9:44am

Mon March 21, 2011
The Record

SXSW Wrap Up: For Bands, Was Austin Worth The Trip?

The 25th annual South by Southwest Music Conference is over, and many a sigh of relief has been heaved. It was the biggest SXSW ever, and downtown Austin rocked for five days. The whole city felt like one big crowded bar. Revelers like Mathew Oats, who just moved to Austin, staggered down the street soaking up the music coming out of every door and window.

"We're trying not to pay anything to have a good time," Oats says. "It is very easy to do."

But if you're an independent musician who had to get all of your equipment and band members to Austin, you may just be waking up with a hangover and a sense that the festival might no longer be worth the effort. Nick Stetz, who was at SXSW playing drums with Canadian Leeroy Stagger, has been going to the conference for five years. "It seems like every year it's, like, harder and harder," Stetz laments. "You know, there's more hoops to jump through. It seems weird that, like, the bigger bands get more than one showcase."

Stetz is referring to the official SXSW "showcase" concerts. It wasn't that way back in 1987 when there were 170 bands, and about 700 people came to hear them. This year there were 2,400 official performers and 36,000 attendees with admission badges and wristbands — and that doesn't count the number of unofficial bands that played on the streets and in small venues.

Steve Knutson, general manager for North America for the independent label Rough Trade (and a former exec at Tommy Boy) did the cost benefit analysis. "There's so much stuff to wade through that it's difficult, if you are an artist, to have a presence here where you rise above the din," he says. So Knutson took The Strokes to Austin (the band has its first new album in five years — one that's getting decidedly mixed reviews) but told several of his other acts to stay home.

"I'm so apprehensive about actually finally being here," says Adam Cohen, son of Leonard Cohen. It was his first visit to SXSW — at the festival's invitation — with his band Low Millions.

"It's either the mark of my career having gone so dreadfully poorly that I'm finally here, or I don't know. I'm not very happy to be here," Cohen says morosely (he is Leonard's son, after all).

Cohen says even if you do rise above the din at SXSW, the traditional record industry is in such decline that it's unlikely anyone will offer you a deal. He should know a thing or two about that — at one point or another, he's been signed to Columbia, Capitol and Manhattan. (After this story was published, Cohen reported that his SXSW hadn't been all bad. See update below)

"There's this kind of futility involved in trying to raid the coffers," Cohen says. "There's nothing. There's no more gold bullion. There's no more — unless you're Lady Gaga — you're trying to make a fast buck in the slow lane."

At a time when few artists are making money selling records, performing has become more important than ever. Adam Woodard, of the unsigned band Star & Micey from Memphis, says he has met a lot of club owners looking to book acts.

"I don't think it's so much about the label as if, you know, you meet that one guy from England who owns that club; that he sees you and he just falls in love with you and he's willing to buy some tickets to fly out there to play," Woodard says. And it's not like SXSW has ever really attracted the most pragmatic people. Johnny Z came down from Chicago with his band The Sunshine Elsewhere.

"We met Rick Rubin's manager; we met Lady Gaga's manager. We've met so many people, so many people," the 27-year-old enthuses. "It's incredible how easy it is to meet so many people down here."

And if that doesn't get you a deal or a gig, even the grumblers had to admit they had a little fun being around so many people who love and play music.

Update (3/22/11): Adam Cohen got in touch with us to say that despite his fear that Low Millions would get lost among the thousand of artists vying for attention at SXSW, the festival was good for the band.

After playing a showcase at SXSW, Cohen says he was offered several record contracts. He didn't say which labels, but he insisted there was a bidding war going on between executives over his band. He says he even met a film maker who wants to do a documentary about Low Millions. Cohen told NPR he was feeling a bit foolish about his earlier remarks.

The question that Cohen raised before his performance about what it even means to be signed these days still remains (his debut came out on Columbia and the two followups on divisions of Capitol). Record sales continue to decline and, as Cohen put it in our earlier story, "there's no more gold bullion....you're trying to make a fast buck in the slow lane."

