Only a speck of Houston in Austin... If my only job at this week's South by Southwest Music and Media Conference were to witness every showcase performance by a Houston artist, my efforts would amount to little more than a day's work. Houston's representation at the event is a piddling eight bands this year, down from 11 in '96. And that tiny contingent, while deserving, is pretty predictable in its makeup; if the folks from SXSW went searching for our town's newest up-and-comers, it sure isn't evident in what they found.
Among those scheduled to play are reliable live bets Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys, Jesse Dayton and Mary Cutrufello; that all three are nearly as well known in Austin as they are here probably isn't accidental. Blues workhorses Pete Mayes and Texas Johnny Brown are also slated to appear, Brown a returning act from last year, and the Jinkies, too, made the cut for the second year in a row. The only surprises are halluci-country journeymen Horseshoe (about whom you may have already read in this issue's lead music story) and self-hyped alternative heavies Chlorine.
That's it for Team Houston, and here's another figure to magnify your disbelief: At last count, Austin's presence at the conference was hovering at around 180 bands -- that's 180 out of the approximately 600 acts performing this year. Other major cities in Texas didn't fare much better than Houston; Dallas and San Antonio artists number in the handful. And when you leave the state, things drop off even more.
Still, it could be worse. We're six bands stronger than the Czech Republic, and while Australia has us beat by a couple, we're better off than Ames, Iowa, which has only a single SXSW band to its name.
What those numbers mean is hard to say. Sure, I've heard the conflicting reports -- that Austin bands are favored by SXSW, that Austin bands are actually held to more exacting standards; that the labels have pull, that labels have little to no pull; and so on down the line. For some perspective, I figured I'd ask the person who is perhaps the closest thing to God at SXSW, Brent Grulke. Grulke heads the selection process, so some might view what follows as the devil's own version of the truth. Maybe it is.
This year, Grulke says, SXSW received more than 4,500 entries. Submissions contain some sort of background on the artists and CDs or tapes of their music ranging in quality from muddy bedroom demos to pristine studio affairs. The first selection phase involved a group of about 20 made up of industry types and denizens of the Austin music scene -- all of whom of course had no bias for or against their hometown artists. At any rate, this assortment graded the 4,500 hopefuls. "At least two people get each artist's package and evaluate it," says Grulke. "And through that initial process, we probably lose about a third to a half."
The next phase involves SXSW's core selection staff, which gradually whittles down the remaining pile. During this process, factors other than music come into play -- factors that include everything from an act's hometown to the popularity of the genre into which the group falls. "We try to put bills together that are appropriate for certain venues and that work stylistically," says Grulke. "If everything else is totally equal, we will give preference to bands from smaller towns, from the Southwest and from far-flung geographic regions" -- which seems to suggest that a ska quartet from Wales would have a better shot at being picked than a roots rock band from, say, North Carolina.
Other factors surrounding the selection process are less methodical. For instance, the staff tries to take into account what an act could have riding on a SXSW appearance. "We give the showcase to the band that we believe is most likely to be able to take advantage of it," Grulke says. Then there's the issue of how much weight record labels really carry at SXSW. "The major label presence we've had has never been as significant as it has seemed," Grulke insists. "Let's face it, [theirs] tend to be the shows that people tend to be familiar with. It draws attention disproportionate to the actual representation of those type of acts."
And what of the independents, such as Houston's Justice and Copper labels, who are hosting showcases this week? Again, says Grulke, labels -- big or small -- have no influence on the selection process. "We've always had easily twice as many unsigned acts, and a vast number more indie acts," he says, adding that there are about 100 major-label acts this time around, about the same as last year.
So what can a Houston band do to give itself an advantage with SXSW's powers-that-be, short of taking up the bagpipes? Play in Austin more often, says Grulke, and let someone at SXSW know when you'll be in town.
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"We try to see as many bands as we can live," he says. "Then we know if they've got their shit together. But the truth of the matter is, Houston bands don't play Austin that often. The Texas music scenes tend to be distinctive and don't tend to be mutually supportive, which is odd. Creative competition is a good thing. But let's face it, there's not enough of an industry presence in Texas for people to be dividing up the pie."
That said, Houston's piece of the SXSW pie couldn't feed a fly.
The final word... In an April 1994 cover story, the Press reported on local producer Roy Ames and his questionable tactics in bringing Houston blues to the rest of the world. Almost three years later, it looks like Ames will finally be reimbursing the musicians he neglected along the way. Joe "Guitar" Hughes, Leonard "Low Down" Brown, Jimmy "T-99" Nelson and 12 others received a bit of justice last week when a federal court ruled that Ames willfully violated copyrights on their compositions, making and selling recordings without their knowledge or permission. The jury recommended damages in excess of $260,000, though the judge could reduce that sum. Still, for most of the players involved, the creative vindication that comes with such a victory far outweighs any monetary reward. Though I'm sure a little green wouldn't hurt, either.
-- Hobart Rowland