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Bands From the World Over Come to Sing and Schmooz

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March 22, 2004

Bands From the World Over Come to Sing and Schmooze


AUSTIN, Tex., March 20 — "Everybody wants to be in the rock scene," the British pop-rock band Athlete sang wistfully sometime after midnight on Thursday. No one would have dreamed of denying it here at the 18th annual South by Southwest Music and Media Conference. From Wednesday through Saturday about 7,200 musicians and associates swarmed the convention center in Austin and this city's club-lined streets. They were trading business cards and visiting showcases where musicians played audition-length sets from morning to just before dawn.

At a time when sales are dropping and jobs are disappearing at the major recording companies, South by Southwest testified to the vitality of the other music business: the nonblockbuster realm of live shows and independent labels, where careers don't hinge on Top 10 hits.

"There are major companies who are trying to keep their businesses afloat," said Jay Boberg, president of MCA Records, in one of the conference's panel discussions. "And there's everybody else. Everybody else is doing great."

It was possible to spend the entire conference listening to nothing but country or hip-hop or Latin rock or solo songwriters or punk or Texas bands. There were also reunions of bands whose reputations had grown after they broke up, like the 1980's Boston post-punk band Mission of Burma and the 1970's Memphis pop-rock band Big Star, both now on the verge of releasing new albums. And there were hardy, nonstop-touring musicians like the honky-tonk singer Delbert McClinton and the reggae band Toots and the Maytals.

The conference's keynote was a conversation with Little Richard, the rock 'n' roll pioneer who is now 70 and still has his falsetto holler. He said that he was no longer interested in recording albums. "I'm alive tonight!" he proclaimed.

While few of the 1,261 acts booked to perform during the conference's four nights of showcases would object to selling a million albums, the festival's tone was one of modesty and realism as participants shared advice on how to sustain a career with CD sales in the thousands, not the millions, and with a full calendar of performances rather then video shoots. Most bands were more concerned with having gas money to get to the next show than they were with the major labels' bugaboo, Internet downloading. Many of them placed free downloadable songs on the conference's Web site, www.sxsw.com.

The performers included a handful of nationally known bands, among them N.E.R.D., the rock band led by the hitmaking hip-hop producers the Neptunes. But most bands performed their unpaid showcases at South by Southwest simply to reach the next career rung. Fledgling bands were trying to move from local shows to regional ones or to find a company to distribute a homemade album; familiar names were reminding club bookers that they were still ready to work.

Contingents of bands from Australia, Britain, Denmark and Sweden, and even a traditional-music group from Uzbekistan, Uzbegim Taronasi, hoped to gain a foothold in the United States. Nearly a third of the acts at South by Southwest had no recording contracts; more than 60 percent were on independent labels or had released albums on their own. "It's not even a fringe," said Celia Hirschman, managing director for North America of the British independent label One Little Indian. "The mainstream is do-it-yourself."

In Australia this week's No. 1 album was a do-it-yourself effort: "Sunrise Over Sea" by the John Butler Trio, which released it independently on Mr. Butler's label, Jarrah. Mr. Butler, a guitarist and singer, took his genial love songs and virtuosic blend of Celtic, jazz and funk vamps to the conference in search of an American deal.

The conference, like current college-radio playlists, was full of revivalists: garage-rock from the Von Bondies and the Greenhornes, elaborate 1960's pop from the Silent League and All Night Radio, folk-rock from the Thrills and Preston School of Industry, perky new wave from Los Abandoned, dissonant and danceable post-punk from Franz Ferdinand.

In an unscientific sampling of bands at South by Southwest, strategically surging guitars were everywhere. The Sleepy Jackson, from Perth, Australia, brought eruptions of noise and feedback to songs steeped in 60's rock. Broken Social Scene, from Toronto, had a four-guitar front line that brought a triumphant optimism to Kevin Drew's high, yearning vocals. South San Gabriel, from St. Louis, played pensive, country-tinged songs that unfurled gorgeously majestic crescendos.

Clearlake, from Brighton, England, let its guitars lend an ominous power to terse, troubled love songs. Frank Jordan, a band from Sacramento, worked its songs into a molten tremolo frenzy. The Reputation charged through Elizabeth Elmore's feisty power-pop songs. Experimental Aircraft, from Austin, expanded romantic plaints into echoing, pealing instrumentals that grew all-encompassing. And the Wrens, from Secaucus, N.J., carried songs from quiet picked patterns to scrabbling punk intensity.

Dynamics and textures like those, which had the South by Southwest crowds cheering, can't be prefabricated. They are clear indicators that a band has spent time honing its music in rehearsal and testing it onstage in club after club, a painstaking process that South by Southwest nurtures.

There were gentler sounds, too: from Aqualung, a British duo whose plaintive vocals and rippling arpeggios mesmerized the usually talkative South by Southwest crowd; from Sufjan Stevens, picking a banjo and singing with wide-eyed mock innocence; and from Carmen Consoli, an Italian singer and acoustic guitarist whose volatile songs signaled passion across the language barrier.

And there were raucous groups that didn't need guitars, like the Dresden Dolls, a piano-and-drums duo that unleashed Amanda Palmer's gutsy voice and gallows humor; and Atmosphere, a rapper who seesawed articulately between self-doubt and righteousness.

Ozomatli, a Latin rock band that often leads its audience dancing into the street, had two members and their manager arrested early Thursday when it did so this time.

The Mekons, a British band that started 26 years ago in the punk era, were living proof that an independent rock spirit can keep rowdy iconoclasm intact for a generation. At a 1 a.m. set Jon Langford of the Mekons said his group was the greatest punk band because it was the only punk band. "All the rest have jobs," he declared, and charged into the next song.


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