If anyone misses the '80s, it's the record industry.
Since the mid-'90s, file-sharing has ripped a gaping hole in the armor of the major record labels. The beating has played out like a Rodney King videotape with a decade of footage. The Recording Industry Association of America is holding the camcorder and the assailants have names like Kazaa, Gnutella, Joe Q. Downloader and George W. Bush.
While music sales fell 11 percent last year, largely due to people ripping and burning, Dubya is poised to rip and burn through Iraq. And folks don't rush out to buy The White Stripes' new Elephant when CNN is warning of a war-induced recession.
So even though the sky was clear in Austin, Tex. for the annual South-by-Southwest music festival (March 12-16), the record label reps, journalists and musicians in attendance couldn't help but mentally project coal-black clouds, if not acid rain.
In years past, record labels registered for the festival by faxing in company phone lists. It wasn't uncommon for employees one-rung above mailroom clerk to be sent to the music industry summit. But in a year when labels like Virgin Records laid off a large portion of their employees, such splurging would have been unconscionable.
“Record labels are just sending their A&R reps,” said one festival employee. “It's not the salad days where they sent the entire staff, which was done mostly as a rock 'n' roll vacation-as a perk for employees.”
The nominal increase in industry attendance (6,500 registrants) was attributed to media types. And more than 1,000 bands still poured into Dubya's former hometown from places like Helsinki, New York, Tokyo and San Diego. Highway 35, the main route into Austin, was a parade of beat-up tour vans. Austin's police scheduled double shifts; alcohol reps licked their lips.
Two years ago, The White Stripes played SXSW in the tiny, smoke-filled 710 Club, and the SPIN writers and MTV talent scouts in attendance circle-jerked to the duo's godliness. The garage-rock tandem was deified there and then.
Last year, New York's Yeah Yeah Yeahs howled and sexed their way into critics' hearts. Two months ago, the trio signed a major deal to Interscope Records. Domination is imminent.
So yes, it is within these four days that music industry players conspire to coronate new heroes. Executives are looking for bands that can sell records, magazines, radio ads or TV commercials. Poorly paid journalists are slightly more pure (and excessively more drunk), looking for bands that might restore faith in popular music, which today feels like an assembly line reeling out false prophets to propagate the myth of “music-as-religion.”
With the exposure at SXSW, a band can jump the bullet train from a writer's praise to a radio station's playlist to a record label's roster to TRL.
Like the real world, of course, such grandiose things happen for less than one percent of the bands. Some are ignored altogether or, ironically, deemed overrated. Smaller glories are to be won, however, as was the case for San Diego's Steve Poltz.
Poltz recently wriggled out of his major label contract and started his own label to put out his new album, Chinese Vacation. Only problem: he hadn't been able to find a good company to distribute it.
The president of a distribution company flew out to SXSW to see the singer-songwriter perform a 45-minute set on the 18th floor of Austin's Crowne Plaza Hotel. After Poltz' hilariously manic show ended to a standing ovation, the president of the company was heard saying, “Give him anything he wants.”
“He wanted to make sure that I could sell 9,800 copies of the record,” Poltz explained a day later as he fawned over Liz Phair, who was performing at a local Starbucks. “I got the deal. South-by-Southwest was a total success story for me.”
This year's SXSW didn't yield a new, mass-approved darling, as it has in years past. Hot Hot Heat-Canada's new wave revivalists-deservingly bore the brunt of hype, but their star had risen before the festival. Mild static surrounded the new wave of garage rockers like New Zealand's D4, Australia's The Datsuns, NYC's Mooney Suzuki or the all-female quintet from Sweden, Sahara Hotnights.
The largest riot was at the Rock en Español showcase, highlighted by Mexican punk band, Molotov. The mostly Latino crowd pogoed arm-in-arm, chanting good-humored expletives like “puto, puto, puto!” They stage-dove and crowd-surfed. As they pumped their fists, it was apparent that the revolution is south of the border.
“Record labels are really starting to pay attention to the Latin market,” said Elena Rodrigo, president of Universal Latino's alternative division, to which Molotov is signed. “File-sharing isn't really a problem for us. Piracy is our biggest problem. You go to a marketplace in Mexico City and there are merchants everywhere selling illegal copies of CDs and tapes.”
In these times of modem-based looting, the record industry would do well to look to the Third World. It's a place with fewer portals for five-fingered downloads (aka, computers). And compared to the American audiences for whom the revolution has passed, Latinos at SXSW seemed to believe that this thing called rock 'n' roll can actually change their world.