Texas High Notes

The SXSW music fest showcases the city as much as the artists

It's not often that the U.S. military and the music industry go looking for salvation in the same central Texas city -- particularly one whose unofficial motto, plastered on bumper stickers and T-shirts, is "Keep Austin Weird." But there was Maj. Gen. Pete Chiarelli, commander of the U.S. Army First Cavalry Division's 20,000 soldiers en route to Baghdad, leading a squad of his ranking officers on an exhaustive tour of Austin while peppering its civil servants with questions on police patrols, trash pickups, and local elections.

True, Austin officials had yet to combat Baathist guerrillas in the surrounding Hill Country, but as Chiarelli explained to the Washington Post, the Austin municipal brain trust had assembled a government that ran smoothly. To duplicate that success in Iraq, he needed to know "what right looks like" when it comes to running a city.

As the First Cavalry shipped out, more than 8000 music-industry figures landed on March 18 for Austin's eighteenth annual South by Southwest Music Festival (SXSW). And while balancing day-to-day needs with stray gunfire wasn't on the industry honchos' agenda (50 Cent's management excepted), "what right looks like" seemed an equally apropos tag for Austin's thriving music scene.

Indeed for Miami's musicians, who never tire of pointing out their hometown's structural shortcomings, Austin had it all, starting with a dizzying array of venues in which to perform, from intimate bars with cozy stages to midsize rooms perfect for acts perched somewhere between packing clubs and filling arenas. There were record stores catering to virtually every taste, from honky-tonk country to the latest European techno beats, as well as a local press willing to review it all with a critical ear.

Even better, there were radio stations that swerved far from Top 40 fare, giving folks a chance to actually hear interesting new music 24 hours a day. The University of Texas's KVRX-FM (91.7) featured students well-versed in underground sounds, and in a welcome change from South Florida's own collegiate hipsters, a consciousness of an audience beyond their own dorm rooms; NPR affiliate KUT-FM (90.5) leavened its daytime talkfest with folksy singer-songwriters, up-and-coming roots rockers, and best of all (are you listening, WLRN?), not a single interminable school board meeting. Come nighttime KUT was just as left-field, with old-school jazzbos duking it out for airtime alongside noise-laden New Wave outfits.

The commercial end of the dial was no less distinctive: KGSR-FM (107.1) followed vintage Willie Nelson with Lucinda Williams's latest, while leaving plenty of room for Miami expatriate Raul Malo to drop by and deliver his patented heart-melting croon in the flesh. "We'll make you an honorary Texan," gushed the KGSR DJ as Malo strummed away on several acoustic renditions of classics by his group the Mavericks. "I'm willing to pay taxes here if that's what it takes," Malo joked back before launching into another Mavericks tune first heard inside Little Haiti's Churchill's, long before Nashville stardom came calling.


It wasn't entirely a lovefest. During one SXSW panel discussion entitled "Signing and Developing Artists in a Declining Economy," Warner/Chappell Music executive vice president Ed Pierson reflected on his business's current wave of layoffs, occurring amid a sales slump of nearly 100 million fewer CDs sold in 2003 than in 2000. Referring to the swanky digs where many Warner staffers traditionally stay for SXSW's flurry of deal-brokering, Pierson recalled that in 1999 alone, "in the lobby of the Four Seasons we spent five million dollars.... What the fuck were we thinking?"

Not that too many people there were willing to break out the violins. Barely an hour earlier they'd heard former CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff read from his appropriately titled memoir Howling at the Moon: The Odyssey of a Monstrous Music Mogul in an Age of Excess.

Some of Yetnikoff's career bons mots, as elicited by his book's co-author David Ritz? "If you hired a hooker for a company party, you buried the charge among the food and wine." And a CBS accounting department credo? "Pay the artist as little as you can. Tie the artist up for as long as you can. Recoup as often as you can."

Retailers had their own woes to share, as heard in a panel on "The End of the Record Store." With formerly behemoth chains like Tower Records joining mom-and-pop outfits in bankruptcy, and Internet file sharing showing little sign of fading, claims that the sky was falling were hardly out of place. Getting grownups back inside record stores was key, argued Denver's Twist & Shout owner Paul Epstein. To him, singer Norah Jones's recently released Feels Like Home -- the followup to her eight-million-sold 2002 debut -- was a torch song-filled godsend. "It's not going to change the world, it's not a genius record," Epstein continued, "but it's going to drive my entire first quarter."

For those unwilling to bank on the industry's further pushing of fresh acts beyond the teenybopper set, Don VanCleave had some advice: Look to Miami. The Coalition of Independent Music Stores president cited Lisa Teger-Zhen's Uncle Sam's Music on South Beach as an example of how stores could diversify their inventory to maintain profits in a shaky market. "When I visited Lisa down at Uncle Sam's, I was pretty blown away," VanCleave said. "The candle section seemed bigger than the CD section!"

For Teger-Zhen, though, stocking "lifestyle products" and all manner of kitschy tchotchkes -- which now make up 35 percent of her store's total sales -- isn't just a savvy business move. It's a matter of survival: "In order to stay alive, you've got to get into the lifestyle stuff to get the good margins. That's the only way I can continue to buy all the music."

Ah yes, the music. It was everywhere in Austin, which was helpful for those in search of this year's buzz, since showcasing artists often found themselves besieged by both industry figures and pure fans. Scotland's Franz Ferdinand, riding a wave of hype over its guitar-driven slash-and-burn grooves, was met with a capacity crowd and hundreds more stranded on the sidewalk outside. Ireland's the Thrills,drawing on a lush vein of American West Coast Sixties-styled pop, and New York City's organ-wailing Walkmen also had to turn away throngs that snaked down the block.

At a decidedly lower-key (and thankfully underpublicized) Thrills concert the next afternoon, Kulchur literally collided with Tony Landa, bassist for Hialeah punksters Humbert. But he wasn't here to schmooze. Landa too had been shut out of the earlier Thrills show -- just one of the many bands he'd flown in expressly to catch. Humbert may have been going strong back home, but Landa's main priority in Austin was simply soaking up sets from groups that had yet to hit South Florida.

Sam Beam, whose own Miami outfit Iron & Wine had expanded from a solo act into a proper band, now drawing as much on old-timey bluegrass melodies as "Baby I'm a Want You"-era Bread, was at SXSW promoting his second album, Our Endless Numbered Days. Yet Beam would've been more than happy to trade places with Landa.

"When I come to places like [SXSW] it feels like work," he griped of the slew of shows and interviews his label, Sub Pop, had crammed into his 48-hour Austin stay. "I'm a homebody," he laughed -- a trip to the beach is a big social outing for him. Not that the Miami International University of Art & Design film instructor was going to complain too loudly: "I never expected to have a music career, so every time I play and people are there, it's great. It all seems like a dream." And his predictions for Iron & Wine's future in the beleaguered music industry? Beam chuckled wryly: "I hope we're still having this conversation a year from now."

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