South By Due East
Every year, from the looks of it, March is the finest month to be a music lover in Houston. (I wouldn't know for sure -- every year since 2001, I have been in Austin for the peak week, and this year is no exception.) Not only is the weather at its best, but it is also the only time of year when we get the amount of buzzworthy national acts and big-deal headliners you would expect in America's fourth largest city.
The Rodeo has been in full gallivantin', tarryhootin' glory all month. If pop-country and Hannah Montana ain't your things, English pop sensation Lily Allen will be at the Engine Room. Warehouse Live's two headliners this Saturday and Sunday are RJD2 and Public friggin' Enemy. The Proletariat has Hella and more. Hayes Carll returns in triumph to the Duck. At the Mink, there's a bill of the Jonx, Ponys, Deerhunter and, last but decidedly not least, Black Lips, a hilariously awful band that has somehow managed to come up with one of the very finest live albums of all time.
On a more adventurous tip, there's the South By Southwest Overflow Fest at Super Happy Fun Land. This carnival of eclecticism got underway this past Monday and runs through Sunday. The bill there is dominated by national and international acts that are on their way to or from Austin and, true to Super Happy Fun Land's accustomed freaky-deaky ethos, some of the acts push the sonic manila folder right off the table and into the ether. But there are also plenty of more or less straight up indie rock, punk, shoegaze and psychedelic rock acts on the bill this week, too. Granted, there are no real name acts or even buzz bands on the Super Happy slate, but who knows where these bands will be next year?
Locals are getting into the act, too. Huge rock-heavy local fests abound -- last week's Smoke and Noise downtown, and next week's Westheimer Street Festival in the 'Trose. Hibernian-Houstonians have St. Patty's day coming up, with a grand crack to be had at the Mucky Duck and Griff's and elsewhere, and zydeco-infused crawfish boils roil from Kemah to Tomball.
And then there's South By Due East, which is chock-full of the sort of internecine Houston scene bickering we have come to know and love so well. The one-time coalition of punks and hippies led by M. Martin on one side and Guy Schwartz and Marlo Blue on the other has well and truly foundered.
Due East will be held on two stages at Dan Electro's starting Friday and ending Monday. The bill runs the gamut, from rap to rock to zydeco to country, and is dominated by local bands that were either turned away from SXSW or never bothered to apply (or, in a few cases, will be playing both SXSW and SXDE).
Due East was founded as a "fuck you" to South By Southwest in 2003 by a coalition of aging punks and hippies spearheaded, in his telling, by longtime punk promoter M. Martin, the chrome-domed, black-clad operator of the late, much-lamented and fairly recently demolished Montrose Web radio station/salon/barbecue-n-Busch palace known as Earthwire.net, which hosted the first SXDE back in 2003.
Another version has it that the event was conceived by Marlo Blue, who still runs it today, along with business and romantic partner Schwartz. This version of the facts has Martin in a bit of a swivet. The event's advance publicity has him alternately puzzled, flattered and insulted.
First, the puzzlement and flattery: "My wife got an e-mail from Guy about this event, and it said I was on the 'artist selection committee,' and she came up and asked me if I'd been lying when I told her I quit booking bands," Martin says. "I'd never even heard of that committee before she told me about it."
All in all, he's pretty philosophical about having been enlisted in a committee he knew nothing of. "I guess I should be flattered that somebody still thinks my name has some value," he says, referring to the fact that he has been all-but-retired from the scene for the past few years. But not enough value, it seems, to get what he sees as his due from Schwartz and Blue. "I find it fairly odd that, even though my name manages to make it into the roster for an artist selection committee I've never even heard of, my name appears nowhere else in the press materials for an event that I essentially created," he says.
He's right about that. In fact, you could look it up, and I did. Here's what I wrote about the inaugural Due East event in this column in 2003: "A few weeks ago, Martin wondered what would happen if the music industry gave a party every year in our state and didn't invite us. So he said let there be South By Due East: a Houston showcase of bands that were passed over for the Big Schmooze." If Schwartz and Blue had a problem with that version of events, they never expressed it to me.
Except as part of the artist selection committee, Martin's name is nowhere in the press pack we received last week, one that lists the date, time, full bill of fare and location of the festival. And his name is really hard to find on the event's Web site, too, where the event's origins are attributed to "a multi-pronged marketing assault that Marlo had envisioned back in 2002." (To be absolutely fair, the Web site www.southbydueeast.com is for the 2006 version of the show -- I guess having this year's up a week ahead of the event is too much to ask.)
On both the site and in the press kit, you do see the names Guy Schwartz and Marlo Blue on multiple occasions, though. So I called them up.
First, about that artist selection committee...Schwartz tells me on the phone that it referred to "past and present" members of the committee. A printout of the e-mail I received that week says nothing about "past and present" members. It introduces them thusly: "The dedicated team of music lovers are a big strength at South By Due East. Artist Selection committee includes..." And there follows a list of about 20 names, including Martin's and that of Schwartz, who describes himself in his own press release as "fatigueless." ("He may be 'fatigueless,' but he is becoming rather fatiguing," Martin cracks.)
Schwartz also contends that Martin had very little to do with the foundation of SXDE. "Other than providing the venue, he did nothing other than a little brainstorming and some artwork," Schwartz says. "Marlo founded it all by herself and got Martin and other people involved." After our initial phone call, Schwartz calls me back with a statement from Marlo: "Martin wrote himself out of South By Due East history, and I have the e-mails to prove it. He said he would have nothing to do with us unless we became a for-profit venture."
And true enough, SXDE looks to be an artist- and fan-friendly event. Admission is free, though Schwartz does "encourage" donations. But this is still the music business, and Schwartz does have an angle. As with all of the events he hosts, Schwartz's cameras will be rolling, and the resulting film will be streamed on his Web site. Schwartz has also been known to make CDs of some of his live shows, which often include guest shots from other local musicians and are for sale at CDBaby.com.
Schwartz claims this stuff makes for wonderful archival material and great promotional tools for struggling local bands, and his site sports a glowing testimonial to that effect from the Fondue Monks' Rozz Zamorano, speaking in reference to one of the films. Schwartz also is keen to point out that the film from last year's event has been viewed 15,000 times on the Web. "None of the bands that were on that bill ever played for that many people before, and none of them paid a cent to be on that film," Schwartz says.
He also points out that he is still losing money on Due East, and adds that he doesn't even conceive it as a real music festival at all. "I tell everybody this is a fake festival," he says. "It looks and acts like a festival and lots of bands play, but it really is a movie shoot. We don't charge admission -- we just want to get enough people in here to make the background applause on the videos sound respectable."
Schwartz also seems eager to avoid the appearance that what he is doing could be described as concert promotion. "I am not a concert promoter," he flatly states. "I am not trying to make money for myself or my investors. I am just trying to create a musical event and a marketing tool for all these artists and our music scene, including my band."
"Bullshit," Martin ripostes. "If it walks down the street in fishnet hose, it's a ho'. Sorry. Welcome to the brotherhood, Guy. He is a promoter, albeit a crappy one."
Unless, that is, he is promoting himself. Schwartz cops to being a self-promoter, and Martin says some of it comes with the territory. He just wishes Schwartz would get better at it and not be so shameless. "You have to make sure that you are trying to accomplish something more than generate your own notoriety or line your pockets, and you have to do an effective job with it. As far as I can tell, Guy's shameless self-promotion doesn't go anywhere."
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