- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2003

Walking past the bars on 6th and 4th streets in Austin, Tex., you can always tell the musicians that don't have a record deal. They are the ones carrying their own guitar cases. Generally, the number of duct tape strips and band stickers date them like rings on a tree and tell you how long they have been on the road. Theresa Anderson is no exception. Her case is held together with a bungee cord.

Miss Anderson, a blond-haired blue eyed New Orleans rocker, has just pulled into town for her showcase at South By Southwest, Austin's annual music festival. Miss Anderson could sing the phone book and leave you wanting to hear her sing the New England Journal of Medicine for an encore. Taking the stage at Stubb's barbecue with one guitar and a single vocal mike, she might as well have the horsepower of a five-piece band behind her she owns the room. For Miss Anderson, as for many an independent artist on pilgrimage to Austin this week, it's a big night. "You never know who you are going to run into when you are at South By Southwest," she says.

South By Southwest (SXSW) was launched in 1987 by a group of Austin businessmen looking to promote the burgeoning Texas music scene. Ever since Willie and Waylon abandoned mainstream country in the '70s and began peddling their wares in Texas, Austin has been a mythic holy land for the musically weathered and whiskey bent.

Texas is a weird animal, and with the state's size and loyalty to its own, it can support lifelong careers for singer/songwriters who rarely stray beyond its borders. As one Nashville producer put it "I don't know who half these guys are and neither does anyone outside of Texas, but they all seem to be able to afford their own big shiny tour buses." They are the state's modern day folk heroes and tend to embody the unpolished ethos that is as native to Texas as Lone Star Beer.

While Austin's musical individuality and isolation is its strength, SXSW was an attempt to pry the lid off and let the world look inside. Elizabeth Derczo, one of the festival's organizers, says, "The idea was to gather the best of the independent artists in Texas (bands have to apply to play at the festival) and let them perform in front of a crowd of their peers and music industry representatives." In the festival's first years, Texas bands jumped at the chance in the hope of getting record deals and booking agents. In return, SXSW was an opportunity for these execs to compare notes for a week, flex their expense accounts and check out the best undiscovered talent Texas had to offer.

Since SXSW's debut 16 years ago, when only 700 people and 200 bands attended, the festival has grown to 6,000 registrants and 1,000 bands playing this year. While the organizers won't disclose the amount of money they pull in (armbands to get into all the shows are sold for $150 piece), it has clearly become a huge business. SXSW is the music industry's spring break and, according to Miss Derczo, it brings about $25 million a year to the city.

This influx of dollars and attendees has transformed more than just the spreadsheets. SXSW has moved way beyond just promoting homegrown acts, and the organizers have even opened offices in both Europe and Japan. It's not just about country and Texas swing anymore. Now you tend to find more tattoos and tongue rings roaming the streets of SXSW than cowboy hats.

But with all its changes, SXSW is arguably the most significant music industry trade show in the world. It draws most every music notable from Daniel Lanois (producer for U2, Peter Gabriel and Bob Dylan) to Luke Lewis (president of MCA/Lost Highway). But with this success has come a price.

This industry festival has become just that an "industry" festival.

Organizers still use the nicotine-stained image of Austin liberally in their promotional material, but each year the conference has less and less to do with the grass roots from which it came. As one entertainment lawyer at a showcase put it "SXSW has become more about record labels parading their latest and greatest acts than unearthing new talent."

But just try telling that to the new talent. Unsigned bands compete tooth and nail to get a showcase at SXSW. So how do organizers with their new industry sensibilities continue to get unsigned bands to flock here en masse? They peddle fame.

SXSW has become a gathering of the music mafia and all their made men that is without equal.

This is not lost on the organizers, and they dangle this presence without shame. A great deal of the conference dedicates itself to panel discussions with titles like "A&R in the Big Picture"(Artists and Repertoire, the industry's talent scouts), "Creating a Rock Biography," "When Should You Sign With a Major?" and "Label Heads Sound Off." Unsigned artists travel in herds to these panels in the hope that they might learn the industry's secret handshake or anything else that would allow them admission into this elite club.

Steven Hutton, the percussionist for the Fayetteville, Ark., independent band B-side, says that these panel discussions "are an opportunity to meet the right people and hopefully get a booking agent or a record deal." Unlike many, Mr. Hutton's eyes are open and he realizes that handing out demos here is a Hail Mary pass that will hopefully carom into the right hands. But, as he says, "Hey man, lightning strikes."

And here we arrive at the great irony that SXSW has become. Some of the best unsigned talent in the world is here. Record execs even dangle the keys to success at these panel discussions. But in the end, those acts that aren't already championed by a heavyweight manager or lawyer go pretty much unnoticed. What is left are hundreds of bands scrambling for attention in a way that would make a contestant on "The Bachelorette" blush. Come to Austin without pre-existing buzz, and chances are you'll leave with no more than a pocketful of business cards and a hangover.

Despite their willingness to dole out advice, record company representatives aren't shy about their agendas. Cate Smith from BMG came all the way from Australia just to promote two bands that aren't even playing at the festival. She appreciates the independent artists, but Miss Smith says, "Realistically that is not why I'm here." Record companies put a premium on generating industry buzz about their artist roster and SXSW affords one opportunity after another.

With the industry dominance at SXSW, there have been whiffs of a local mutiny. Clay Crawford, the doorman at the Cactus Cantina on 6th Street and an independent musician, shakes his head and says, "Most every local band that submits to SXSW either gets passed over or loses the good time slots to awful metal bands from overseas." As if in confirmation of Mr. Crawford's lament, Maggie Mae's, the oldest bar on Austin's strip, has two nights during the festival devoted exclusively to bands from Sweden. In response, some Austiners have taken to calling their unsponsored shows during festival week "South By So What." But even though these locals say they are happier kicking the mainstream's anthill than joining the corporate colony, you can't help but get the impression that it's mostly sour grapes.

SXSW is the best poker game in town, and it's tough for some locals that aren't being dealt in.

But Theresa Anderson refuses to be discouraged. "You don't get anywhere as an independent artist sitting on your couch out of protest," Miss Anderson says as she wraps the bungee cord back around her guitar case, sells a few CDs for gas money and gets ready to head back out on the road for her next show.


Billy Cerveny is a singer/songwriter and free-lance journalist based in Nashville, Tenn. He can be found at www.billycerveny.com

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