By Todd Martens
The Times' music and video game writer Todd Martens files his final dispatch from Austin, Texas.
7:19 PM EDT, March 17, 2013
AUSTIN, Texas -- It was the final day of the South by Southwest music festival and conference and Echo Park-based band NO had just completed its last performance of the week, this one on the rooftop of a grocery store. It was the band’s eighth show in five days, or maybe its ninth -- lead singer Bradley Hanan Carter, his voice slightly strained after the performance, had lost count.
NO was just one of about 2,500 bands performing in Austin at this year's festival, hoping to snare the attention of approximately 10,000 registrants who each day had more than 100 stages of music to choose from. But music is just one distraction. Some venues offered free tacos from their fast food sponsors. Other venues gave away makeovers, courtesy of beauty supply sponsors.
“We had some shows which were OK and not so fun,” said Carter, speaking after the grocery store gig. “It's not your show here. People have seen 20 bands in one day. They don't have time for you. So when someone does sit and watch you, that's cool. That's the goal. We need to make people who are tired, hot and bored try and enjoy themselves. If we do that, we win.”
NO, a band of taut, adult-focused rock marked by Carter’s on-the-brink-of-it-all baritone, came to Austin without a record deal. The band took meetings -- Carter lost count of those too.
However, he knows that last year, the band performed five or six more mini-concerts than it did this year. This time around, NO’s Austin trip was spent more with meetings with potential business partners and interviewers. Carter, for instance, was interrupted by a rep from Amazon.com while talking to Pop & Hiss.
Still, NO is going back to Los Angeles without a record deal. Defeated? Hardly.
Working with Quest Management, which also represents orchestral indie rockers the Arcade Fire, NO sees the record industry in 2013 as one that offers a path to self-sufficiency. That was increasingly a common thread at this year’s SXSW, as the likes of gothy singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer spoke of the virtues of crowd-sourcing and Daniel Ek, founder of streaming service Spotify, romantically imagined an on-demand future driven by consumer choice rather than corporate interests.
Former Nirvana drummer and current Foo Fighter Dave Grohl was the keynote speaker at this year’s SXSW, and he preached for artists to live in a bubble: their own. Though the Foo Fighters are no strangers to promotion -- the band is a regular at radio festivals and TV award shows -- Grohl started his own Roswell Records for the Foo Fighters.
"We own the album," he said, "and we’ll license it to you for a little while, but you have got to give it back because it is mine. I am the musician and I come first."
The Foo Fighters, of course, are living in quite a different bubble than the one currently occupied by NO. Carter is 32 years old, and he estimates that he lives on about $800 per month in Echo Park. “We’re just scraping by, man,” Carter said, and most everyone in NO has a day job. The band’s Sean Stentz can be found most days at Echo Park’s Origami Vinyl, which he helps run with Neil Schield.
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Carter, a New Zealand native, was in his past life a principal in Steriogram, a relatively zany rock band once signed to Capital Records and once featured in an Apple commercial. But the major label money is long gone. The lessons aren’t. NO didn’t take any sponsorship money to come to Austin, instead paying for the trip with cash earned after licensing songs, namely the boozy, pre-mid-life crisis rock 'n’ roll lurker “The Long Haul,” to television programs such as the CBS series “Elementary.”
“For us,” said Carter, “the reason we can afford to come here is because we own everything. When we get some music on TV, we get all that money. If it goes back to the band, we can pay for gas, travel. Having someone not take half of that is important to us.”
NO was in Austin with a nearly completed debut full-length to its name; the band funded and recorded it on its own. The band met with labels before recording it, but didn’t seriously consider signing at the time. “I just can’t imagine how it would have been good,” Carter said. “Then they own control.”
So if coming to Austin to find a label wasn’t the goal, what was? “We shouldn’t not be here,” Carter said laughing, and then adding that “life is about relationships.” The band just completed an European tour supporting fellow L.A. act Father John Misty, and NO wanted to use the opportunities in Austin to strengthen some of the connections it made overseas.
Besides, labels are no longer viewed as the payday they once were. An annual topic of debate at SXSW is whether the rise in free streaming and subscription music services can take the place of CD sales. There wasn’t necessarily an answer this year (again). Yet the fact that 2012 was the first one in 13 years in which the global music industry saw an increase in sales, according to recent figures from the International Federation for the Phonographic Industry, was seen as a positive sign for a now heavily digital industry, even if it was just a 0.3% bump.
