DMN 3/95 by Michael Corcoran
Two years ago, it was the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But now every new band wants to be Soundgarden.
At least that’s what it sounds like in the smoky back office of the South By Southwest Music and Media Conference on anunseasonably warm mid-January afternoon.
Music festival director Brent Grulke clicks in tape after tape as coordinators Leah Wilkes and Charlie Llewellin work on computers, answer the ever-buzzing phone and chime in with their opinions.
“I’m sky-diving in my heart,” a singer screeches, as guitar bombs explode all around.
The next tape features a woman chirping that she wants “to be pretty/I want to be the one in your eyes.” Ugh.
A few days past the self-imposed Jan. 13 deadline to send out acceptance letters, Mr. Grulke and his staff have been pulling 10 a.m. to 3 a.m. work shifts in their quest to pare down the 615 acts in the “yes” file. They have 450 showcase slots to fill at the ninth annual music industry confab, which will take place in Austin March 15-19.
When the Austin Chronicle joined with local music businessmen Roland Swenson and Louis Meyers to launch the convention in 1987, the lineup consisted almost entirely of unsigned Texas bands and drew 700 registrants. But the conference grew dramatically each year, drawing 4,200 critics, musicians, record company reps and other music-related attendees in 1994.
South By Southwest quickly earned areputation as a user-friendly New Music Seminar with good Mexican food and Shiner Bock, and it soon surpassed that annual New York confab as THE hip music business gathering.
The setting is ideal for a quick assessment of talent: Each night, five to six bands play 40-minute sets between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m. in more than 20 clubs, many of them within walking distance of each other. Amid the laid-back Austin atmosphere, the record execs have gotten a lot of work done at SXSW, signing such bands as Frente!, Green Day, Veruca Salt, Lisa Loeb, Gin Blossoms, Dangerous Toys and many more soon after they were showcased at the convention.
Ranging from a blank cassette from a band called Toe Nut to a CD anthology from Graham Parker, SXSW received more than 3,600 submissions this year. Mr. Grulke says all were listened to, for an average of five minutes each.
To make sure all types of music received the proper attention, Mr. Grulke brought in Andre Walker to handle the three urban music showcases. Production manager Biff Parker sat in on several sessions, and former Reivers singer Kim Longacre spent many hours listening to the singer-songwriter submissions.
“The songwriter material requires a very close listen because you’re judging complete songs, not just something that sounds good,” Mr. Grulke says. “I don’t want to miss the next Daniel Johnston, but if you weren’t listening closely to his music, you probably wouldn’t get it.”
Mr. Grulke says one of the best things about having to listen to 3,600 tapes is that you never know. It’s like working a slot machine: You can lose 30 times in a row, but you keep pulling that lever because you just know the next one could be a jackpot. Slowly, slowly . . .
Even with the pressure to get the acceptance and rejection letters out, the cuts come painstakingly slowly as various criteria come into play.
“The quality of the music is the No. 1 thing we look for,” Mr. Grulke says, “but then there are other considerations. You’ve gotta think about the club owners, who want packed houses every night.” Antone’s owner Clifford Antone has called SXSW “Christmas for the clubs,” and the anticipation for the payday can put pressure on the music festival coordinators.
The temptation for the club owners to splinter off from the fest, booking their own showcases or renting out their venues, is something that has increasingly concerned SXSW. Coinciding non-SXSW showcases have become rampant in recent years, ranging from Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s all-star revues to this year’s rumored
conference-crash by Offspring. One big label even offered an SXSW venue $6,000 to book its acts exclusively for one night.
Record labels, big and small, have a lot of buzz to gain from the conference. Many submit every act on their rosters, sometimes without the acts’ knowing it, so the SXSW taste-makers must also weigh parity. “We try to spread it around among the labels, so sometimes we end up leaving off really good bands,” Mr. Grulke says. “Grass Records sent us everything on their roster, and it’s all really, really good, but we’re not going to accept 12 bands on a small label.”
One of the biggest knocks on SXSW during the past few years is that it’s been booking too many major-label and big indie acts at the expense of newer bands that look at the festival as a way to penetrate the normal music industry barriers.
