Stuff like that. There were people who wanted to do video interviews that many not have if they hadn’t seen us play.

But if you’re unsigned…

“The practicality of South By Southwest is slowly but surely disappearing,” Bemberger said. “There are bands who are self-released that work so hard to get there that are overshadowed by all these self-gratifying hyped showcases and parties. But other people, who are trying to make music and lasting connections and find someone to support on their next tour, all that is valuable. Record labels, what are they anymore, anyway?”

That’s it for SXSW for this year. Time to book my hotel for next year.

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