Awards, TV and Press Do Nothing: Indie Music, Away from the SxSW Hordes

by Brett Sokol

The panel discussion was defiantly titled “Flying The Indie Flag” and the mood was clearly intended to be triumphant. “Indie labels are having a banner year,” crowed the panel’s organizers at last week’s South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, and are “being successful by doing it their way, in a world where major labels no longer control the music business landscape.” Yet the faces on the actual indie label panelists looked anything but victorious.

Sub Pop Records co-founder Jonathan Poneman — still earning sizable royalties for his initial signing of Nirvana over two decades ago — scowled his way through a series of accolades delivered for him. And Mac McCaughan, frontman for indie rock standard-bearers Superchunk and co-founder of Merge Records, merely shrugged and then shrank back in his seat as moderator Karen Glauber, president of Hits magazine, began gushing over the recent accomplishments of Merge’s Arcade Fire: A gold record — 500,000 CD sales — at a time when such certifications are increasingly rare for even the industry’s biggest players, followed by a left-field Grammy award.

Glauber recalled screaming in delight when the win was announced, leaping out of her seat in the Grammy audience. Meanwhile, she said, and laughed, “Everybody around me was asking each other ‘Who is Arcade Fire?’” Indeed, hip-hop record executive turned advertising mogul Steve Stoute even bought a $40,000 full-page ad in the New York Times to run his protest letter to that effect. (That he chose to buy a page in Sunday Styles — as opposed to Business or the front news section — carries its own modern media lesson.)

So, Glauber bubbled, was McCaughan riding that wave? Was he doing anything different with Merge’s marketing plans in the wake of the Grammys? McCaughan shrugged again. The recognition was nice, he explained, “but it doesn’t change what you’re doing.” Yes, he’d been able to book Merge act Telekinesis onto “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” And network TV exposure is always appreciated. But he’d already had several of his label’s artists perform on Fallon’s TV show over the past year. “It doesn’t help us sell any more records.” The traditional gatekeepers may have abandoned their posts, but so have the audiences they once commanded.

Gerard Cosloy, co-owner of Matador Records, chimed in: Two decades ago, having a Matador release from Pavement or Yo La Tengo top the Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jopp poll, or appear in a New York Times review, would result in a sales bump of up to forty percent. The sales boost from such placements today? Zilch. Cosloy was hoping the industry would consider scaling down their award system: Forget about platinum and gold. How about wood?

Still, if the bottom continues to drop out of the music business, that was news to the crowds that converged on Austin for SXSW’s twenty-fifth edition. Police estimated the throng at 200,000 (in a city of 790,000), though only 14,000 were actually registered to attend SXSW’s official music events. That’s a fairly good metaphor for the state of the industry-at-large, particularly as many attendees took to the web to subsequently decry the fest’s “commercialization,” conveniently forgetting that SXSW was launched as an insider’s trade show, a way to entice A&R; men and critics into seeing bands far from the NY and LA club axis — not as a fan-focused free-for-all.

For a party sans even a whiff of angst, all you had to do was latch onto some of SXSW’s Interactive attendees (at 19,000, they eclipsed the music portion of the fest). Many opted to hang around Austin after their own festival wrapped, spring break-style, flexing their expense accounts in a manner that could only make music bizzers nostalgic for their own salad days. Or at least conjure up flashbacks to the first dot-com boom. “Startups were loaded down with venture capital that they had to spend to qualify for their next round of funding,” remembered SXSW executive director Mike Shea, in the newly published SXSW Scrapbook. “We had companies calling to tell us how much money they needed to spend and wondering what they could buy for that. Good times.”

The good times were certainly back on the swag front. In years past, SXSW music attendees were handed a “big bag” bulging with all manner of sponsor-provided tchotkes. This year’s bag was virtually empty beyond a thick festival schedule, part of SXSW’s stated desire to “reduce its environmental impact.” This somehow didn’t stop organizers from stuffing scads of fliers and corporate toys into the Interactive fest’s bag. Likewise, the music festival’s Convention Center trade show featured only a handful of booths bought by music-related companies. The bulk were instead manned by online entities, from WordPress to the digital temp agency Solvate (whose “Boba Fett was a freelancer” T-shirts were a big hit).

Which isn’t to say there weren’t still dozens of good reasons to wander around Austin. If you looked past the usual blog suspects and next-big-things all busy recreating the stifling New York-Los Angeles axis of yore, incredible musicians were still pouring their hearts out, analog-style, at makeshift venues all over town. The quality level was generally inverse to the number of bloggers on hand.

In a back lot behind the nondescript G&S; Lounge, local roots music magazine 3rd Coast Music (“You’re not getting old, the music really does suck”) assembled its own five-day bill of country-tinged “Not SXSW” acts, including Austin singer-songwriter Sam Baker. With mandolin, acoustic guitar and violin accompaniment, Baker spun out a spellbinding set that invoked prime-era John Prine, by turns heartbreaking and wryly moving. And amidst the 200 or so folks raptly watching, only one felt compelled to whip out his iPhone to immortalize the moment.

Similarly, honky tonk-roadhouse veteran Dale Watson kept a bowling alley-cum-nightclub full of people too busy dancing to worry about shooting video of his set of infectiously dirtied-up swing tunes. Just as seasoned, but releasing his debut album at the age of 61, was rhythm and blues crooner Charles Bradley. Backed by much of the same crew of old-school soul musicians who helped reinvent Amy Winehouse (and currently perform with singer Sharon Jones), Bradley wildly shimmied his way across a cramped outdoor stage, riffing off the James Brown impersonation act which first got him noticed, and nearly knocking over both his guitarist and his horn section in the process. From the female screams that emanated out of the front row, the crotch-eye view of Bradley’s contortions was even more entertaining than my own overhead vantage point.

After all that, should one still be jonesing for a flock of unwashed bohos to kick up a fuzz-laden racket, complete with vintage organs and rows of effects pedals, Austin’s own Black Angels more than delivered, thanks in no small part to its head-snapping drummer.

Unfortunately, that full-body rumble doesn’t quite translate onto the group’s latest CD Phosphene Dream — a solid outing, yet hardly as memorable as hearing those same songs tackled live. Which is increasingly all that matters, fiscally speaking. With concert ticket sales the only consistent income for most indie and major label acts alike, CDs are becoming promotional items, calling cards for the main event.

If there’s a sticking point in this New Economy, it’s that rock swagger in the digital age ain’t what it used to be. Prior to their show, Black Angels guitarist Christian Bland threaded his way through the crush to knock on a backstage door. He was met by a gruff security guard who sized up the smiling beanpole before him and barked back, “This room is for the band only.” Bland seemed at a loss. Then, regaining his composure, he insisted, “But I am in the band!”

Brett Sokol’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New York Observer, New York, Slate, and Miami Beach’s Ocean Drive magazine, where he is the arts editor. He still owns a fax machine, two landline phones and a VCR.

Photo of Charles Bradley at SxSW by Jim Porter.