“The creation of music used to be really expensive,” said Spotify’s Ek at a Tuesday panel.” Recording, distribution, you had to press CDs, vinyl and cassettes, you needed an inventory and you needed retail relationships. Marketing was tough. It was based on relationships with radio and MTV. Labels now want you to come with a complete record done.”
And SXSW in 2013 continually offers more and more evidence that it’s corporate brands with the most money to spend. In the past, SXSW’s nightly showcases were often hosted by labels. Now, they’re hosted by footwear companies, fast food entities and energy drinks.
It can, admittedly, be overwhelming, and scrappy guitar rockers Parquet Courts, which was scheduled to play two sets in two different venues in the span of two hours Saturday, used its final moments of its song “Stoned and Starving” at the heavily sponsored Viceland (free booze!) to rant about the often obvious financial gap on display.
The brand-band relationship may not always be a comfortable one, but it’s one that has never felt as tightly wound as it is now. “Brands know how powerful music is, and if you’ve got something that connects with people emotionally, they’ll pay for that,” said Gabe McDonough, music director at ad agency Leo Burnett, at a SXSW panel.
For a still developing band such as NO, Carter said the key is staying patient and not being seduced by a quick payday, regardless of who’s writing the check. “If you’re not worried about being famous,” he said, “then take your time.
“I see some bands who say things like, 'Oh, it's too corporate here.' When has this industry not been corporate? It's like the people who move to L.A. and say, "I don't like the commercialization of the film industry.' It's industry. There's money involved. Each of us has a choice as to how much we get involved.”
Below, a look at some of the artists and observations from SXSW. Regular readers of this blog may note that some of the artist write-ups are culled from earlier updates.
Please note, any descriptions that repeat earlier write-ups from this reporter aren’t done so out of laziness, but simply as a way to highlight some of the best artists of the fest in one place, as well as to acknowledge that reviews are written based on a limited sampling of an artist. Your understanding is appreciated.
Devil may care: Frustration isn’t always a bad thing when it comes to live music, especially if a band plays like it’s out for blood. That’s exactly what Parquet Courts did early Saturday night, looking alternately frantic and bored (there were more than a few glances at the clock by the quartet).
Yet don’t be fooled by the band’s slacker front, as Parquet Courts traded riffs, vocals and frenzied guitar streaks as if its members were in competition with themselves and the audience. “It's tough to compete with Twitter,” Andrew Savage said when the SXSW crowd awaiting rap star Kendrick Lamar didn’t act appropriately enthused. Fast, catchy and sarcastically angry, Parquet Courts has hooks for a party, if the festivities were celebrating financial decline and dead-end jobs. “Up to my neck,” shouted Savage, “in motivation neglect.”
Primed for stardom: Late Saturday, the hotly tipped sister-led quartet Haim took the stage pre-Vampire Weekend at the giant outdoor bucket of gravel that is Austin’s Stubb’s. The eldest of the three sisters fronting the group, Este Haim, spoke early in the set of performing across the street last year, opposite Fiona Apple’s headlining gig at Stubb’s. “One day I’m gonna be at that stage,” she recalled saying a year ago.
Haim is certainly on the fast track, and it’s easy to see why. The band, even in its early stages, brings a classic rock polish to songs that occasionally flirt with dancey electro-pop. Yet Haim has an edge. The band doesn’t just cover “Oh Well,” a Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac scorcher, it attacks it. Thus far, Haim’s recorded output has focused more on the group’s ability to carry a digital groove and trade Laurel Canyon-inspired vocal harmonies, but here’s hoping the band’s June major label debut for Columbia Records has a bit more rock ‘n’ roll bite.
Brace yourself: During Savages' Friday night set, singer Jehnny Beth spoke to the crowd once. “This next song is called ‘Shut-Up,’ ” she said. And then she slapped her arms in time to the bass -- all while the instrument wrapped around the drums like barbed wire -- and ultimately gripped the microphone stand as if it were a weapon of militaristic power.
Savages is intense. Yet there’s a reason this punk quartet from England is booked for next month’s Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival: This is dark and moody aggression that can be danced to. There’s plenty of ferociousness to Savages, but the band’s rhythm section knows how to calm the panic and lock into an industrial-inspired groove. At first, one hears the underlying rumble to everything Savages lays down, but listen a bit and some Joy Division-inspired concrete beats are just as apparent. For as chaotic of presence as Savages' frontwoman may be, this is a band with seemingly unbreakable forward momentum.
