In its 23rd year, the South by Southwest Music & Media Conference remains the premier annual music fest in America--a combination of the Cannes or Sundance film festivals and Spring Break, as well as the most accurate barometer for the state of the music industry at any given moment.
A major question hovered over Austin on Wednesday, however, at the start of four days of seminars and panel discussions and four nights of showcase gigs by musicians who traveled to the Texas capital from across the U.S. and around the world.
How would the global financial crisis--not to mention the death rattle of the old-school music business--be felt at SXSW 2009?
Sociologists hold that in troubled times, people rely on the transformative and transcendental powers of great music more than ever, and conference organizers have been upbeat. Last week, they put out a press release with the headline "Off Key Economy Won't Hit Sour Notes at SXSW Music 2009," and SXSW co-founder Roland Swenson has told several newspapers that the fest has only seen a decrease in registrations of between 10 and 15 percent.
That means there still are more than 10,000 paying conference-goers and credentialed performers and journalists here, on top of untold thousands more who filter into town for unofficial gigs or to crash the many parties. And if the major labels barely are a presence here anymore, the role they once filled in presenting lavish, "see and be seen" parties and showcase gigs has been filled by an odd mix of semi-celebrities (including TV cook and talk show host Rachel Ray and online gossip columnist Perez Hilton) and a bounty of corporate sponsors all eager to grab some cool and some credibility by sidling up to the musicians (and this list rangers from Levi's jeans to the porno producers Vivid Video).
On the other hand, the bag of promotional junk given to each conference attendee has never been lighter during the nearly two decades that I've covered the festival, especially in terms of the usual hefty stack of music magazines and alternative weekly newspapers, which have dwindled to a mere handful. And it isn't only the ink-stained wretches who are suffering: A significant group of blogging and Twittering music fans who couldn't afford to make the trip have been posting accounts of their experiences while staying home on a site called www.notatsxsw.com as a sort of defiant protest of missing out on all the fun in Texas.
The bottom line would seem to be that there are good signs and bad signs for the music world, but overall, things are as confusing in this industry at the moment as they are in every other segment of the economy today.
For me, the first day of panels at the Austin Convention Center started with an entertaining session entitled "Annoying Things That Bands Do," offered from the perspective of a group of club owners including Tim and Katie Tuten, co-owners of the Hideout in Chicago.
The panel spun off of a list of the "Top 39 Annoying Things That Bands Do," compiled by the workers at a now-defunct St. Louis rock club called the Creepy Crawl and widely circulated on the Internet, running down some of the many things those self-centered artistes do to aggravate people in the business of presenting live music. ("5. Local bands that have a girlfriend as their manager... 7. Bands that have more roadies than band members...," and so on.)
The panelists added some gripes of their own--Tim Tuten said a surprising number of bands show up at the club and ask, "Uh, do you have an amp?"--but for the most part, they maintained that it's an honor to host artists in what essentially are their homes, and they just encouraged the musicians to communicate their needs in advance--and maybe say thanks and please once in a while, just like mom used to ask.
The importance of time-honored values such as organization and hard work also was a recurring theme at a panel called "Artist as Entrepreneur" devoted to discussing how artists can navigate the brave new world where they're promoting themselves and trying to make a living without managers, booking agents, radio promotions teams and record labels--at least until they get to the level of, say, Madonna or U2.
"This is a great time to be an artist," said the one artist on the panel, New York-based alternative-folkie Rachael Sage. "All of the gatekeepers between the artists and the fans are not there anymore," and artists can directly connect with the people who support their music.
Derek Sivers, who founded CD Baby, an online store for independent music, said that the center of the bull's eye that once represented success in the music business is now missing. "There is no middle anymore--there won't ever be another TV show like ['The] Mary Tyler Moore [Show'] or 'M*A*S*H' that everybody watches, and there won't ever be another Beatles. Artists now have to aim for the edges."
Jeff Price, CEO of the digital music distribution company Tunecore, added that an artist can have significant success even by catering to a very select niche audience. He cited the example of comedian Liam Sullivan, who filmed a $250 video for a song he wrote called "Shoes." The video became a YouTube phenomenon, and Sullivan then went on to sell a million paid downloads of the song.
Panos Panay, founder of Sonic Bids, a social networking Web site devoted to connecting bands with promoters who might want to book them, concluded that "the economic downturn might actually be a great time to start a business" and that "people who are out of work actually have the courage sometimes to try things that they might never do in a good economy." (In the music biz as everywhere else, people are looking for silver linings wherever they can find them.)
In the end, the best example of the musician as entrepreneur that I ran across on day one was an officially unsanctioned party at a Sixth Street bar called Paradise organized by Chicago singer and songwriter Tom Schraeder. Running 15 hours from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. and featuring 15 acts that mostly don't have official gigs elsewhere during the festival, the idea started in response to that ubiquitous, sometimes obnoxious corporate presence mentioned earlier.
"Last year there were a lot of people saying South by was going all corporate," Schraeder said midway through a short but brilliant set with his five-piece alternative-country backing band. "I wanted to do something from the musicians' point of view. But it turns out the corporations really wanted to be a part of it, and in the end, they came by to give away a lot of free stuff" (including bar snacks and vitamin water).
Schraeder still is promoting his second indie album, "Lying Through Dinner" (2008), recorded during a 12-week sojourn in Austin last year. But at 25, this is one hardworking musician and aspiring entrepreneur who has big plans and the ability to ignore anyone who tries to tell him "that just isn't the way things are done." He is gearing up to record not one but three new albums--one's in the vein of Replacements leader Paul Westerberg, another's inspired by Sparklehorse and the "official" release is in the mode of "the Beatles meet Roy Orbison," he says--and the first two will be given away free to anyone who buys the third.
If that isn't the artist as entrepreneur and the spirit that makes SXSW great, I don't know what is.