Cohen also pointed out that all he has right now are offers. He's still waiting to see if they have any bullion attached. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

In Austin, Texas, the South by Southwest Music Conference came to a close yesterday. The five-day event attracted some of the nation's most well-known performers, like Emmylou Harris, Jack White, Kanye West. But for some people that was a problem. Some of the smaller acts came away with a feeling that this festival might have grown too big and may no longer be worth it for them.

NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL: Downtown Austin rocked all weekend. The whole city felt like one big crowded bar. Revelers like Mathew Oats, who just moved to Austin, staggered down the street soaking up the music coming out of every door and window.

Mr. MATTHEW OATS: We're actually not even - we're trying not to pay anything to enjoy, to have a good time

SYDELL: Well, you know, that's really easy to do here.

Mr. OATS: It is very easy to do.

SYDELL: But if you're an independent musician who had to get all your equipment and band members here, the pay-off may not be so clear. Drummer Nick Stetz, who plays with the unsigned Leroy Stagger, has been coming for five years.

Mr. NICK STETZ (Drummer): And it seems like every year it's just harder and harder. You know, it's like there's more hoops to jump through; seems weird that like the bigger bands get more than one showcase.

SYDELL: Stetz is referring to the official South by Southwest concerts. It wasn't that way back in 1986, when there were 170 bands and about 700 people came to see them. This year there were 2,400 performers and 36,000 attendees, and that doesn't count the number of unofficial bands that played on the street and in small venues.

Steve Kuntson, general manager for North America for the independent label Rough Trade, did the cost/benefit analysis.

Mr. STEVE KUNTSON (Rough Trade): There's so much stuff to wade through that it's difficult if you are an artist to have a presence here where you rise above the din.

SYDELL: So Kuntson told several of his acts to stay home.

Even some more seasoned musicians felt overwhelmed.

Mr. ADAM COHEN (Musician): I'm so apprehensive about actually finally being here.

SYDELL: Adam Cohen, son of Leonard Cohen, is making his first visit to South by Southwest.

Mr. COHEN: It's either the mark of my career having gone so dreadfully poorly that I'm finally here. Or I don't - I'm not very happy to be here.

SYDELL: Even though the festival invited him to bring his current band, Low Millions.

(Soundbite of song, "Cry Ophelia")

Mr. COHEN: (Singing) Something went wrong. You're not laughing. It's not so easy now to get you to smile...

SYDELL: Cohen says even if you do rise above the din at South by Southwest, the traditional record industry is in such decline, it's unlikely anyone will offer you a deal.

Mr. COHEN: There's this kind of futility involved in trying to, you know, raid the coffers. You know, there's nothing. There's no more gold bullion. There's no more - you know, unless you're Lady Gaga, you're trying to make a fast buck in the slow lane.

SYDELL: At a time when few artists are making money selling records, performing has become more important than ever. Adam Woodard of the unsigned band Star & Micey from Memphis says he's met a lot of club owners looking to book acts.

Mr. ADAM WOODARD (Musician): I don't think it's so much about the label as, you know, if you meet that one guy from England who owns that club that, you know, he sees you and he just falls in love with you and he's willing to buy some tickets to fly you out there to play...

SYDELL: And it's not like South by Southwest has ever really attracted the most pragmatic people. Twenty-seven-year-old Johnny Z came down from Chicago with his band The Sunshine Elsewhere.

Mr. JOHNNY Z (Musician): We met Rick Rubens' manager. We met Lady Gaga's manager. We've met so many people.

SYDELL: So the dream lives to get signed.

Mr. Z: The dream not only lives but it's incredible how easy it is to meet so many people down here.

SYDELL: And if that doesn't get you a deal or a gig, even the grumblers had to admit you can't help but have some fun being around so many people who love and play music.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.