SXSW 2010: But Can It Be Monetized?

I first attended SXSW in 1998, what some consider to be its heyday. However, even then my first trip was nearly soured ahead of time by criticisms that it was a corporate affair and not about independent music (and therefore not “authentic” at all). I found that to be only partly true then; and it’s only partly true now. As long as bands like the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Fucked Up are playing, it’s still at least partly about music above all else, for artists and fans, and not completely about making money, for artists, labels, promoters and marketers. Besides, the conference side is arguably useful for people who see music as a business.

Digitize and Monetize Me, or The Battle of Digital Asskicking

I attended four industry panels during my four days in Austin. Though different in title, all shared the same industry obsession: getting consumers hooked into habits of encountering music, the label, third party marketers, sponsors and supposedly the artists that want to access them all via new social media. In other words, “How can I monetize that?” Monetization is the elusive panacea, or so it seems.

One panel was on the convergence of music and TV online, another was on music and social networking, a third was on the future of music videos, and the last was on whether artists were getting screwed by digitization. I previously blogged about the first three, so let me focus on the latter one, which mostly remixed themes of the first three.

On the last day of the conference I attended the “Artists: Are They Getting a Digital Asskicking?” panel. No one bothered addressing the question directly. Instead, they all obliquely answered by sharing anecdotes about digital tools, successes and failures.

As anyone following or listening to music is now aware, artists, labels and third party marketers have digital “tool kits” to manage their activities in their part of the industry. Almost all of them use Twitter and Facebook. Some frequently use YouTube. Artists, such as Suzanne Vega, in addition, use PingFM as well as their own websites and blogs. “Twitter is great for little bits of information,” Vega shared, “while I use my blog to go more in depth”.

Not using each new digital tool for every communication need should be obvious to anyone who’s ever tried to write a political editorial on Twitter or a letter to a friend in a Facebook comment. But I guess there are people who don’t understand this point.

New artists, and sometimes DIY-ish promoters, would ask how to get attention or how to “monetize” attention, and the refrain from the industry was always “there is no one size fits all”. You have to figure out who your audience is and tailor to them. While many of the marketers also repeat ad nauseum that you have to know who you are and be able to say it with confidence, some also insisted that you need to be flexible and remember that who you are is not always who you were and thus not what fan base/demographic you had. Furthermore, “Keep it simple, stupid,” was 5B Artist Management Jason John’s mantra. But also, “You should see what other artists similar to you have done, but determine what’s right for you”. At this point in the circumlocution I thought to myself, “and you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile….And you may ask yourself…Well, how did I get here?” Who am I?

The digital asskickers appeared divided about the role of branding in marketing and advertising. Third party marketers, such as bigMethod’s Greg Cargill, emphasize the importance affiliating with a brand and its dynamics. “Paris Hilton says her brand is her face”, Suzanne Vega shared, “but in my case my voice is my brand, and then my name”. She elaborated that when people hear her they know it’s her, and when they see her name printed they know what music it’s associated with, but no one knows what she looks like.

Still, others cringe at the very word. Steve Yegelwel of S-Curve Records (think Fountains of Wayne) insisted that music can’t be a brand, and if it is, something is wrong. “Products are all the same, and a brand distinguishes between them. Music is not like that. Music itself is what distinguishes itself” he argued. Branders would certainly smile when they hear that. Of course music distinguishes itself, but the question remains how do you get people to check out music that is somehow different? You have to transform it symbolically through branding, images and words. Or what, you just walk around blasting music at people and follow it by the band’s name?

Despite the occasional insistence that music is not like all other products, the digital asskickers’ chorus was representative of those I had heard from the industry, and those outside the industry, all week.

The conventional wisdom we’re told is that digital consumers are “prosumers”. They like to help produce parts of the commodity fetish they eventually consume. Is there an upcoming album release for a band potential consumers might very well like, eventually buy, or hear performed in concert? Get them to make their own video about it.

Yegelwel cited a band who was playing a post-Major League Baseball game concert in Tampa, Florida. To market it, they asked fans to create a video about their town and enter it into a contest before the concert. The ploy was very successful, he said, and attending the concert was like celebrating the home team.

Suzanne Vega mentioned how at a recent concert she asked before intermission for audience members to tweet her. After her set break she would choose one to read to the crowd. Once people started yelling,” what if we don’t have Twitter?” she invited them to do it the old fashioned way and throw wads of papers onstage. Though she only received three tweets at intermission, the next day she had lots of new Twitter followers.

