Recording-Industry Honchos Scout Austin
For four days, bands from 20 countries rocked Texas and played for wider exposure as well as record contracts
AUSTIN, TEXAS — MUSICIANS and music-industry executives gave each other an earful of both sound and sound advice last week. The seventh annual South by Southwest Music and Media Conference (SXSW) brought 3,800 participants from 20 countries to Austin for four days of live performances and industry panel discussions.
"I consider South by Southwest among the most important [of a dozen such conferences in the United States]," said Ron Oberman, senior vice president of MCA Records in Universal City, Calif.
"Austin is very conducive to music," he added.
SXSW's organizers waded through 2,700 tapes to select 400 groups, including 100 from around Austin, to perform at dozens of clubs around the city.
Each band had just one 40-minute set with no sound check in which to showcase its act for swarms of music journalists, agents, and record-label talent scouts.
"I haven't yet signed a band from going to a convention or listening to a demo tape," says five-time SXSW attendee Terry Tolkin, an executive at the Time Warner label Elektra Entertainment in New York. "But it doesn't mean that I wouldn't. I can hear one song and hear what I need to hear."
Scores of foreign bands made the cut and the trip, including Ghost of an American Airman, a rock foursome from Belfast whose atmospheric melodies prompt comparisons to Dublin's U2.
"If we can get more radio interviews or any kind of media ... it obviously helps the band along," said Dodge, the group's vocalist.
During daylight hours it was the musicians' turn to listen. Industry executives explained how to make a living making music in workshops like "Getting out of the wrong deal," "The work starts when you're signed," "Band as a business," "Tour manager/road crew," and "Developing a new artist."
One question musicians must ask themselves before choosing a label is, how far do they want to go?
"We're not really in the business of hit records," said Seymour Guenther, vice president of the folk label Flying Fish Records in Chicago. Artists who sign with his label should have "a different set of expectations."
That holds true of most independents, with the notable exception of Priority Records, a gold-selling rap label. Ice-T of "Cop Killer" infamy joined Priority after Warner dropped him.
On the other hand, just as one-time independent label Vee Jay sold their contract with the Beatles to Capitol, today's independents still discover and prove new bands for the "Big Six" - MCA, Sony, Warner, Polygram, BMG, and Capitol.
"I have to accept that I'm a small label with limited resources," said Glenn Morrow, co-owner of Bar/None Records in Hoboken, N.J. "I'm more interested in developing acts and ultimately sending them on to bigger and better things."
Mr. Morrow said that if one of his artists sells 20,000 records, "the majors start sniffing around." At 60,000 copies, "you probably have some kind of bidding war on your hands."
"I only want to work with artists here who understand the entire scope of major and minor," Elektra's Mr. Tolkin said.
"When they sign that contract, they're an employee like the person here who types things into the computer or the mail-room people. If they're not going to work hard at it ... I shouldn't sign them in the first place."
SXSW managing director Roland Swenson expected 200 people to visit the first conference in 1987, which was limited then to regional acts. But as word got out, "all of a sudden, the phone started ringing off the wall," he recalled. Actual attendance topped 700, thanks in part to Austin's reputation as a "great music town."
"Austin, more than any other convention, is really about quality music and lots of it," Bar/None's Morrow said.
Tolkin added: "It's not as tense and corporate and overly schmoozy as the other music conventions get. There's a lot more emphasis on the live music." But his assessment was challenged by Mark Rubin.
"The color of money is very much the law here at SXSW," said Mr. Rubin, a member of the self-managed Bad Livers. The trio's traditional, banjo-based music is shunned by folk venues but welcomed by punk rockers who "respect our attitude" of "reckless abandon."
Rubin, a friend of the SXSW organizers and one of this year's panelists, admits that the Bad Livers' performances at the previous two SXSW conferences has landed bookings and sold albums. But as an artist, he said, "it's oftentimes no fun to be around people talking about your music the way a bunch of soap salesmen would be talking about soap."