||March 15, 2002
BY JIM DEROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
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
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
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
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
Pop music critic Jim De-Rogatis will file a full report from SXSW XVI
in Monday's Showcase section.