A little more time for hip-hop, please: On Saturday, I was excited to see Chicago’s Chance the Rapper, whose songs I sampled online had an easygoing Midwestern approachability. In limited pre-SXSW listening, Chance certainly recalled the Windy City’s Kanye West, at least in the latter’s early “College Dropout” days. Yet his brief set Saturday wasn’t one that showed his lyrical finesse; instead, it focused on his ability to rile a crowd. If this were a night of MC battling, Chance might have impressed, but as a showcase to show off his uniqueness, this wasn’t it.
Earlier in the week, Detroit-born rapper Angel Haze was given all of 15 minutes to show why she’s one of the most hyped rap acts of 2013. It wasn’t enough time to offer proof, but Haze, who had a contradictory style that was alternately aggressive and unguarded, displayed a spirited personality that belonged on a stage. She comfortably strolled through the audience during "Hell Could Freeze," and performed what was a relatively open look at the dissolution of a relationship. Haze didn’t offer any cliches, instead turning the song into one in which she makes sense of her own confusion.
A thought from Clive: As much as SXSW’s industry day panels try to capture where the music business is heading, there’s still plenty of time devoted to industry legends, be it artists such as Stevie Nicks or executives such as Clive Davis. The latter was here to promote a book, “The Soundtrack of My Life,” and that’s largely what his afternoon Q&A session consisted of.
There was, of course, a little discussion about his recent back-and-forth with Kelly Clarkson, who had a different recollection of events than the way Davis described them in his book. This reporter stopped listening when Davis reiterated how he advised a star such as Whitney Houston that she’d be better off listening to him rather than writing her own songs, once again perpetuating the industry myth that behind every great artist is an executive acting as puppeteer.
Yet moderator Bill Werde of Billboard Magazine did get Davis to discuss his bisexuality, and the executive received cheers of approval for this quote: “After my second marriage faltered, at a time when I was 50, I decided to broaden my perspective and see if I could be attracted to the person and not the gender.”
Alt-rock-era guilt: When Nirvana’s “Nervermind” went mainstream, the press at the time focused heavily on the alternative rock era’s existential crisis of becoming what you hate. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, who committed suicide in 1994, spoke often of his frustration at being considered a sell-out for inking a deal with a major label. When Dave Grohl gave his keynote speech, he didn’t delve too heavily into the issues that ate at Nirvana and Cobain, except only once when he said Nirvana’s band members attempted to process how the group went from “one of us to one of them,” from the underground to the top 40.
“Guilt,” said Grohl, is what infected post-“Nervermind” Nirvana, and it helped destroy the band. “Guilt is cancer. Guilt will confine you, torture you, destroy you as an artist. It’s a black wall. It’s a thief. It will keep you from you.”
A soul revelation: Autre Ne Veut is a R&B howler, but the more he shouted his vocal cords into disintegration, the more dynamic his passionate grit became. As already noted a few times on this blog last week, Ashin was R&B at its most bold. He bolted onstage in the role of the aggressor, hunching over his microphone as he stalked the stage and said a plea such as “stay with me” as if he truly did believe all you need is love.
But he’s a softee too, and he could dip into a Prince-like falsetto at a moment’s notice and suddenly get pulled into an animated give-and-take with foil Cristi Jo Zambri. As rough as Ashin could be, she could be sweet, and ultimately telegraphed that there’s good intentions in these songs full of wicked drama. Just as exciting, however, was the ADD-like genre hopping of Ashin’s backbeats. A little bit hip-hop and a little bit off-kilter, Ashin understood that the game of seduction is one of sometimes keeping a partner off-balance.
The enduring influence of Depeche Mode: Austin-based Feathers is an act worth keeping an eye on. Singer Anastasia Dimou always seemed to be attempting to conjure a mood, waving the audience to her and then pushing it away as if the stage were something she was floating on. Her only direction to the soundmen was to “dim the lights,” and the quartet became more alluring the darker the club got, as band members could get lost in the stage shadows just as hushed, minor-key guitar notes could get buried in waves of electronics.
On a more dance-driven note: There’s little recorded output to Denmark’s MØ, but the musical project of Karen Marie Ørsted is a crazily weird mash-up of pop, rock and randomness. MØ offered Lady Gaga-sized workouts but with do-it-yourself aesthetic. She doesn’t rap, but the songs are grounded in hip-hop beats, and rare is dance music this brassy, as MØ doesn’t want to get on the club floor simply to party. As she sings like a balladeer in the hand-clap-driven “Pilgrim,” she wants to escape a world filled with news of war and celebrity babies. “Hush little head,” she orders herself, “you’ll get sick.”
