Brent Grulke, a former Austin Chronicle music writer and editor who rose to the head of SXSW's Music division, died Monday in Austin. The cause of death was a heart attack following oral surgery, wrote Raoul Hernandez, one of Grulke's successor as the paper's Music Editor, on the Chronicle's Web site.
Grulke had been with SXSW since its first year in 1987, beginning as a stage manager and rising to the position of Creative Director. He was in charge of booking the festival, which grew from a couple of hundred local and regional artists that played mostly roots and alternative rock to thousands of performers in almost every possible style of music practiced across the globe.
Grulke, who was 52, was a native of North Platte, Nebraska. In the early to mid-'80s, he attended the University of Texas at Austin, where he became Arts Editor at student newspaper The Daily Texan. He later became Music Editor at the Austin Chronicle, a position he held in the early '90s.
According to former Billboard Canadian bureau chief Larry LeBlanc's "Hot Seat" profile of Grulke that ran on the CelebrityAccess Web site (part of EventWire.com, a music-industry trade site), SXSW 2009 was projected to bring an economic impact of $110 million to the Austin economy, as it had long since branched out into SXSW Film and Interactive festivals.
Grulke told LeBlanc that he became Creative Director in 1995 after a year of booking panels. He wound up in Austin after deciding to move there after reading Jan Reid's 1974 book The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock, Grulke added.
"I read it in high school and thought, "I am going to Austin," he said.
Another profile of Grulke well worth reading is an interview he did with Austin fanzine Geek Weekly for its Spring 2001 issue. This one was much more off the cuff.
"Well, the most horrible thing about Austin in the old days was that it was really hard to find a job," said Grulke, who also worked as a sound engineer in Austin bands such as Doctor's Mob, the Killer Bees and the True Believers, as well as the A&R department of L.A.-based Spindletop Records. "As a consequence, it was really hard for anybody to make any money at all. It was just really hard to make money -- job or pursuit of art. It was really cheap, but it was really hard to find any work."
Grulke was also a friendly acquaintance of Rocks Off's from our own time at the Austin Chronicle. We know he would probably chuckle at being the subject of anyone's "Hot Seat."
The SXSW and Chronicle offices were next door, so we'd see him around from time to time and usually talked about the Astros -- this was when they were actually good, and there was lots of playoff talk.
When we were the paper's music-news columnist and SXSW was kicking into high gear around the beginning of January, we would walk across the volleyball court between the two buildings and ask Grulke to size up the coming festival.
The last time we really talked to Grulke in that job, it was our last year (2007) and SXSW had been withholding its list of performers -- which numbered some 1,300 artists -- longer than usual, longer than some in the media (blogs, mostly) really wanted, so many began publishing their own lists, including a crazy rumor reported by MTV that the surviving members of Nirvana would reunite with Texan Ben Kweller assuming the role of Kurt Cobain.
Grulke argued that withholding the names made sense because SXSW's bigger size meant it took more time to get the logistics in order, then reminded us that the event was created and designed for those who work within the music industry, not people just buying wristbands or waiting to see who was playing for free during the festival. But he was exceedingly gracious about it.
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"God bless 'em, [music fans] know that traditionally they've been able to go to SXSW shows, and they're not interested in whether it's an industry event or not," Grulke said. "Particularly the most hardcore, they just want to know who's playing so they can decide whether or not it makes sense for them to even try to come."
Grulke is survived by his wife Kristen and son Graham. Funeral arrangements are pending.