Dan Bryk, a frumpy Canuck who refuses to give his age but looks to be in his twenties, sits on an outdoor patio behind his Yamaha keybs and sings his ass off, which isn't such an easy task -- the dude's heavy, literally. It's 9 p.m. on a Thursday in Austin, and the club at which Bryk is performing, Melagio on Sixth Street, is nearly empty; most of the patrons consist of should-be strippers touting Jack Daniel's drink specials. Bryk's audience consists primarily of passers-by listening in from a side street, including a model-hot blonde leaning in and staring lovingly at the disheveled wreck singing about chunky girls and the pervy boys who luv 'em so.
Bryk writes and plays like Randy Newman weaned on Jonathan Richman records; the songs are pretty, and pretty unsettling. Sometimes you can only smile at his sad-sack lyrics and beautifully overwrought melodies. Then there's "Fingers," a semiautobiographical tale about a mentor, who taught the kid to play piano and listen to Randy Newman, turned abuser: "Oh, when Fingers touched my belt/I was too scared to say how wrong it felt," he sang, his voice cracking like old paint. "I knew that I was going straight to hell/He didn't have to tell me not to tell." A handful of colleagues look at each other as the touching tale gives way to touching; one, eyes wide open in amazement and no small amount of terror, silently mouths, "Dear God."
Bryk's one of those performers who come to the South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival each year in search of that elusive label deal -- "a real one," Bryk reminds after his set, his round face bearing a serious smirk as he demands fifteen dollars for his latest offering. His late-2000 album, the bewitching Lovers Leap, was released in the United States on Scratchie Records, cofounded by Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger and the Smashing Pumpkins' James Iha and D'arcy. But Bryk says when he turned in his demos for his next album, the label informed him his songs weren't "Dan Bryk enough"; as such, he figures, maybe it's time to move on. Or maybe he's kidding: The guy's a bit of a put-on, the self-deprecating genius surrounding himself in the fat guy's deflector shield.
There was little chance that Bryk's showcase would amount to more than a long drive back to Mississauga, Canada; few have emerged from SXSW with lucrative contracts in recent years, as the music biz has cut away the fat (no pun, seriously) and tried to go lean in these downer days of Internet downloading, a post-September 11 hangover, questionable accounting practices, royalty scams, payola allegations, and the megamergers that have resulted in thousands of label firings and hundreds of bands getting dropped from their deals. The other day another writer and I were trying to recall the last time a band got signed at SXSW; best we could figure, it was Veruca Salt. Or the Chickasaw Mudd Puppies. There is a reason that in 2001, according to Lorraine Ali and David Gates in a recent Newsweek article, blank CDs outsold prerecorded ones.
The conference is, to a large extent, no longer about discovering The New Thing; it's about showcasing The Same Old Thing. Labels use it as a marketing tool, a publicity vehicle for the assembled rock-crit masses: DreamWorks brought the Eels, whose brilliant Souljacker hit stores during the conference; Sony brought Lo-Fidelity Allstars, also with new product in hand; while folks like Neil Finn, Clinic, Norah Jones, South, Elbow, Jerry Cantrell, the X-ecutioners, and Starsailor were there to tout just-released or forthcoming albums. It's music to the cynics' ears: A biz built on greed and bloat is crumbling at its foundation, undone by its own arrogance and corruption. When Virgin paid Mariah Carey $28 million just to go away recently, it was reminiscent of a scene from Animal Crackers, when Groucho Marx asks bandleader Chico how much it would cost to keep him from rehearsing. "You couldn't afford it," Chico warns.
"There are a lot of people crying doom and gloom out there," said the Band's Robbie Robertson during his Thursday-morning keynote address, which seemed to last till Friday morning. "We're inclined to forget why we came here at the beginning. It's the music -- that thrill, that chill it gave us down our spine." Robertson, in Austin for the Friday-night re-premiere of a remastered The Last Waltz, warned of quick fixes and cheap thrills. At South by Southwest, sometimes that's all you get. Or all you need.
The conference, now in its sixteenth year, initially promised to be something of a summit on the state of the music business, a four-day-and-night symposium on the ills of an industry suffering its worst slump in years and taking its lumps from all comers, including millionaire superstars such as Recording Artists' Coalition co-founder Don Henley, trying to reshape the landscape by taking on the antiquated language of contracts that render musicians little more than indentured servants. Problem is, the music industry's not in decline; it's in decay.
A few weeks before SXSW began on March 13, Hilary Rosen, president and CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America -- the trade outfit that reps the major labels, usually at the expense of the people who actually make the music -- told a Senate committee that in 2001, album sales were down 10 percent (or some $600 million). Most of that, she insisted, was the result of the illegal pirating of music over the Internet; according to Rosen, 23 percent of music consumers said they didn't buy more music last year because they refused to pay for what they found for free. During SXSW she also insisted that sales slumped because consumers said they can't find what they're looking for -- which doesn't quite explain how the Grammy-winning O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack has sold more than four million units and, more than a year after its release, has touched the top spot on the charts without aid of any radio or MTV airplay. Maybe people just don't want what Rosen and her bosses are offering; she never considers that.
