South By Southwest sends clarion call to music

AUSTIN, Texas "Change or die."

That was the message to the music industry sent by Courtney Love and Miles Copeland (former manager of The Police and current label head of Ark21) during two separate "interview" sessions during the 16th Annual South By Southwest Conference in Austin, Texas, last week.

While the two were 180 degrees apart on their opinions on how the industry needs to change to survive, both agreed that with diminishing CD sales, something drastic has to happen for the industry to stay afloat. Love and Copeland spoke to packed halls (nearly 100 photographers lined up three deep at The Start of Love's session), as part of the annual music industry convention, which over the past two decades has come to help define the next fad in pop and rock music.


South By Southwest
a personal journey

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The conference is held, in part, in the Austin Convention Center, filling an exhibit hall with merchants' booths catering to the special needs of bands and managers. Outside the hall, the smaller rooms of the convention center are used for morning and afternoon panel sessions, with expert guests covering various topics of interest to musicians, producers, managers and music publicists.

It's a prime opportunity for musicians to learn more about "how to make it," as well as to promote themselves to key music industry professionals, pick up cheap deals on CD or T-shirt manufacturing from exhibitors, or get tips on how to get the best results when recording a demo or album in the studio.


Producers panel with Eric Ambel, Chris Stamey and more.

But the panels and exhibits are only half the story of South By Southwest (SXSW). The main draw for most is the amazing variety of artist showcases. For five nights, the club and bar strip of downtown Austin (centering mainly on Sixth Street and Red River Avenue) turns into a music performance mecca. Nearly every bar and restaurant hosts bands, and any participant in the SXSW conference can hear them free (provided 500 people haven't crammed in ahead of you).

Many people, both locals from Austin and tourists from abroad, don't register for the full conference, but instead buy cheaper wristbands that gain them access, not to the convention hall, but just to the clubs at night. With more than 45 clubs, bars and restaurants presenting from five to 10 artists each night, there is simply no way you can possibly see a fraction of the talent performing during the conference, most of which are entry to mid-level bands hoping to attract the attention of major record labels.

But "name" acts perform too; last week, Better Than Ezra, Sixpence None the Richer, Asleep at the Wheel, They Might Be Giants, Local H and Jerry Cantrell (Alice in Chains) all appeared. With hundreds of bands playing at virtually every room they can plug an amp into, and with many club "artist showcase" parties offering free beer and CDs, SXSW will drown you in rock 'n' roll (and liquor) if you let it.

 

Robertson: Band and Beyond

Robbie Robertson, former leader of The Band and current senior executive of artist recruitment with Dreamworks Records, gave the keynote speech.

Robertson quipped that he didn't even know what a keynote speech was ("Is it a key? Is it a note? I don't even read music!"). Rather than giving a doom and gloom speech about the sluggish state of the industry, or an incendiary rail about how record companies are ruining artistry, Robertson, instead, gave a recounting of his own personal journey, and of how the most important thing in the music industry the music changed his life.

"In these times [focused on technology], we're inclined to forget why we came here in the beginning the music, and that special thing it did inside here," he reminded, pointing to his heart.

It was a fascinating story; Robertson talked of how his Canadian-Indian heritage drove him to pick up the guitar, and of how a connection with bluesman Ronnie Hawkins would take him from his northern home, at 16, to tour the bayous of the South and hobnob with the record company moguls of New York. He described how a band of younger musicians (The Hawks) slowly grew around Hawkins, and of how that group eventually split off from the older bluesman to do their own thing, and became The Band. And he talked of how The Band was solicited by young folkie Bob Dylan to help him "go electric," and of how, on its first tour, the group was booed and pelted with tomatoes by fans angry with Dylan for "plugging in."

"We had no understanding that we were entering a musical revolution," Robertson described. Eventually Dylan's manager would help relocate The Band to Woodstock, NY, to record their debut album, and partly because of their new base, The Band also played the legendary Woodstock festival in 1969. Robertson told of the toll of cyclical tours and album releases in the '70s and of how he restructured his life by quitting the band to make soundtrack music for movies like The Color of Money and Raging Bull for awhile, and eventually focused on working with American Indian music. With that and the recent Indian music he worked on for the opening of the Winter Olympics, Robertson noted that his life has come full circle, taking him from fame and fortune back to the Six Tribes Reservation in Canada. It also has put him at the point of looking backwards at his career this year, as he has helped Martin Scorcese ready a 25th Anniversary re-release of The Band's legendary "goodbye" concert film, The Last Waltz.

