Is the recession over yet? Last March, as the bands, labels, writers, agents, managers, bookers, publicists and fans converged on Austin, Texas, for the annual South by Southwest music conference, a decree rang through the streets that it was safe to get paid. South by Southwest (SXSW), the annual binge that's as important to breaking new bands (like Franz Ferdinand last year and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs the year prior) as it is to taking a rectal temperature of the industry, spiked in attendance and sponsorships. The scent of freshly minted cash overpowered the smoke chugging from nearby Ironworks BBQ, and as a result, the mood on the streets and convention floor was giddy.
Speculation that attendance was up 20 percent from last year ran rampant. The statistic was confirmed by hot dog vendors, cops, ice deliverymen and taxi drivers-the latter in agreement that it was the busiest SXSW ever. Long lines, traffic and gridlock-and if you picked up your badge from 2 to 8pm on opening day, an hour-long wait just to get fitted-were a standard grumble.
Corporations like Scion, MSN, Sprint and even a dotcom or two (Myspace, the social-networking site, rolled up in a pimped-out logo-wrapped tour bus) were dipping toes, testing the waters. Carmaker Scion put faith in the younger generation of consumers. Its unofficial showcases with MF Doom, Helmet, DJ P, Dakah and Breakestra generated more buzz than the usually hipster-hot Spin magazine party and major-label bashes. In effect, Scion was the empathetic sugar daddy to the label's strict guardian figure, withholding allowance and car keys. As a rapper from the hip-hop symphonic orchestra Dakah said, "Scion brought 70 of us here to Austin. No record company would do that."
Whereas past conference topics focused on stemming the bleeding caused by digital downloading, much of the 2005 talk was on the myriad of ways to make money off of technology. "Accounting for Digital Sales," "Ringtones as Income Stream," "Models of Digital Distribution," "Music and Money" and "Making Music Mobile" all addressed the lucrative dollars available in portable players.
The traditional distribution methods (you know, buying a CD from the local store) as discussed at the "Shape of Things to Come" panel seemed old-fashioned. Sandy Pearlman brought up a 5-cent-per-song download business model. Peter Jenner of Sincere Management suggested that CDs double in price to $25, where owning a tangible CD achieves the same cache as a coffee-table book. A panelist from Yahoo! Music suggested that kids today don't want to own music, they just want access to it. The panel-which should have been titled "How to Make Money Off Music After Getting Our Asses Kicked for the Past Five Years"-points to the music industry finally waving the white flag, as if to say: We can't shut down illegal copying and distribution of music; so how do we buy in?
Two years ago, the man many hold responsible for this transgression would have been ambushed Texas-style by a militia lead by the RIAA's Hilary Rosen, label guy Miles Copeland and diminutive download poo-poo'er Lars Ulrich. Instead, Napster's Shawn Fanning walked through the Austin Convention Center corridors without a Kevlar jacket to participate in an interview with Tracks magazine editor Alan Light.
Fanning was pushing Snocap, his latest scheme to make content delivery, copyright management and digital licensing more tasteful. In extreme shorthand (Fanning was speaking indecipherable jargon gobbledygook), Snocap identifies music files being traded through file-swapping networks, determines whether they are authorized and attaches a price tag to them. He's secured deals with Universal MG and Sony. A peer-to-peer filtering venture, Snocap seems to be Fanning's conciliatory way of making amends to an industry that he transformed and ultimately damaged. Snocap appears to be a very low dose of Levitra, compared to Napster's ecstasy/Viagra/ghb cocktail, and his attitude reflected it. "I was very passionate in the beginning [of Napster]," Fanning said. "When we went to look into licensing, the magic was gone."
Better still is a new peer-to-peer music-distribution software company called Weed. Music fans can download tracks and get three free spins; they are then encouraged to buy the song for unlimited burns. Jellyfish's Roger Manning recently recorded some new songs and put them up on the Weedshare. With one email to a Jellyfish message board directing fans to the site, Weed claims to have made $256 in three days with no tangible CDs, no advertising, no printing costs, no overhead. The copyright holder receives 50 percent royalty rate, Weed gets 15 percent service and software costs and the fan that passes the music along gets 20 percent commission if a friend buys the track. The remaining 15 percent is divided among other file-sharers along the way. Fanning seemed visibly gassed when mentioning Weed, as if he stepped in the slowest line at Costco. Weed's payment structure was the direction Napster should have gone.
Another person visibly gassed was Erykah Badu. Her talk and ensuing showcase focused on the launch of Control FreaQ-a boutique label that she hopes will "free the slaves and free the masters" ("masters" referring to master tapes). She didn't hide her distaste about how signing away some of her publishing rights affected her livelihood. Control FreaQ attempts to amend that by giving artists control over their master tapes. A Control FreaQ showcase at Austin Music Hall starring Badu and protˇgˇs Strange Fruit Project, Devin the Dude, Nayrock (Badu's Macy Gray/Tina Turner-channeling little sister) and Jay Electronica showed the pluses and limitations of the boutique label. On the plus side, Devin the Dude is pure money. Strange Fruit Project and Jay Electronica have potential. Nayrock was pretty awful. Who will tell Nayrock that her glam&B thing sucked? Her sister, the label head? Thankfully, Badu wiped them all out with an Austin Music Hall set that exuded brilliant star power.
