I'm lost in the Austin Convention Center but my sense of displacement goes much deeper than figuring out which escalator/hallway combination to take. I'm here -- like many others -- for South by Southwest, the insular and self-congratulatory orgy the music business undertakes every year under the pretense of "sharing ideas" and "finding new bands." But everyone knows that's crap. Nobody goes to see unfamiliar bands, nobody hears any new ideas at any of the panels and nobody does much of anything beyond "networking" and jostling to be at that hour's can't-miss show so they're sure to be seen.
Perhaps that's a bitter outlook, but 2004 marked my seventh visit to SXSW and I've gotten a pretty good feel for the event. Despite the beer-soaked fun and nonstop music, it really is a 24/7 bullshit explosion, due primarily to the fact that it's populated almost completely by "music business" people who know nothing about either. After this fact was clarified a few years ago for me, I vowed never to return, on purely ethical grounds. But, after my righteous hiatus, here I am, having deduced two things: 1) most everyone that had a job at a record label five years ago has been fired and, 2) there were some good Orlando bands playing and I wanted to see how they'd fare.
So I was determined to make something different out of this trip and, in addition to hometown bands, I'd make it a point to only go see bands I never heard of based solely on their name or, more importantly, the reverse proportion of "hype" attached to their show. I'd even go to one -- maybe two -- of the panels. I'd avoid the schmoozing, business-card-trading fucks who made previous visits so obnoxious and I'd only hang out with people I liked. It would be fun and inspiring and, without a doubt, I'd come away refreshed and invigorated and excited about the new possibilities in "the business."
Boy, was I naïve, which leads me back to my current situation. I'm wandering empty hallways on the ass-opposite end of the Convention Center from where I'm supposed to be. I'm with two friends; one's a major label publicist and the other runs a production company that books shows into several large L.A. venues. We're pretty sure we're not idiots, but our collected decades in the business aren't of much assistance in this grey cavern of doom. Locating the beer backstage we can handle. Finding Meeting Room 44A we cannot. This tiny irony is lost on none of us as the sheer ridiculousness of the situation sets in, along with the attendant realization that "real-world skills" are not paramount in this business.
Once we find our way, my publicist friend begins to tell a story, prompted by the sighting of an A&R person from his label in the hallway. Without going into too much detail, I quickly realize that this person is responsible for signing some of the label's less-than-creative acts. I've long postulated that A&R people like this -- with their below-average, trend-hopping, anonymous signings -- are far more to blame than file-sharing for the spiraling downturn the business has suffered from lately. My theory is soon validated by the story I'm being told.
"One day I'm talking to some people and this guy is in the room with us. And I start talking about how mediocre is the new great, how we're signing all these bands that are, really, average at best and everyone who sees them is all, 'Oh, they're so great.' And how that's just the language we're required to use: Everything's great, even if -- especially if -- it's crap. Really great bands aren't all that common, you know, but it seems like everywhere you look, 'There's another great band!'
"So anyway, this guy" -- the A&R person we just spied -- "goes into an A&R meeting the next day ... this guy who wouldn't know a great band if they came up and kicked him in the ass ... he goes into this meeting and starts talking about 'mediocre is the new great.' Now, I don't really mind the guy using my line, but this guy, who's responsible for more mediocre stuff than anyone else ... that's just too rich."
And that was the dominant theme for the four days: Mediocrity is the new greatness, originality is highly underappreciated and the only way you're going to find success in this business is to impress some douchebag who can't even come up with his own catchphrases.
Percentages and platitudes
Between parties in the afternoon, showcases at night and various other performances, I saw probably 100 bands at this year's SXSW. (Labels/magazines/culture-hustlers have turned the laid-back afternoon parties of previous years into crass precursors of the "official" evening showcases, so you're pretty much seeing a band or two every hour from noon to 2 a.m.) Luckily, 100 is a nice round number, so it's somewhat expedient to break down the results of this year's sojourn.
Things that were truly great (2%): American Music Club's afternoon performance at some booking agency's party. Having kicked off their "reunion tour" a couple weeks earlier, you'd have thought they would've shaken much of the dust off their boots by now, but their show the night before at Bigsby's was apparently sort of a drag, depending heavily on new songs played shakily. (I didn't go; as a big AMC fan I certainly didn't want to see them again for the first time in a decade at an overcrowded SXSW event.) This afternoon show, however, was exactly what I needed, especially since I didn't even know they were playing. Literally, I walk in and there's Mark Eitzel and the gang on stage getting ready to play. When the band kicked off with "Outside This Bar," from 1987's Engine album, the goosebumps started screaming down my back for only the second time during SXSW.
The first time the 'bumps came was during a set by New York band Vietnam at a cavernous, Western-style pool hall called Buffalo Billiards. The venue's motif was completely at odds with the band's dramatic/oceanic sound -- think Bad Seeds meets My Bloody Valentine meets Dirty Three with Dave Grohl as a vocalist -- but the ease with which Vietnam completely filled the room with their powerful sound was nothing but impressive. I bought the five-song EP the band was selling, I was so impressed, but sadly, it didn't quite live up to the sturm und drang Vietnam delivered on stage.
Promises not delivered (4%): With names like Black Cock, I Love You but I've Chosen Darkness, Living Better Electrically and MC Trachiotomy, you'd expect some pretty "great" stuff, right? Well, these four acts proved the failings of my see-bands-with-good-names theory. Black Cock was an Austin math-rock band wrapped head-to-toe in white gauze. They should have played one kick-ass song and left, but they played a lot more than just one song, so I left. ILYBICD was INTERPOL and Living Better Electrically was relentlessly average power-pop. (Yawning yet?) If Neil Hamburger were a rapper and not a stand-up comic, he'd be MC Trachiotomy. That's not a good thing. In fact, none of these things were good things.
