Talent Auction in Austin

By Noah Lopez

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Thousands of music professionals, artists, and media members converged in Austin, Texas last week for the ninth annual South By Southwest Music and Media Conference (SXSW) a five day whirlwind festival of music, media and business.

Hordes of people walked the halls of the Austin Convention Center last week, their laminated badges swinging from their necks as they earnestly tried to find someone to take the time to listen to their spiel. It was impossible to have someone take the microphone at one of the many panel discussions and not preface their comments with a shameless plug concerning who they were and what they were representing. Hundreds of hopeful musicians roamed the corridors, a boxes of demo tapes in their arms to offer to any A&R guy (the people immediately responsible for signing and developing new artists) who made the mistake of standing still for too long.

The main ballroom of the Center was filled with the SXSW Trade Show, in which hopeful music distributors, song publishers and CD manufacturers waited for someone to come and make a business arrangement with them. In the various panel discussions, angry artists pestered record label and radio representatives about why their demo tapes hadn't been played yet in Los Angeles or New York. Next door might be a representative from MicroSoft telling musicians and record people how computers hold the key to music's future or musicians Mojo Nixon and Al Kooper could be sharing anecdotes from the music world. Whatever your interest in music is, be it music fan or music lawyer, the South By Southwest Music and Media Conference has something for you.

The conference was officially opened Thursday morning by former Hsker D guitarist and modern-rock legend Bob Mould, whose keynote speech consisted of a free-form ad-lib warning about how to handle the ensuing four-day schmoozefest.

"Artists know what you want from your music. Develop a vision and stick to it. Don't let anybody change what your vision is. That is so important because you will meet a lot of people out there who won't give a shit what you want. And the record companies that are here, the publishing people, please remember that these artists are human. They are not a commodity," Mould pleaded.

It was easy to dismiss Mould's rambling and cynical admonition as a biased refusal to forgive and forget the many trials and tribulations he has had working with record labels over the past fifteen years. But as the conference went on, the true wisdom of his words were exposed.

"There are a lot of people here who are reeling themselves in the hopes of getting a major label deal, but the rope they are using to reel themselves in is imaginary. It's invisible. And when they realize that, it's a long hard drop to the bottom," said artist and underground celebrity Robyn Hitchcock later that week in a Wildcat interview. "It's sad really. I just talked to two people who were trying to get in the industry at any cost. One was a singer/songwriter, and the other was an engineer. I wanted to tell them that the chances are very small for either of them to make it, but it's really hard to do that."

Apparently no one else wanted to tell the rest of the hopefuls either, as masses of business cards and CD's were exchanged. The only havens of near honesty were the hourly demo tape listenings, where proponents of various genres of music gathered to have a couple of A&R people critique their efforts. In the "Alternative" demo listening session, RCA Records' Franz Fleischli and MCA Records rep Kelly Walker both attempted to make polite and encouraging comments on the various listenings, but soon were unable to contain themselves.

"You know," Franz spat out as he slammed the tape deck off. "I don't know about you guys, but I'm starting to get a little pissed off here. To me, alternative music has always meant good music. Different music. This isn't either. This is shit."

Not that the A&R platoon that attended the conference was anything to boast about either. The opening panel, "A&R: Understanding the Process," was meant to be an overview of the process of finding new talent, nurturing developing artists, and dealing with established acts. In addition to this, the seven A&R personnel were to play a demo and a finished song by an artist they work with, to give an idea of what they look for in new talent, and where they hope to take them. None of this happened.

After a brief discussion of when a band is ready to be signed, and an even more superficial discussion of how some bands are cast aside once they are signed, the panel quickly devolved into name calling and an incredibly inane monologue by Interscope Records representative Anna Statman. By the time Statman finished with her amateur conspiracy theories (the main one centering around whether or not Soundgarden had already been signed to A&M Records when they put out their first two independent albums), Matador Records head Gerard Cosloy and others were irritated to the point that they ended panel discussion and began fielding questions from the audience. As it would with nearly every panel Q&A, the questions quickly fell into the "What will make you like my music?" sort.

Other panels were centered around more constructional topics on music. Among these were "Panic In the Streets," a journalism-based panel exploring the many changes that occurred in the 1994 music industry and how the many corporate shake-ups will impact music in the future. Even this panel, however, found its focus shifting to include the Ticketmaster/Pearl Jam conflict and the way that Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner's homosexuality was handled by the press. Similarly, a panel on "Americana" music the new classification for the quickly growing new breed of "alternative country" acts such as Lyle Lovett and Tish Hinojosa was broadened to include adult alternative radio and a discussion on what is and what is not alternative country. After the once-tightly-focused panel began to unravel, the discussion was brought to a close by an impromptu performance by Austin Songwriter of the Year for 1995 Jimmy LaFave.

At the heart of the panels, however, is an unrelenting view of music as business. Music as a way to make money. For the artist, this is the ideal dream, and as such many panels are constructed around such topics as "Getting Somewhere From Anywhere" or "Finding Money For Music." This only fuels the overwhelming feeling that a lot of dreams are out there waiting to be broken.

"That is a really depressing aspect of the conference, but that's reality, you know? It's the same in any business. And music is a business. It has to be if people want to be able to make music and still survive," Mould offered. "It's a fact of life. It's something I'm trying to step back from now. I just had a really hectic year. I just want to step back and stay out of the public eye for the rest of the year. Relax and write some new songs. But I have to do one to do the other."

Even the more interesting panels, such as the "Americana" panel, existed purely to expose and sell something. "Jazz and New Music: The Original Alternatives" asked why so-called alternative magazines, college papers and college radio often ignore avant-garde jazz and other experimental forms that have always been riding the cutting edge. And while the discussion was educational, the underlying intent seemed to be for the panelists sell their artists to the audience.

With such impassioned sales attempts come impassioned salespeople. A wide variety of music heavy hitters could be seen walking the halls of the Austin Convention Center, from alternarocker Henry Rollins to former Bad Religion guitarist/Epitaph Records owner Brett Gurewitz. The hobnobbing continued late into the night where buzz bands were quickly established as the bands to catch. At such gatherings, it was not uncommon to find huge crowds waiting to get in, or, more likely, a lot of industry types standing around looking around to see who else was there.

But nothing could diminish the impact of the nightly music festival. With nearly 500 bands crammed into 32 venues in four nights, downtown Austin was literally alive with music. Only with the nightly reprieve from the day's business transactions and workshops were music fans truly able to focus in on what had brought everybody to Austin in the first place.

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