I thought it was exceedingly telling — or just troublingly ironic — that the panel itself was provocatively entitled “Artists: Are They Getting a Digital Ass-Kicking?” but only featured one artist on the entire panel. (It was also only half-sincere since Vega is also a columnist for the New York Times now and seems to be the industry’s go-to artist-panelist). Perhaps that tells you where artists really stand on the issue.

Nonetheless all the panelists emphasized how important the internet and its analytics are today and the wonders of knowing much more about one’s audience and much faster. At the same time, all relentless monitoring, surveillance, number crunching, communication, marketing and branding leaves one to wonder when artists will have the time to create their music. At this point I was dying to hear Fugazi or Fucked Up discuss the delicate balance between advertising and marketing themselves, however haphazardly, and making a living without compromising their product. I mean art.

For those unsigned artists who want to make money, those fledgling promoters and marketers who want to learn how to produce attention and “monetize” it, and those in the industry and the legal professions, there is much to gain and appreciate from the conference side of things. But truth be told, I found myself easily getting queasy at the cocksure ramblings (even when they were trying to say something was unpredictable) of the people behind the theory and analysis of commoditizing music.

Showcases, Shows and Sets: Performances Persist No Matter What

Carolina Chocolate Drops

Showcases, Shows and Sets: Performances Persist No Matter What

As for the musical performances themselves, some were the expected solid sets that helped sustain brand power—in industry speak, that is—while others lived up burgeoning hype while more still petered away like balloons less their loads of viral marketing bluster. By Saturday night, it was clear that the entire event had taken its toll on all participants. Instead of embodying the growing energy of the biggest five-day music biz festival, artists, press, and local hosts were on their last legs—and in some cases at their wits ends.

Over the last three years I received several recommendations to check out the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an African American trio from Durham, NC. After finally seeing them Wednesday, I was ashamed it had taken me so long. Three poly-instrumentalists playing styles of traditional African American music on banjos, fiddles, dobros and bones (yes, you’ve heard of playing spoons; now check out bones) and even reviving the dances that go with them: they were absolutely fantastic. Their vocal and string styles were unlike any I’ve ever heard (and I’ve listened to a good chunk of the Library of Congress/Rounder Records recordings by Alan Lomax). On some songs they seemed to be able to make traditional African American folk music as cool as contemporary R&B. For example their cover of “Hit ‘Em Up Style” was brilliant.

Later that night I saw Wanda Jackson, also dubbed the Queen of Rockabilly. Songs like “Let’s Have a Party” are as immortal as Elvis’s “Hound Dog”. I was feeling humbled and a little afraid of seeing the Queen at SXSW at her age, as I usually am when seeing such pioneers. I just can’t bear the thought of sympathy for a legend. Thus I was thrilled to find Ms. Jackson downright chipper, funny and flirty, if a bit verbose between songs. She still possesses that inimitable rowdy, hillbilly yawp. Like most SXSW sets hers was short at about five songs, though she did chatter a lot between songs. At one point she asked a psychobilly cat if his quiff was a wig or a hat. Much of the time she reminisced about touring with Elvis, bragging how she was once better known than he (about two months). The stage and sound at the Beauty Bar annex, like other SXSW shows, naturally left a lot to be desired. Wanda joked about the pillar in the middle of the stage and whether she should stand to its left or right.

Also Wednesday was the PopMatters showcase at the Paradise. The acoustic set by Chicago singer-songwriter Joe Pug stylistically reminded me of Springsteen’s “The River” at times and of Ryan Adams at others. Unfortunately, it being St. Patrick’s Day made it difficult to make out all his lyrics. Later, the cleverly named Pretty Good Dance Moves pulled off an interesting electronic set with dueling synths accompanied by the warm vocals of a hipster hottie.

Tigercity

My favorite electronic performance of that day (and perhaps of the entire week with the exception of some songs I caught by Holy Fuck on Saturday) came from unsigned Brooklyn band Tigercity. Their insanely catchy disco kept reminding me of what would happen if you applied the brakes to Blondie’s “Heart of Glass”. At other times, I was convinced I’d heard some Bee Gees citations. Overall the group presented a fascinating mining of ’70s disco and funky new wave guitars and synths (a la The Talking Heads without Byrne’s quirky vocals). I would be very surprised if this band is not exalted quickly the indie tastemakers that be.

