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Music Fest Attendees Nostalgic for Good Ol' Days

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Music Fest Attendees Nostalgic for Good Ol' Days

1 hour, 14 minutes ago

By Chris Morris

AUSTIN, Texas (Billboard) - If the 2004 South by Southwest Music Conference & Festival had an unstated theme, it was: "Things ain't what they used to be."

The bands still rocked loudly on Austin's Sixth Street music strip, the booze still flowed, and the music industry types still schmoozed during the 18th SXSW conclave, which wrapped Sunday with its traditional afternoon softball tournament.

But despite a major upturn in attendance, this year's Lone Star State music-biz hoedown reflected the industry's recent slump and the lingering air of uncertainty, in ways both obvious and subtle.

At times, the conference interview sessions at the Austin Convention Center looked back nostalgically to the days when the music game was a wide-open, wild-and-woolly hit machine.

On Friday, former CBS Records Group head Walter Yetnikoff, author of the new book "Howling at the Moon: The Odyssey of a Monstrous Music Mogul in an Age of Excess," recalled his heady tenure, fueled by titanic quantities of vodka and cocaine, as the leader of the biggest music enterprise of the '80s.

On Saturday, fellow memoirist Andrew Loog Oldham ("Stoned," "2Stoned") recounted tales of his similarly colorful and dissolute career as the production and management Svengali of the Rolling Stones during their ascent in the '60s.

But other panels during SXSW invariably weighed the harsh realities faced by the current music-industry class.

"The End of the Record Store?" -- a Friday panel of independent music retailers -- featured an appearance by South Carolina merchant Carl Singmaster, whose decision to close or sell off his five Manifest Discs & Tapes stores this year shocked his business colleagues.

"All the wheels started coming off this wonderful machine," Singmaster said. "We made more money in the bad years than we ever did in the good years ... (But) it stopped being fun anymore. Ninety percent music and 10% business became exactly the opposite."

Asserting that the major labels' failure to respond to the desires of consumers had led to the current state of affairs, he added, "I decided that this wasn't a future I wanted to invest in."

During "Signing and Developing Artists in a Declining Economy," a sidebar panel for entertainment attorneys, Warner-Chappell Music executive vp and general counsel Ed Pierson noted that the megabucks music-publishing agreements of the '90s have vanished.

Referring to deals cut in the local music business hub during SXSW in 1999, Pierson said, "In the lobby of the Four Seasons hotel, we spent $5 million."

He continued, "You look at (those deals) in 2004 and think, 'What the f--- were we thinking?' "

The prevailing unease worked its way into casual conversations in crowded Sixth Street bars during the evening SXSW showcases.

At one event, two employees of Warner Music Group, which underwent massive layoffs following the company's recent change of ownership, discussed the fact that they had survived the cuts with undisguised relief.

The cataclysmic changes in the business were being felt in Austin's backyard.

During the conference, word surfaced that Tower Records -- the prominent 93-store music firm that emerged from bankruptcy proceedings last week -- would be folding its Austin location in June.

The closure would leave 50,000 students on the adjacent University of Texas campus without a music-specialty chain retailer in the area.

"Now it's just Best Buy," one indie retailer noted, referring to the dominance of the appliance chain and music discounter.

In spite of an oft-cited, albeit usually understated, malaise among the assembled professionals at the conference, many SXSW attendees were content to simply party until they dropped. Most shows at the more than 50 official festival venues were packed to the walls, as unseasonably warm Austin weather brought revelers out in droves at night.

But, even amid the gaiety, the winds of change could be felt on SXSW's home turf.

Early Thursday morning, two members of the Los Angeles band Ozomatli and their manager were arrested after the Latin-rock group, as it always does at the end of its set, led a conga line of audience members out of the club Exodus onto Sixth Street.

The three, who were booked and released on bail, were busted for violating a local ordinance -- passed in 2002 after loud but futile protests by the operators of Austin venues -- that prohibits music outside the clubs without a permit after 2 a.m.

By Saturday night, T-shirts had appeared around town reading, "Free the Ozo Three."


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