AUSTIN, Texas -- At a time
when almost everything about the music industry is changing or up for grabs,
it's reassuring to know that the South by Southwest Music & Media Conference
remains focused on the mission it's pursued for 18 years.
With more than 1,000 performances on over 50 stages in the Texas capital
that started on Wednesday and continue through Sunday, the conference is not
only the music business' largest annual gathering -- its versions of the
Cannes or Sundance film festivals -- but a celebration of great music and
the independent spirit.
One or two dominant themes emerge at every SXSW, and this year is no
exception. With the traditional music industry undergoing ever more
troubling corporate consolidations, and emerging technologies dramatically
changing the power structure, the festival is placing a renewed emphasis on
indie labels, which presumably work in partnership with artists (who have
more power to disseminate their work than ever before, thanks to the
Internet) rather than exploiting them.
CHICAGO ACTS AT SXSW
As always, Chicago area artists are a major presence at South by
Southwest -- in fact, the Windy City seems to have the largest
contingent of artists represented here outside those from the state of
Among the most anticipated local acts are pop-punks the Alkaline
Trio; John Stirrat of Wilco's side project, the Autumn Defense;
glam-popsters Caviar; up-and-coming rapper Diverse, and red-hot garage
rockers the Redwalls and the Last Vegas.
Other local artists who are performing include Atombombpocketknife,
Baseball Furies, Andrew Bird, Break the Silence, Cheer-Accident, Dollar
Store, the Goldstars, Grand Ulena, Kill Hannah, Kill Memory Crash, Jon
Langford's Ship & Pilot, the Lawrence Arms, Lying in States, the M's,
Mahjongg, Manishevitz, Matador Down, the Mekons, the Narrator, Nora
O'Connor and the Opus.
Also: Palaxy Tracks, Pelican, Bobby Pharelle, Jonny Polonsky, the
Ponys, the Race, the Reputation, Silkworm, Sally Timms, the Nicholas
Tremulis Orchestra, Troubled Hubble, Umphrey's McGee, the Webb Brothers,
Yakuza and Rachel Yamagata.
Of course, this isn't always the case in a famously unscrupulous
industry, and this was one of two key points hammered home on Thursday
morning when the conference formally kicked off with the keynote speaker,
the legendary Little Richard.
Resplendent in a bright red jacket, a wild mane of curly black hair and
dark black shades, the 70-year-old co-founder of rock 'n' roll urged a
capacity crowd of aspiring musicians and music industry insiders to take
control of their business.
"Sign your checks!" Richard repeated a dozen times, a passionate refrain
as unforgettable as those in his classic '50s hits, "Tutti Frutti" and "Good
Golly Miss Molly."
Born in Macon, Ga., as Richard Wayne Penniman, the ageless rocker also
urged young musicians to devote themselves to their craft and avoid taking
"Master what you're doing -- be the best, nothing less!" Richard said
before breaking into a musical tirade that was part preacher and part
"You're doing this 'cause you believe in it. It's you and it's real; you
didn't steal, you didn't kill, and now you're not even ill. 'Cause you got
the real feel, and that's the true deal!"
Richard was theoretically being interviewed by Dave Marsh, but the singer
hardly let the veteran rock critic get a word in edgewise. Marsh, like those
in the worshipful audience, simply sat back and basked in the energetic glow
-- until the end of the session, when the writer asked a question for the
ages: What exactly did the rock great mean when he sang, "Good Golly Miss
Molly/You sure like to ball"?
"It didn't mean that at all!" Richard exclaimed, explaining that Molly
simply "liked to party -- to have a ball."
These comments tied in to what is emerging as the other dominant theme of
SXSW 2004, as highlighted by the conference director, Roland Swenson, during
his opening remarks: the responsibility of the artist to fight for freedom
of expression, especially in an election year, and especially during the
right-wing backlash and growing cultural conservatism prompted by Janet
No doubt plenty of artists will do exactly that in the days and nights to
come -- one prominent punk-rock showcase has been branded as "Rock Against
Bush" -- while others, as is always the case, will simply hope to leave
Austin with a ticket to fame and fortune.
For a full report on Jim DeRogatis' highlights from South by Southwest
2004, see Monday's Showcase.