Rosen was invited to speak at the conference, as was Michael Greene, the head of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences -- who failed to show for his panel, "The Case for Recording Contract Reform," when he discovered he would be surrounded by musicians, attorneys, journalists, and not a single representative from a major label. The man who had balls enough to ditch his original, safe speech and go on the Grammys last month to proclaim piracy a "life or death" issue for the music industry chickened out.
Rosen, who spoke after Robertson on Thursday morning, had no reason to stay away: Tamara Conniff, music editor for the Hollywood Reporter, served up soft snowballs and Rosen smashed them to powder. Conniff let Rosen slide through her panel like a kid at a water park; when Rosen said consumers "never" complain about the price of CDs -- 68 cents to make, $19 to buy -- Conniff should have taken her on, Paula Jones-Tonya Harding style. Instead she let Rosen get away with her multinational-sponsored gibberjabber about how the RIAA really does care about the musicians, though there's never been any proof of that.
"There are no victims," she insisted, this woman Courtney Love likes to call "the devil." "Everybody has been willing participants." What she's saying to musicians is this: Lie back and enjoy it.
Two days later Love was to deliver her counterpunch, and conference attendees -- some 6,500, down 15 percent from last year's attendance -- wanted to listen and love Love; they even endured security checks, a first at SXSW, to cram into the standing-room-only Austin Convention Center ballroom. But instead of a thoughtful, rational discussion with moderator Los Angeles Times Pulitzer Prize-winning music-biz reporter Chuck Phillips, the room was instead treated to a rambling, incoherent, self-absorbed diatribe from the Hole. Pardon, that should read "from the Hole frontwoman." It was like attending a one-woman show -- Courtney! -- during which she strayed so far from the point she rendered herself, sadly, pointless. She's the RIAA's ideal enemy, the millionaire with full pockets, a seemingly empty head, and a big mouth. C. Lo does all of H. Ro's heavy lifting, gratis.
Love, who's been entangled in a three-year legal dispute with multinational Vivendi Universal, to whom she's signed, fired the "first shot in the artists rights' battle," Phillips said by way of introduction. Too bad she brought with her only a musket full of blanks: Every time she sniffed an interesting subject -- she promised to divulge secrets behind the Dixie Chicks' lawsuit with Sony Music, in which they accuse the label of illegal accounting practices -- she seemed to be snorting something else. Love preferred instead to talk about her 221-page deposition in which she apparently divulges everything from which record exec chopped an eightball on the new Limp Bizkit record to who buys whores to who wears a hairpiece -- as though the presence of drugs, frugs, and rugs in rock and roll is a revelation.
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"It's a stinky-ass business ... the most Machiavellian business that's also the most disorganized," she proclaimed, before going on about hanging out on a yacht at Cannes, almost getting into a fistfight with Christina Aguilera a few days earlier, recounting her days as a "sexual degenerate" with an "injectable" problem and insisting, "I'm not gonna be a house nigger anymore." The widow Cobain and self-proclaimed "Dragonlady Yoko" dropped names (Bono, Mike Mills, Sheryl Crow, Gwen Stefani, Cameron Crowe) and dropped the ball, which was unfortunate, because Love does make some excellent points.
She suggests that musicians forgo big advances for free agency, meaning a band would no longer sign to a label for six albums (OK, maybe two before you're dropped). She reminds that payola is alive and well at your local radio station. She talks eloquently about how the music business has a 97 percent rate of failure. She's passionate, open, and able to look like she's out not for herself, but for the kid and comer just about to make it. Problem is, she's a millionaire wanting to re-sign to yet another major label once she gets out of her deal with Vivendi, which renders her a moot point. The real rebel -- a Jenny Toomey, say, who heads up the Future of Music Coalition and both performed and spoke at SXSW -- would do it all herself, without the funding of the "gangsters" of whom Love so derisively (or facetiously?) spoke.
There was one small nugget of brand-new info to be gleaned from Love's speech: She noted, almost offhandedly, that Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban once offered to purchase Napster, which Cuban confirmed in an e-mail Monday. "I told them if they did the deal they ended up with, it was like doing a deal with the devil and they would never recover, which they haven't and won't," he wrote. "I also told them I would move it off-shore, where there is no DMCA," he added, referring to the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which makes it a crime to circumvent technologies that protect copyrighted material. Had Cuban been successful in his bid, it likely would have reshaped the entire legal landscape. But the file-sharing system at the center of so much discussion and litigation has been rendered moot, buried by a long line of successors and so much paperwork in federal court.
But no one attends South by Southwest's music fest to be lectured to or to learn. They come instead to catch what Robertson called "the music fever"; they drive to Texas to play short showcases, to listen to bands from Japan and Sweden and Germany, to bask in the buzz and perhaps sneak away with a fistful of discs from bands heretofore unknown outside Aliceville, Alabama, or Dayton, Ohio, or Vienna, Austria. They come to discover the secrets and speak the secret language ("They're like Neu crossed with Wilco if they were fronted by Brian Eno or Neil Finn"), to one-up each other ("Dude, I just saw the best Japanese stoner-rock-free-jazz-Kraut-rock-hip-hop band, like, ever!") and make sure they don't miss The Best Band to Ever Play South by Southwest (that would have been Pleasant Grove ... or the Eels ... or the Gaza Strippers ... or ...). Like Robertson said, it's about finding that one thing that turns a flirtation into an obsession; on the drive back from Austin I realized I'd found mine, Dan Bryk.