Thursday was solid without yielding any major discoveries. In the afternoon I started at the Insound showcase at Club Deville. Much buzzed about Surfer Blood was just ending as I arrived (it was great for the one minute that it lasted). The Vivian Girls played next. This girl trio was much more Breeders, Helium and Tigertrap than Donnas or Runaways. Their nice, melodic guitar rock lacked attitude, though, the only traces of which were channeled via the cute bassist’s tattoos and shaggy bangs. Next I caught Small Black. Though competent, they didn’t leave much of an impression. All the marketing tie-ins I’d been hearing about over at the panels were in full-force though: Miller tallboys were being served all you could drink for three bucks, Saucony was giving away shoes and squirt guns, and iPods were constantly raffled.

One of my favorite lineups overall was Thursday night at the Prague, a rock ‘n’ roll blowout bill that consisted of superstar throwbacks from the CBGB golden age: the New York Dolls and Dead Boys in a new supergroup, Batusis, followed by London’s Jim Jones Revue, and the raucous royalty of soul-punk, The Bellrays. Batusis was great, especially the last four songs that were mainly Dead Boys and Dolls’ classics like “Trash”. Still, they lacked the energy of the Bellrays or Jim Jones Revue. Anyone who has any respect for the rock ‘n’ roll tradition associated with the wild keyboards of Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the Sonics, has been talking about JJR this last year. Jim Jones, formerly of Thee Hypnotics, has succeeded in forming a group that is at once virtuosic high octane ragtime, Jerry Lee Lewis and the MC5. Their recorded album is great; the live performance is even better. Afterwards felt akin to a runner’s high.

Roky Erickson

Another SXSW highlight was Roky Erickson along with Okkervil River Friday afternoon at Threadgill’s BBQ. The original member of cult group 13th Floor Elevators, Erickson’s equally known for nearly three decades of suffering mental illness, receiving shock treatment and believing he was an alien. Now he was backed by the impressive Austin indie folk rock group Okkervil River. They played a number of songs from their album True Love Cast Out All Evil , an assortment of songs from across Erickson’s career, chosen and produced by Okkervil River. Erickson came off as a weathered but angelic soldier-of-a-man, standing with arms out at his sides as if daring demons to strike, a peaceful smile beaming from his cool eyes. Many of the songs were slower ballads but they also rocked out, like on “Two-headed Dog” and his garage classic “You’re Going to Miss Me”. Ironically, in his husky-throated sixties Erickson’s music is now more moving than ever.

The reconstruction of another legend, the Texas Tornados, was not nearly as positive. About half of the original band is still intact, including the great conjunto accordionist Flaco Jimenez, but the late legendary front man Doug Sahm is replaced by his son Shawn. Also the vocals of the irreplaceable Freddy Fender were substituted by a unknown Garth Brooks-like hombre who, despite his good intentions, could not live up to the role.

Saturday began with a serious downer…

The Legendary Shack Shakers

Variables: The Weather

Saturday began with a serious downer: heavy winds and a thirty degree temperature dip sent the festival’s omnipresent rubber orange construction cones skipping down the street like tumbleweeds. The crappy weather invariably made catching any of the closing-day, open-air showcases problematic, at least if not properly dressed like myself. Trekking ten minutes away from the Sixth Street hub, across I-35 to a parking lot featuring the “Mess With Texas” showcase, I caught featured, and already relatively well-known, bands Holy Fuck, Crystal Antlers, Janpanther and Japandroids. Frozen and a broken man, I jogged and shivered back to the Sixth St. area to catch The Legendary Shack Shakers at El Sol Y La Luna. I was really glad I did.

Part hillbilly Hank Williams, and part Jello Biafra and Iggy Pop punk, Col. J.D. Wilkes demonstrated that he is still one of the most exciting front men in rock, stripping to his bare chest, strutting like a rooster, gesticulating like a madman, and bringing his wild harmonica and voice together with his backing band’s solid hillbilly-gypsy-punk genre-bending songs. In addition, to their usual fare, they teased the audience with a couple of songs off of their album Agridustrial, to be released next month.

