New hopes, harsh realities at SXSW

March 16, 2007


For 21 years, South by Southwest has been the music world's version of the Sundance and Cannes film festivals, combined with equal measures of spring break and the sort of anything-goes bacchanal that hasn't been witnessed since the heyday of the Roman Empire.

There is simply no better way to take the measure of the music business at the given moment -- or, more importantly, to catch early glimpses of what are certain to be some of the most critically acclaimed and best-selling sounds of the coming year.

The business outlook is mixed: Conventional record sales are already down 15 percent this year from the precipitous drop of 2006, and the major labels, giant retailers and mainstream radio chains continue to downsize more aggressively than Detroit's automakers.

But sales of music via the Internet are increasing more than proportionally to offset those losses. And the number of artists eager to make themselves heard just gets bigger every year, with 1,400 bands from around the world traveling to the Texas capital to perform at more than 55 venues through the weekend.

The possibilities for music presented by the Internet were the key theme of Wednesday evening's keynote address by Pete Townshend. Formatted as an interview with the 62-year-old artist by VH1 executive Bill Flanagan, who did his best to imitate the obsequious James Lipton on "Inside the Actors Studio," much of the talk was devoted to hyping a project that Townshend said will launch in late April.

Called the Method, the Web site will use sophisticated software to create a "musical portrait" of a person as the subject "poses" at their computer. In the end, the subject will own one third of the copyright of the computer-generated song.

"It might sound like a seal or a plane going by," Townshend said. "It may sound terrible, or it may sound beautiful. This is an authentic portrait." (The first example of any of this can apparently be heard at the start of "Fragments," the opening track on the Who's last album, "Endless Wire," which I'd put more in the "terrible" category.)

Townshend claimed he first had this idea in 1970, and it was the subject of the aborted "Lifehouse" project, the rock opera that was to have followed "Tommy." In fact, he sounded a bit like Al Gore when asserting that he envisioned the World Wide Web decades before it existed in its current form.

"There was no computer in 1971 big enough or powerful enough to do what I wanted it to do, and of course, there was no Internet." But then ol' Pete contradicted himself, lauding the Net while claiming that the live experience is really what rock 'n' roll is all about.

"Music is about congregation, gathering and sharing. F--- the Internet, I want it live!"

Hitting the clubs
My live experiences started Wednesday night with Wolf & Cub, a quartet from Adelaide, Australia, with two drummers, a guitarist and a bassist that mixed old-school psychedelia and modern, rhythmically jagged dance-rock. The band recently released its debut album, "Vessel," on England's prestigious indie label 4AD.

I also caught partial sets by Future of the Left from Cardiff, Wales (unimpressive New Wave of New Wave, though the boys were nattily dressed) and Seattle's Tiny Vipers (more familiar-sounding emo). More rewarding were Manchester, England's, Bone Box, who make wonderfully melodic Southern Gothic rock, and the Minneapolis quartet the Deaths, who also draw on Nick Cave-inspired sounds, but mix them with British Invasion pop, heavy on the Zombies.

Finally, though I generally try to avoid seeing Chicago bands at SXSW, I caught a showcase by the ork-pop group the 1900s, which is building a well-deserved buzz in anticipation of its first full album. The group's intricate, violin- and harmony-enhanced folk-pop suffered from a poor sound mix set, as many SXSW showcases do. But the songs were strong enough to win the day and wow a packed room of listeners.