If the days are all about thinking about money, SXSW nights are all about hearing a variety of music-the main reason why SXSW exists. Showcases blasted from block to block in the downtown Austin area, convention goers forming a herd that John Wayne in all his badass self couldn't control. On any given night, one could see a bunch of Welsh kids dissing your mom, a British Sri Lankan girl throwing lyrical grenades in a Caribbean bar, an Ottawa ingˇnue staring down her guitarist, a Japanese four-on-the-floor garage-rock band that likes steak and peanut butter and a 70-piece hip-hop symphony orchestra doing Roots and Gang Starr medleys.
If you were a straight rock fan, or into the whole Victory Records angst thing, you could come to Austin and be satiated, but it's the same level of satiation as when you gorge at McDonald's-the same bland taste, the same packaging, on a corner of your hometown. SXSW gave five nights to embrace the exotic.
The major trend of 2005: If the band could make beats, they would come-a leftover from 2004's Franz Ferdinand breakthrough. The more savvy badge holders were practically climbing the walls to get to the dance floor. Technology reflected this momentum shift. The Apple iBook was as common a stage presence as any guitar, bass or roadie butt crack. Evil 9, Gold Chains, DJ P, Saul Williams and countless others were rocking the party while making sure Steve Jobs has an endless supply of black turtlenecks.
But technological wizardry ain't everything. It takes skill. Fatboy Slim used vinyl, turntables, infrared sight and microscopic vision to turn the hangar at Stubb's Waller Creek Amphitheater into his own Brighton Beach. The pit swelled with dancers-the air cool but for the occasional waft of skunk weed and BO. Four Asian kids-one a spitting image of Tony Leung Chiu-Wai-were definitely in the moment, catching happy glares from the overfed industry cats breaking away from distortion pedals to understand all this big-beat stuff.
Yes, there were guitar-bass-drum bands still invested in dropping jaws. Asobi Seksu brought My Bloody Valentine punishment with soft vocals sung in Japanese. Sleater-Kinney mashed through a set comprised of songs from its new album, The Wood , due in May. Carrie Brownstein has excelled in her guitar work, and she wielded her ax with newfound confidence.
Though SXSW is swamped with domestic rock, indie, alt-country and roots-rock bands, the U.K. had a terrific rally-the Doves, Idlewild, Go! Team, M.I.A., Bloc Party, Rachel Fuller, the Music all made big splashes. Scotland supplanted Sweden as the country du jour. One of the most memorable SXSW groups was Goldie Lookin Chain, eight Welsh kids specializing in geeky comedic rap. Think the Young Ones on the set of Malibu's Most Wanted. The fellas went apeshit with a fully rehearsed and on-point stage show that bordered on the chaotic. They make manifest the line "let's get retarded" on the cheeky "Your Mom's Got a Penis."
The Go! Team, whose album Thunder, Lighting, Strike already sits in my Top 3 albums of 2005, had queues wrapped around the building. The live mix didn't have the same wicked sample-friendly aesthetic, and to compensate, rapper Ninja played cheerleader, encouraging the crowd to make noise, clap their hands, wave them from side to side.
A longer, 90-minute wait greeted those outside of Elysium nightclub where British Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. held court with Ratatat, Electrocute, DJ Z-Trip, Hot Chip and LCD Soundsystem. DJ Z-Trip played some favorite routines (Janis Joplin's "Mercedes Benz" over DJ Shadow's "Walkie Talkie") and brought out collaborator Busdriver for a couple of songs off Z-Trip's major-label debut, Shifting Gears , due in May.
Ratatat-a pair of New Yorkers with guitars, a drum machine, an eighth-grade AV setup and a fog machine-were merely a speed bump on the way to the festival's bona-fide buzz, M.I.A., who appeared from the clouds-literally, her airplane touched down from London two hours prior to her show. It must have been a first-class seat, because she completely slayed. The majestic Brazilian baile funk of "Bucky Done Gun" and her chit-chatter flow blasted out at maximum levels.
M.I.A. came off like a prom dress and solidified my feeling that she could be the Asian version of Missy Elliot. She closed with "Galang," its "yah-yah hey" chant knocking hipsters from their perches with deadly accuracy. An encore-an SXSW rarity-of the Baltimore club influenced "URAQT" was a tasty lagniappe. She crushed a Vice party the following day, planting her rebel flag square in Bush's backyard. "Austin, quiet down I need to make some noise/ Texas, quiet down I need to make some noise/ Bush, quiet down I need to make some noise/ America, quiet down I need to make some noise." The audience responded by not quieting down but roaring back lustily-a noise as loud, resonant and beautiful as you'll ever hear.