"Music did something to us, and took us on a journey," he said. "It's a journey we're still on."

Robertson's keynote inspired the musicians in the audience, who went off to listen to panel discussions on "Copyright in the Courts and Congress" and "Running a Dom Perignon PR Campaign on a Miller Lite Budget" and "Producers: Preparing for the Studio" before setting up on tiny stages later that week to play their songs for throngs of badged and wristbanded audiences.

 
David Fricke and Miles Copeland Rolling Stone's David Fricke with Miles Copeland.

Police-ing the music industry

The main hall was packed again on the third day of the convention for Rolling Stone writer David Fricke's interview of Miles Copeland, an outspoken manager and record company owner. The interview centered on the recent call of Don Henley and a coalition of artists who are seeking to make it illegal for record companies to pact long-term contracts with artists. Henley and others allege that the record companies are making artists indentured servants with no rights, but Copeland sees it another way.

"I've become the guy talking from the record company's standpoint," he said, a little ruefully. Copeland talked of the importance of using longterm contracts as leverage oints in negotiating a deal for an unknown band with a record label. When an unsigned band has no track record, he said, all they have to offer a label is the possibility that they might become a big name in a year or two and then the label can recoup its investment. Take away the chance that the label can recoup and profit from its development money on a gamble with a new artist, and why would the label gamble? he asked.

Copeland told bands of the things they should consider when negotiating a record deal (from percentage points of sales to advances to other contractual wiles). He and Fricke had an animated argument over the business sense and the ethics in EMI's recent $28 million payoff of Mariah Carey to end her contract, and they discussed the inequities that both labels and artists experience over the course of a record deal. He also talked of the threat of the home CD burner and the growing philosophy among the younger generation that they are "entitled" to download music for free off the internet, rather than paying for it at a record store, and thus helping to pay the costs of creating that music.If the artists, the record companies that issue their work and the record stores that sell the work don't get paid for the music, it won't be long before the entire music industry crumbles. And that would be a disaster for musicians and music lovers.

"We are an industry moving from a revenue business to a business that makes no money," he warned, and answering a question from the audience about how to stem that mindset, he said "teach your kid common sense!"

He suggested kids should try running a lemonade stand where they gave away the lemonade but had to spend their allowance to make it.

 

Love calls for reform, union

Courtney Love was "interviewed" the following day and drew the largest crowd. Seeming alternately scatterbrained and sharp as a tack, Love told, in a mix of name-dropping anecdotes, of her fight to start a musician's union and to modernize record company contracts to make them more fair for artists.

She avoided a question about her legal battle with Nirvana over the rights to and management of her late husband Kurt Cobain's legacy of songs. She pointed out that the music business has a failure rate of 97 percent only 3 percent of new artists signed ever become successful. She suggested that the "old boys club" at the top of the big five major labels still lives in a world of drugs and excess and doesn't run the industry in a way that makes sense from a business perspective, let alone an artistic one.

She said in the belt-tightening efforts over the past couple years as CD sales have flatlined, the labels have, instead of reforming, fired the executives and managers "who have record collections" and actually care about music, while continuing to give $5 million salaries to out-of-touch CEOs. She noted that successful artists like herself (Love has sold millions of albums with her band Hole) have their royalties held back to subsidize the labels' efforts to sign hundreds of new acts that never have a chance of "making it."

This "throw it against the wall and see what sticks" philosophy of developing talent is anachronistic, she railed, as is a standard record company clause that charges artists 10 percent of their royalties to account for "breakage."

"CDs don't break!" she laughed, and described how that clause was originally created back in the days before vinyl in the '30s and '40s, when the shellack material used in pressing records did often shatter and break in shipping.

She noted that CDs cost substantially less to produce than vinyl LPs did about 68 cents an album including the jewelcase and yet the public is charged more than LPs about $18.99 most of which never goes back to the artist.

Love told road stories of U2 and R.E.M. and of fighting recently with Christina Aguilera, and kept the audience both amused, and interested in the meat of her message the reform of the record industry. While the "big name" interviews were informative, the budding artists and producers and engineers got their real information from the panel discussions about recording and marketing music and "net-working" that will no doubt help them secure label deals in the future. For the up and coming artist, South By Southwest is an invaluable crash course Music Industry 101.