Expected excellence, got pretty-goodness (4%): You already know the deal with Jean Grae (rhyme-spitter of the highest order), Dengue Fever (American kids playing Cambodian pop), Bad Wizard (raunchy, deep-fried redneck metal ... there were probably a dozen bands plying this "genre" at SXSW this year, by the way) and Calexico (atmospheric desert swing). I know the deal too, so I'm not sure why I went to see these shows. But I did. And they were good. Impressive, even. However, "great" did not apply. (In the case of Metal Urbain -- the French, anti-fascist, slogan clangers that Steve Albini claims as a primary influence -- I was expecting stupid greatness, but I just got pretension.)
Puzzling (2%): Metal Urbain are claimed by Steve Albini as a huge influence. Of course they are: French, anti-fascist slogan-wielding electro-clangers are just the sort of thing you can see Albini listening to in college. Reunited to promote a retrospective CD, they stood out like a sore thumb at SXSW with their earnestness, their righteousness, their Frenchness and their oldness. Equally head-scratching was the Ghostly International showcase. SXSW usually throws a sop or two to hip-hop and electronic music, and given the consistent quality coming from Ghostly, it was unsurprising that their showcase -- which featured a full-band Dykehouse, Midwest Product, Luisine and, yes, Matthew Dear -- was unlike any of the other label nights around town. Wildly variant, wildly interesting and just plain fucking wild.
Overwhelmingly underwhelmed (85%): In the interest of morbid curiosity, I decided to check out a performance by French actress Julie Delpy, but there was a huge line and, from the street, all I saw was the back of her head. This was generally the same sensation that I got from seeing most of the other bands on my SXSW slate: I may as well have been standing on the street, looking at the backs of their heads, wondering just what the hell made them think they deserved to be up there. Sure, a lot of them were talented and skilled and whatever; what's truly shocking is how so few of them stood out. Mired in rock/punk/indie formalism and dying to "make it" so they could foist their averageness on the rest of the world, so many of the bands that had pinned their rock dreams on a 40-minute slot in Austin have just become a muddled blur in the minds of most of the people who saw them. Which brings us to the final three percent ...
Really awesome, but totally depressing (3%): The saddest moment of this year's SXSW festival for me came at 8:31 p.m. on Saturday, March 20. The Studdogs had just wrapped up a typically blistering set, opening a night of rockabilly and trash rock sponsored by Sympathy for the Record Industry. Dexter Romweber (Flat Duo Jets) was up next. The Bloody Hollies and Scarling (featuring ex-members of Dirty Barby) were on the bill. This should have been prime exposure for the band and a small step on Orlando's road to rock vindication after the Creed years. Beer had been spilt, mics had been broken and rock had been played. The 'Dogs were absolutely explosive ... for a crowd of exactly five people. If a tree falls in the forest, you know? ("Fuck it," said Studdogs vocalist Rich of the paltry turnout. "We're seeing a shitload of awesome bands and we're all having a great time.") Similarly, My Hotel Year didn't even get accepted into a formal SXSW showcase and were forced into an unofficial evening gig at some shithole called the Dizzy Rooster. Amazingly, they pulled in a decent crowd (many of whom were singing along) and delivered a typically blistering show. I'm actually not sure if The Kick were awesome or not, because they were playing at some bar that was, like, far away and stuff. And they were on a bill with Papa Roach. Surely this was a good career move for them, and word has it that they performed admirably, but nothing's gonna get me to climb in a cab to fight the crowd at a Papa Roach gig to see an Orlando band. Nothing. And that's totally depressing.
The play-showcase-get-exposure orientation of SXSW has turned into its most devastating drawback. Were it simply about "seeing a shitload of awesome bands," it would be perfect, because that's definitely happening. But what's not happening is hard-working bands catching breaks. A couple of business cards, a few free beers, sure. But the focus is all on established or well-connected bands cementing their foothold within the industry. If you don't have a "buzz" coming in, you certainly won't have one coming out.
After years of attending SXSW and seeing this attitude in action, it was with grave trepidation that I approached the Florida Music Festival last year. Almost all the literature and conversation about FMF focused on "industry reps" and getting signed and networking and the bullshit that sucks every ounce of real life out of an event (not to mention a music scene) and I was understandably skeptical, if not dismissive. Not until my feet actually hit the pavement that weekend did I realize that FMF is a real gem.
Yeah, there is a disproportionately high number of tremendously mediocre bands trying to get attention from the low-on-the-totem-pole "industry reps" who can be seen "scouting." Yes, there are panels that continue to recycle the tropes and truisms that have been Music Business 101 for years.
But if you get beyond that -- trust me, it's not hard -- you'll realize that what we've got going on downtown for one weekend in April is the opportunity to "see a shitload of awesome bands."
By no means is FMF as important or as wide-ranging as SXSW, and that works to its benefit. By focusing on local and regional talent (with a smidgen of out-of-area bands) and giving them the opportunity to play before music fans, rather than jaded beancounters, FMF is organic, exciting and about the joy of seeing lots and lots of live music in a convenient and cheap setting.
I can't help but notice that the "play FMF and get signed" rhetoric has been toned down for this year's festival, and I must heartily applaud the organizers for making such a choice. Orlando doesn't need its own version of SXSW. It needs the Florida Music Festival.