Next I needed a plan B. Plan A was to spend the night entirely outdoors. Inside would be key. Still, I thought I could brave the elements for at least a couple of songs. I would hit Titus Andronicus at 10pm, maybe on the Redeye 7 patio, then go inside somewhere and thaw and possibly return for J Mascis and Fucked Up later, or go to the Mohawk for Surfer Blood and possibly DEATH for the last set. I’d heard positive or at least intriguing things about all three bands, and thus was dejected to find a long press badge line at Red Eye 7 and an even longer one at Mohawk. And neither was moving. I decided to head to the Driskill Hotel and see what was playing in their Victorian Room.

Miss Li

Serendepity the Savior @ the Driskill Hotel

It turns out Saturday night they were hosting the showcase of the British indie promoters, and future label, The Local. Glorious serendipity ensued. At the Driskill, I was pleasantly surprised by Nik Armstrong, who offered very talented glam-injected blues punk, reminiscent of Jack Black, plus a heavy dose of impressive dances and hops. Soon Miss Li followed, Sweden’s crazy-jazzy rock cabaret act. That little Nordic mama has got some lungs on her, and she plays a fun keyboard to boot. The sound guy was playing Feist right before she went on and it seemed an appropriate primer. Miss Li has a similar voice, but it’s employed in a much more raucous manner with a pinch of Django Reinhardt.

Following Miss Li was She Keeps Bees, a New York duo fronted by the hilariously forthcoming Jessica Larrabee (who talked about her smoking habits and playing with frozen snot running down her face that day). Here’s a rock girl who’s got a lot in common with Hendrix, the White Stripes, and the Black Keys, except that she doesn’t, or can’t, do guitar solos. Still, their stripped down blues rock was nonetheless entrancing, especially because of her soulful voice. All of these acts deserve attention.

Between sets at the Driskill, while hitting the ATM, I stumbled upon a great local all-female hillbilly trio, the Carper Family. Composed of two acoustic guitars, a standup bass, and some vintage yodeling, a SXSW documentary couldn’t have prescribed a better consolation for what I had lost. In fact, it only got better.

Zun Zun Egui

Zun Zun Egui: “The Greatest Band in Britain Right Now”

Closing the showcase was Zun Zun Egui. For those equally unhappy with contemporary music’s retro revival and those who have swallowed whole the modernist dogma that nothing is good unless it is new, pay close attention.

Composed of a drummer, bassist, keyboardist, and guitarist/vocalist, everyone in this band appeared accomplished (in fact, all but the guitarist/singer had a kind of jazz band nonchalance about them that suggested they possessed chops, not nerves). The guitarist and lead singer Kushal Gaya was remarkable. A Mauritian, but living in the UK for five years, he has a vocal and guitar style that I still can’t place. Post-Animal Collective it’s become faddish to integrate world music rhythms and chants while dismantling pop song structure, but Zun Zun Egui takes the world music hybrid to a new level. Gaya invents his own chants, partly from memories of folk music he heard growing up in Mauritius but also from Japanese and French. Equally idiosyncratic was Gaya’s guitar playing, moving way down on the neck, just above his strumming hand, and playing lightning fast riffs with an Eastern twang. Meanwhile, he worked himself into a chanting frenzy, something I’ve seen African dancers do, but never anyone simultaneously playing guitar runs as he was doing. As for the arrangements, think Talking Heads funked up The Great Curve meets Indian folk music and Jimi Hendrix. Shades of Sun Ra weirdness permeate as well. Who would have guessed prog rock would make a comeback as the wedding of classic rock, metal, funk, and world music?

For a moment I was transported to a place at once primitive and futuristic while the girl next to me whirled like a dervish. I stood still, hypnotized. Though I laughed at the showcase presenter’s superlative when introducing the group (“This is the best band in Britain right now!”), after two minutes I was in total agreement.

Turns out Zun Zun Egui was a perfectly ironic end to this year’s SXSW. At one point Gaya snapped, jumped off the stage and started chanting as maniacally as he sang “Fuck you! Fuck You! Fuck You! Fuck You”. Audience members looked at each other, wondering if this was all staged. After getting back onstage and finishing the song, Gaya, still furious, said, “Fuck you, and your little pictures, man. I’ve been kicked out of this hotel twice. I can’t even practice. We’ve been playing all week. And we don’t even fucking get paid for this shit.”

And there it was, SXSW’s beautiful monstrosity in a nutshell: the sacral and the sacrilegious, the artistic and the commercial, replete with all the contradictions of music in contemporary globalized culture. But Zun Zun Egui is still young. Maybe next year they’ll know what their brand is.

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