“We’re committed to booking as many unsigned bands as possible, so we’re going to limit the number of major-label acts to around 50,” Mr. Grulke says. The value of booking acts like Portishead, Blues Traveler and the Mavericks, which all have flourishing careers, is that it gives the clubs a guaranteed draw and helps to anchor bills containing groups like Minnesota’s Delilahs and Maryland’s Love Riot, which are virtually unknown outside their home states.
“It either makes sense for you to be here or it doesn’t,” Mr. Grulke says. And it’s his job to make the distinction, so Del Amitri and Wig end up on the “no” shelves and Archers of Loaf and Jay Farrar get offered showcases.
“Look at this, Brent,” Mr. Llewellin says. He takes magnetic labels bearing the names of two of alternative rock’s most revered songwriters – Victoria Williams and Vic Chestnutt – and places them under a venue’s name.
“It’s gonna happen,” Mr. Llewellin says.
“All right!” says Mr. Grulke.
Ms. Wilkes comes over and takes the names of Paul K and Lisa Mednick from the large square of band purgatory to the right and places them above the other two acts. “Now there’s a show,” she says.
By the end of the day, however, those names will be shuffled to other venues and different days as the staffers play the board like a chess board with roadies. Every move they make inspires four countermoves.
“We’re not just picking the best 400 bands,” Mr. Grulke says, reflecting on the criteria used. “We’re putting together five- and six-act bills that have to make sense. Sometimes the bands that get in are the ones that fit better on a particular show.”
Indeed, a look at the “yes” board, which Mr. Llewellin keeps calling “extremely tentative,” finds a penchant for packaging. Cincinnati’s Ass Ponys lead into Everclear, which segues into the Silos, who yield to Uncle Tupelo spinoff Wilco on one inspired alt-rock bill. A strong songwriters show pairs Jack Logan and Pete Droge, two guys who sound as if they’re rebelling against their deep-seated feelings for Tom Petty.
Planning the bills
Several shows feature acts from the same label, like Flaco Jimenez, Radney Foster and La Diferenzia – all on Arista. Also planned is a grouping of East Side Digital acts Spanic Family, Bottle Rockets and Liquor Giants. Meanwhile, it should be a nonstop hippie love fest at the proposed Poi Dog Pondering-Little Sister-Blues Traveler show.
Mr. Grulke uses that show as an example of music that he doesn’t love personally, yet won’t hesitate to book. “It’s not my taste, but those are good bands, and people like them.”
On the other hand, Mr. Grulke says he’d rather listen to the music and make his own call than listen to all the
people-in-the-know who have bombarded him with advice and suggestions since the Nov. 15 submission deadline.
“Every bartender I’ve known during the past 20 years has come up to me and said, `Boy, we had a great band here the other night. You oughta put them in South By Southwest,’ ” he says.
Sometimes the little pleas can be convincing. Mr. Grulke pulls out a letter that inspired him to listen closely to a tape. The letter writer used to be in a fairly popular major-label band, but that was years ago. Now he plays with a group of younger guys who really look up to him. His band mates think he’s got clout in the industry, and he didn’t have the guts to tell them the truth – that he’s already had his big break and is now considered fairly untouchable by record company A&R reps.
“They’ve worked so hard to get this far – IF YOU COULD JUST LOOK INTO THEIR EYES,” the letter read, ending, “These are good men; let’s not break their hearts.”
“It was such a sigh of relief that the band was really good,” Mr. Grulke says. The group will be invited to play SXSW if it survives one more weeding.
Mr. Grulke says that having to turn down almost 90 percent of the prospective acts is the hardest part of the job, but it’s 5 p.m. and he hasn’t eaten all day and he’s still got 165 acts to cut before the weekend’s over. There’s no time for sentiment.
“We’re all music fans here. We think music is a noble calling that society doesn’t generally reward highly. Music is important, but if you let being rejected by us bother you, then that’s some weird psychological problem. This is not that important.
“There is a whole arsenal of ways that a band can go about trying to get their music heard, and South By Southwest is just one thing.”