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We Are Houston, Hear Us Snore

In numbers too large for South By Southwest to ignore

Back in October, Racket wrote up a South By Southwest how-to in the hopes of improving our woeful representation at the biggest yearly event in the Live Music Capital of South Central Texas. He filled readers in on how to apply, and then clued them in on the game within the game, the politics that come after the official application has been sent in. Racket knew that we wouldn't come anywhere close to having as many bands represented as the host city, but in a fit of David Carr fever he hoped at least "we would do like the Texans and punk Dallas."

Well, folks, that didn't happen. Not even close.

Racket conducted a little unscientific experiment with the close-to-complete list of bands posted on the festival's Web site, www.sxsw.com. And the results were amazing. So far, 795 bands hailing from everywhere from the Congo to Tokyo have confirmed. Would you believe that 122 of the most badass bands in the world -- a full 15 percent! -- happen to reside right there in Austin? New York, Chicago and Los Angeles taken together only have about 120 on the bill so far, and as Austin's population is about a million, and there are 40 million people total in NYC, L.A. and Chicago, Austin bands have to be 40 times as good, per capita. Gee whiz, Austin really must be the Live Music Capital of the Whole Wide World.

Or perhaps Austin bands are cut a little more slack than bands from elsewhere. As former Suspect Bill Grady once put it, "How bad does your Austin band have to suck to not get invited to South By Southwest?"

Compadre Records secondary distribution head Greg Ellis takes a less militant tone. "It's who you know, to some degree," he says. "I would say that a lot of those bands are either South By Southwest volunteers or have friends that are staffers. There's the simple fact that the people who are choosing the music may have seen them five times in a year instead of having to judge them off of a demo."

South By Southwest's creative director Brent Grulke echoed Ellis's views. "We'll have a disproportionate number of Austin acts perform, but the reason for that is that they're in our backyard and we've heard of them, and we've seen them play live and we know that even if they've never made a terrific recording, they may be great live and they work very hard and are pursuing their music very seriously."

Behind Austin and the three largest cities in America comes not the fourth-largest city but Seattle, followed closely by our neighbor/rival to the north, Dallas-Fort Worth, with 22 acts invited for the short trip down I-35.

Way down the list, Houston chips in with seven acts. (Jesse Dayton is listed as hailing from Beaumont these days, and Chris Whitley is attributed to Houston even though he hasn't lived here since he was in diapers. Racket didn't count either of them in our tally.) That's right. As things stand now, according to our representation, the music of the largest city in Texas has about 6 percent of the music merit of that of the host city, and about a quarter of that of DFW. (To look on the bright side, Sacramento and Tulsa are represented by only four bands apiece, and we've almost caught up with Denton.)

So how much of the blame do we have to take for this travesty? And why does all of this matter?

Last question first. "I think it matters in that the artists that apply and get accepted can get a kind of validation, an acknowledgement that they have reached a point in their careers where they can hang with the big guys, so to speak," says Ellis.

Next, let's look at the bands that did make it: Clouseaux, Mando Saenz, Greg Wood, Swarm of Angels, Rusted Shut, Hayes Carll and Arthur Yoria. What most of these acts have in common is that they have some positive local energy going on: They've either just released an album and/or are touring or have a steady stream of local gigs. Also, all but one of them are just plain good bands (sorry, Don Walsh, but Rusted Shut's beauty lies elsewhere). "These are some of the best bands in town, so the selection process is not completely flawed," notes Ellis, who is nevertheless as puzzled as Racket by the inclusion of the cacophonous Rusted Shut.

Or as Grulke nutshells it, "Our belief is that the bands we accept are all excellent bands that have a chance to develop their careers. To the extent that acts are able to do that and sort of spearhead things in their region, then a lot of the time other acts can follow in their wake."

You couldn't call the Houston reps the hottest bands in town; conspicuously absent from this list are people like John Evans and Davin James (of course, those two guys are probably too busy and successful to sacrifice a weekend of higher-paying gigs). But they are bands who have worked hard and haven't been too proud to humble themselves before tiny audiences on the road -- even Rusted Shut fills that bill. Grulke says bands that don't play Austin are unlikely to get picked.

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