A music industry love-in

March 15, 2002



AUSTIN, Texas--Looking back at the reports that I've filed on opening day of the last few South by Southwest Music & Media Conferences, the story at the outset of the industry's largest annual gathering has usually been the same, with only the name of the keynote speaker changing each year.

A venerated artist (such as Nick Lowe, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle or Ray Davies) generally launches the music world's version of Sundance or Cannes by sarcastically decrying business as usual by the corporate record companies. Then, with a degree of self-deprecation, said elder attempts to warn or inspire younger musicians to maintain their autonomy as they follow their muse.

Maybe conference organizers thought that this approach was getting to be a little too predictable. Perhaps they wanted to give some time to the other side in the interest of fairness. Or maybe they're becoming a part of the problem instead of the solution.

Whatever the reason, the slant at the opening of the 16th annual South by Southwest fest (or as it's called, SXSW XVI) was decidedly pro-industry. This was especially ironic, given the growing impetus of artists' rights coalitions agitating for fundamental change in the way record companies do business, and technological innovations that are evolving much faster than an industry that even its biggest advocates call "a dinosaur."

Four days of panel discussions kicked off Wednesday. But when Robbie Robertson delivered this year's keynote address on Thursday morning, he quickly proved that while he wouldn't be apologizing for the major labels, he wouldn't be attacking them.

Robertson opened traditionally enough with a funny anecdote about how the notorious gangster Morris Levy came to claim co-songwriting credit for the first two tunes that Robertson wrote for his early mentor Ronnie Hawkins. But from that point on, his speech became a self-serving recap of his many career highlights, from the Band's first electric tour with Bob Dylan, through "The Last Waltz," up to his recent recordings of music by Native Americans.

By neglecting to offer any insight into what others might learn from these experiences, or where the business failed or did right by him, the guitarist came off as a self-obsessed windbag, droning on for double his appointed half-hour.

Robertson's conclusion? "I'm not gonna cry gloom and doom" because things in the music business are just fine--or at least they are for him.

Following Robertson and taking the rhetoric of that position to a whole new level was Hilary Rosen, the controversial president of the Recording Industry Association of America, the major labels' trade organization and the leading adversary in the fight against the free digital downloading of music and legislative reform of recording contracts.

Rosen alternately sounded like the captain of the Titanic asking, "Iceberg? What iceberg?" and George Orwell's double-speaking Big Brother stubbornly insisting, "Black is white." She maintained that RIAA surveys prove that consumers do not object to the average CD price pushing the $20 mark, and that federal anti-trust laws are actually bad for consumers, since they are slowing the record companies down from banding together to institute technical "improvements" that will stop us from making duplicate copies of our own CDs.

By far Rosen's most absurd contention was that record companies create artists, not the other way around. "The artist's image is created by the money that the label puts into it," she said.

That may be true of the 'N Syncs and the Eminems of the world, but it certainly isn't the case for the vast majority of the bands performing at this festival, just as it was not the case for keynoter Robertson. The labels' failure to recognize this fact is the heart of the current battle.

Thankfully, while the fight goes on, the music continues. More than 3,000 artists are slated to perform at five nights of showcase gigs on some 50 stages scattered throughout the Texas capital. And, as always, the diverse and thriving Chicago music scene is well represented.

Among the local artists performing here are Alsace Lorraine, the Baldwin Brothers, Andrew Bird, Bunker Hill, Cash Audio, the Cells, Cheer-Accident, Chevelle, Joanna Connor, Tom Daily, the Detachment Kit, the Dishes, DJ Colette, Anna Fermin's Trigger Gospel, the Flying Luttenbachers, Frontline, Rebecca Gates, Haymarket Riot, Kelly Hogan, Local H and the Lovehammers.

Also, Matthew, Micronaut, Nad Navillus, the Nerves, the New Duncan Imperials, Oh My God, OK GO, Palaxy Tracks, Pinetop Seven, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, Premium, RJD2, Slitheryn, Gary Stier, Swampass, Sally Timms, the Tossers, Umphrey's McGee, Deanna Varagona, Volta Do Mar, the Waco Brothers, the Webb Brothers and Yakuza.

The music these artists make will keep the assembled media and countless fans running ragged, just as it inspires record company weasels to continue scheming in their quest to co-opt, profit by and ultimately take credit for it all.


Pop music critic Jim De-Rogatis will file a full report from SXSW XVI in Monday's Showcase section.