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SXSW Day 1: Tricks of the Trade

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The crowd at SXSW gets younger every year.

Wednesday sightings: Eddie Spaghetti and John Croslin, ex-member of Austin cult heroes the Reivers who produced Spoon’s debut Telephono, in the Convention Center’s panelist greenroom; R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills waiting for the “Executive Suites” elevator at the Omni

I guess every time I come to Austin it’s going to be the same. Once I hit a few miles outside of town, the same song starts up: “Back in your old neighborhood, cigarettes taste so good…” Wilco didn’t play “Misunderstood last Friday at Verizon, but they didn’t need to. The cigarettes are indeed delicious.

SXSW has a biorhythm all its own: do it enough times and it falls into place, instinctively, without a whole lot of conscious thought. I forget how many times I’ve done this now (my first was 1994, minus one year, so I guess this is lucky 13), but the adrenaline rush is the same. Sometimes you don’t even know you’re doing it. It just happens.

One of the first people I ran into was fellow SXSW vet Fiona Bloom, a New York-based publicist who handles Houston’s Karina Nistal (midnight tonight, Molotov on West 6th St., FYI), among many others. We chatted for a bit, she handed me a sampler CD for another one of her clients, the “Fusicology” Web site (www.fusicology.com), which bills itself as “Eclectic Underground Urban Alternative.” Just then a lady from Chicago started chatting her up like they were old friends. A few minutes passed and Ms. Chicago (I wonder if she knows Wilco) went on to wherever she was going. Afterwards, Fiona looked at me.

“I have no idea who that was,” she said. There’s going to be a lot of that this week.

I expected Austin to be a lot more crowded. It is now, but a few hours ago, after I spent my last few bills on a notepad and pens at a local HEB – low-tech all the way, baby – I had to skip the Convention Center parking garage, but lo and behold, a couple of blocks away was actual street parking. Damn. The check-in line inside took about 10 minutes. How long can this good luck hold out?

I had to report early because of something called a “quickie,” a brand-new variant on SXSW’s up-close-and-personal “mentoring sessions.” It reminded me of speed dating, though I’ve never done that (swear): Me, Fiona and three or four other folks spent 10 minutes apiece talking to a table of four or five others, six tables in all, about the vague but somewhat important subject of “Press, PR and Bloggers” (or something like that), basically effective strategies for rising above the digital din and scoring yourself or your client some ink.

There were all sorts who signed up: publicists, lawyers, label owners, students, marketing specialists and several singer-songwriters. One dude was there from National Geographic, which I was surprised to learn actually employs music journalists. (“This is the value of a good publicist,” he said. We don’t have one.”) A woman at the same table handles PR for New Orleans musician Susan Cowsill, a veteran of the ‘70s Partridge Family-like group the Cowsills, who recently lost both her brother and her possessions to Hurricane Katrina.

This publicist’s other vocation is a human-rights investigator in Africa, and she said PR is the tougher job. “It’s harder than being thrown in jail and having an AK-47 held to your head,” she said. Damn. Cowsill, whose official showcase is 8pm tomorrow at Central Presbyterian Church, did play a SRO show at South Austin’s Saxon Pub last night, so something must be working.

We talked about a bunch of different things, but the thing that stuck the most – besides the gratifying fact that several of the students log off Facebook and Fuze long enough to pick up their local weekly from time to time, especially when it comes to shows and whatnot - was hearing the artists say how hard it is to get noticed by the press when everyone has a MySpace page and most think that’s their instant ticket to a glowing write-up on your friendly neighborhood blog. “I’m not sure [my MySpace page] is getting me anybody new,” a musician named Rain told me. “I’m starting to get a little cynical about it.”

As a member of the Fourth Estate, it can be equally daunting to wade through the mounds of missives that appear in your in-box every day, so on my way to Emo’s I came up with three ways to increase your chances of scoring that all-important write-up.

1. Don’t start with the press. Concentrate your efforts on the clubs first, because my brethren and I often rely on booking agents and talent buyers to screen who is worth writing about and who isn’t. Trust me, if you’re good enough to make them notice, we’ll hear about it.

2. Go old-school. Believe it or not, a gig flyer or postcard in the plain old U.S. mail can be a lot more effective than one more press release destined for the recycle bin. It’s probably cheaper too.

3. Don’t suck. Even a modicum of talent solves about 90 percent of this problem immediately.

Hope that helps. I was going to write about Emo’s too – the Raveonettes played their Jesus and Mary Chain-lite, Goth for people not afraid to go out in the daylight, and this boy-girl duo Yacht had me wondering what the over/under on LCD Soundsystem copycats is going to be this year (I'll take 20) – but I have to go pick up some passes for tonight’s Austin Music Awards. The Judy’s are playing! Oh, and so is another former Houstonian who still answers to “Roky Erickson,” sitting in with Okkervil River and – rumor has it – tomorrow’s keynote speaker Lou Reed… – Chris Gray

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