Finding Fame in Austin in the Internet Age
From the New York Times, March 20, 2009.
By BEN SISARIO
AUSTIN, Tex. — Weaving through the thousands of fans, spring-breaking music industry professionals and assorted revelers who clog the streets of downtown Austin this week, you might well think that South by Southwest, the annual music conference and festival here, is nothing but a big party.
Despite the jittery economy and the decade-long recording industry slump, the festival grows bigger every year. Around 2,000 bands are playing in this year’s 23rd installment, which began on Wednesday night and continues through Sunday. Seemingly every paved inch downtown becomes a stage, and from noon until the wee hours the air along Red River and East Sixth Streets is filled with the din of rough rock music and the smell of free-flowing liquor.
But for the young bands that come in pursuit of a big break — or, more likely, a small break — South by Southwest is also hard work, a five-day gantlet of makeshift showcases and insufficient sound checks. And musicians and industry players alike say success is tricky to gauge in an era when fame from a commercial placement or a rush of blog postings can disappear as quickly as it comes.
Crocodiles, a two-man band from San Diego so fresh that the head of their record label was seeing them perform live for the first time, have had an enviable streak of Internet attention in the last few months. In December the underground art-punk kings No Age picked a Crocodiles song as one of their favorites of 2008, and after Crocodiles signed with Fat Possum Records in January two influential outlets, the blog Stereogum (stereogum.com) and Fader magazine’s blog (thefader.com), weighed in with effusive recommendations of the band’s throbbing wash of guitars and electronics.
Many bands dream of this kind of reception. But over the four or five years that blogs have been the dominant tastemakers of independent music, artists have gradually become more wary of the hype-and-slam cycle of the Web. Brandon Welchez and Charles Rowell of Crocodiles have been so distrustful of the Internet’s fickle power that at first they tried to keep as low an online presence as possible, going so far as to ask fans to remove YouTube videos of their shows.
“The Internet is taking all the romance out of music and art and replacing it with this revolving door that just revolves so fast,” Mr. Welchez, 27, the duo’s singer, said before a 20-minute showcase on Wednesday afternoon. Eventually, though, the Internet found them, and their MySpace plays quickly shot into the tens of thousands.
Artists, labels, journalists and everyone else at South by Southwest now depend on the Internet for almost every aspect of their jobs, from discovery to communication, distribution to promotion. But on the patios and hotel rooftops of Austin the conversation often turns to debates about what the Internet’s role should be.
Matthew Johnson, the owner of Fat Possum, discovered Crocodiles online. But watching the band set up at Emo’s Annex, he said the Web had only accelerated the inevitable.
“The Internet follows the band,” Mr. Johnson said. “The kid who is going to get expelled from school knows the cool band before MySpace.”
The splintering of the music industry has also resulted in altered priorities for many musicians. Until the 2000s, most bands came to South by Southwest with the relatively straightforward aim of getting a recording contract. That remains a goal, although it is often the last item on a group’s checklist.
Afternoons, a seven-piece chamber-pop band from Los Angeles, has lots of buzz at home, a poster designed by Shepard Fairey, a song on the television show “Gossip Girl” and representation by a top independent booking firm, the Windish Agency — everything a band could want, in other words, except a record contract, which the band needs to finance recording sessions, said Brian Canning, who sings and plays guitar. Lacking that support, the group has found itself in much the same financial situation as any unsigned band, spending virtually all its reserves to make it to Austin.
“It’s a tough decision: is it worth it?” Mr. Canning said. “In the end we think so. We don’t have any wild expectations. We’re not delusional. But at the same time it would be nice to play for these people who have been expressing interest in doing deals with us.”
For others, the concerns are more about day-to-day practicalities. As South by Southwest has grown bigger and more decentralized — this year it has twice as many acts as in 2003 — bands have been adding more and more performances to their itineraries, hoping to register the most impressions on the crowd. Shilpa Ray, an unsigned Brooklyn singer with a powerfully raw voice and a fierce technique on the harmonium, has eight showcases lined up, and for her the big question is simply endurance.
“It’s a challenge: how good of a musician are you?” she said. “I wonder if I can do it, if I can sustain my voice for so long and stay consistent.”
For her showcase at Club de Ville on Wednesday night, the audience included at least one record executive who said he was competing with another label to sign her. But Ms. Ray, who canceled a tour to make it to Austin, said she knew that even with a record contract success was far from guaranteed. And besides, she added, she is fine with roughing it at South by Southwest.
“Maybe in the past there were your pampered rock stars hanging out,” she said. “But then there’s the people like us who climb out of clown cars and try to make things work.”