South by Southwest by Houston Press
Alternative newsweeklies from across the country lie in stacks on two cloth-covered, cafeteria-size tables inside the Austin Convention Center's exhibition hall, SXSW trade-show headquarters. Bloated with booths boasting dot-com thises or dot-com thats, this hall, bigger than a football field, is from end zone to end zone prime real estate. But the spot at the hall's main entrance, only the size of two open doorways, is beachfront property. After all, it's the first setup passersby see walking in. This enviable locale is where the Austin Chronicle, an alternative newsweekly whose editor launched the festival, has chosen to set up shop and display copies of its paper, along with a few others, including The Rocket (Seattle), the San Antonio Current and (yours truly) the Houston Press.
Like the aforementioned alternative newsweeklies, 31 others also sponsor this event, now in its 17th year. Since its creation, SXSW has been accepting sponsorship from its brothers and sisters in alternative press-land. And every year, according to Brent Grulke, music festival director of SXSW (which annually hosts a film and Internet-related event, too), the for-profit organization has also been requesting artistic advice from its peers in the press.
Every year, says Grulke, SXSW asks its alt-press sponsors to choose a band or two from their respective coverage areas for participation in SXSW's highly regarded performance showcases. SXSW folk figure that no one knows Long Island or San Francisco bands better than the alternative publications that regularly cover those acts. "We believe the alternative press is who we are," says Grulke. "They have a good sense of which acts should benefit" from playing SXSW. Daily papers (lazy, critically predictable publicity rags) aren't even considered. But although this sentiment of brotherhood in action is sound in theory, it unfortunately is defective in practice. Let us count the ways.
One, SXSW's name -- and only SXSW's name -- is affixed to the event. SXSW, or any art advocacy group, naturally compromises its artistic integrity by allowing outsiders to impact its selection process. Simply reading the names of sponsoring papers and their bands, which this year have been published in the event's accompanying information booklet, is enough to make one raise an eyebrow.
Two, Grulke admits SXSW does not always know which employees at its sponsors' papers actually make selections. "We would prefer it be editorial," says Grulke. "We would prefer the music editor or the general editor do the selecting. How each paper decides to handle that is up to them. Given our duties here, we can't dictate to them that....But we just don't rubber-stamp everything." Two and a half, not knowing decision-makers simply invites impropriety, especially considering sponsorship is coordinated among SXSW staffers and promotions managers or publishers, not between SXSW staff and editorial heads. If the publisher of Chicago's New City receives an invitation from SXSW to choose which bands from northeastern Illinois make the SXSW showcase and he feels that his younger brother's punk group is deserving of a break, SXSW would unknowingly be playing politics, not music.
As explains Zac Crain, music editor of the Dallas Observer (which is owned by the Houston Press's parent company, New Times, Inc.), if it weren't for the levelheadedness of his paper's retail coordinator and SXSW liaison, Dana Escobar, he might not have ever seen the SXSW request. No one at SXSW, as far as Crain knows, told Escobar to pass the request on to him or anyone else in editorial. That it landed on his desk was a godsend. "If we choose a band we [in editorial] don't like," he says, "I'm gonna have a lot of explaining to do." New Times Los Angeles music editor Bill Holdship understands the issue: He had "zilch" input in his paper's selections.
Third, and most important, no matter how diligently SXSW screens all its applicants, a band may believe its road to Austin has been paved by its local alternative paper, creating the impression that relationships, not musical ability, opened doors. "I think it's difficult for everyone," says Grulke. "But ultimately I think it's a critical and important thing to do."
That important? To bolster sponsor relations, maybe. Says Roni M. Sarig, music editor of Atlanta's reputable Creative Loafing: "I wish they wouldn't ask.I'd just as soon not do this. I think it's a neat thing they do, and it sounds good. I like the idea of it, but when you get down to it, I feel a little uncomfortable putting weight behind one band."
For the record, the Houston Press selected Japanic as its band.
Not Down with Downloads
Nearly every one of the thousand or so bands performing at SXSW this year has some sort of Web presence, except some of the most popular and successful acts at the festival and beyond: rappers and hip-hoppers. Thing is, non-major-label-affiliated rappers don't need the Web. Yet. Though their fan base is, for the most part, off-line and more interested in the touch and feel of vinyl than of plastic floppy discs filled with MP3 or MP4 files, rappers and hip-hoppers are not reaching as many listeners as possible. And it doesn't take a wizard to realize zero Web presence will eventually be a handicap.
At SXSW, South Park Mexican drew huge all-ages crowds for both his Thursday-night performance at the Back Room and his Thursday-afternoon participation in a panel discussion at the convention center. Along with Matthew Knowles, controversial manager of Destiny's Child, and Teresa La Barbara Whites of Columbia Records, SPM (a.k.a. Carlos Coy) talked about, among other things, how to market music. Step one, he said: Know your market.
Standing on his feet for six hours a day at flea markets, pushing cassette tapes, hanging out at racetracks, pushing cassette tapes, or driving around his neighborhood, pushing cassette tapes, constituted the brunt of Coy's marketing strategy. Having a Web site or selling downloadable music obviously did not.
Coy sold 60,000 copies of his most recent album, The 3rd Wish: To Rock the World (on Coy's Dope House Records label), the first day of its release this past summer. With a Dope House Records Web page that either sold CDs directly from its site (or linked to an on-line retailer) or charged fees for downloadable MP3 files, Coy may have sold 60,001 albums.
Urban music might want to get on the eboat, the sooner the better. At the panel discussion Knowles said he believes the day will come, possibly two years from now, when shoppers will be able to walk into a record store and create and purchase compilation discs. Pshhhh! Earth calling Matthew: Shoppers do that now -- from the privacy of their homes. Where have these urbanites been the past five years?
Houston, We Had a Problem
Originally only a handful of Houston acts were scheduled to play official SXSW showcases this year. Come Wednesday, March 15, day one of SXSW, 29 Houston bands had found slots. The simple explanation: cancellations. -- Anthony Mariani
E-mail Anthony Mariani at anthony.mariani@ houstonpress.com.
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