The artists I want to listen to most on the plane ride home. This is an easy one. Indians and No Ceremony///, and this is taken direct from earlier posts.
The product of Copenhagen’s Søren Løkke Juul, Indians doesn't make noise so much as slow it down. Juul’s music is quiet, calming and aims to soothe the senses rather than knock 'em out. At a place where first impressions are made in 30 seconds or less, Indians had the nerve to require pin-drop-silent attentiveness.
And Thursday night at an Austin church, Juul succeeded at what is now nearly impossible at the 2,500-act South by Southwest: He created the sensation of bringing time to a standstill. Performing here as a dapper-dressed trio, Juul was joined by Heather Woods Broderick and Laurel Simmons, who added candescent harmonies to Juul’s patiently complex digitally enhanced compositions.
More beguiling, and also without a full-length album out, was No Ceremony///. The English trio had a mix of styles and moods, and its members have thus far been keeping their identities and objectives a mystery. No matter, as for now the music is enough to answer any pressing questions.
No Ceremony/// is reliant on machines, but the music avoided any of the retro-synth trends that have dominated South by Southwest of late. All multi-instrumentalists, the group -- two boys and one girl -- built songs of patterns and glitches. No Ceremony/// is thinking big picture in its arrangements, as soft builds lead to dramatic climaxes and dance beats give way to enveloping, alien atmospheres.
The music often tends to drift toward the darker end of the spectrum, but the forward momentum of No Ceremony///’s songs is ultimately out to illuminate, even as the act uses secrecy as a means to promotion.
Don’t forget country: Caitlin Rose recently released her latest album, “That Stand-In,” on ATO Records (Alabama Shakes). She covered Buck Owens, possessed a voice that was somewhere between sweet and scornful and her songs -- an upbeat take on get-the-crowd-moving Western swing -- were packed with relatable wit.
“This is a song about having too many things in my house,” Rose said in introducing one. And a few songs later, “This is a song about getting married on accident. That’s the only way it will ever happen to me.” She sang of trying to kick a cigarette habit and of feeling awkward for being the one arriving at the party without the “bottled wine.”
It was all deceptively simple. The finely detailed arrangements packed a kick, and Rose’s voice is the kind that’s so comforting that it isn’t until the song ends that one realizes how much it’s missed.
Two electronic surprises: Canadian four-piece Azari & III ground its songs in vintage Chicago house and techno -- the influence of Green Velvet was apparent in the grooves from the get-go -- but it's the dual frontmen of Fritz Helder and Starving Yet Full that clearly own the stage.
Sliding from microphone stand to microphone stand -- or twisting and twirling in time -- the two were smoothly appropriating the kind of old-fashioned dance moves currently favored by Justin Timberlake. Their voices -- sometimes a falsetto, sometimes a harmony -- dug deep into the beats and seemed at times to want to pull the songs into more funky, R&B directions, but DJs Dinamo Azari and Alixander III keep it swift.
Later in the week, and even more striking, was Sohn, who performed here as a three-piece. Sohn reconfigured timeless R&B sounds for a digital age, laying and distorting a bevy of ambient noises. The songs yearned for a connection, and the sounds twisted and turned until keyboards sounded like saxophones. Each layer added more beauty to the slow moving compositions, and what impressed was how something so modern could sound so timeless.
At times, the percussion scrapped and clacked as if the synthesizers could create a digital fire. Later, acoustic guitars clashed with retro-futurism, and almost every one of Sohn’s lyrics lingered well after the song ended. “The very last breath,” he repeated, as if the end of a relationship was forever frozen in time, and digital effects gradually started to sound more and more like a chorus of vocal harmonies.
Who did I miss? Where to begin? That’s what the comment section is for, so please, holler away. But coming to Austin, the artist at the absolute top of my list was local act Rhye, whose R&B is designed for those late, late nights. My colleague Mikael Wood saw Rhye earlier in the week, and I couldn’t justify spending an hour of an evening with someone we had earlier covered, so I had to skip Rhye, sadly.
But there were others I desperately wanted to see but also missed. Merge Records’ Telekinesis is always worth catching, and I like what I’ve heard of R&B singer Laura Mvula. Trusted friends said good things about local folk-rock band In the Valley Below, and the psychedelic Smoke & Feathers also came recommended. Hip-hop artist Kat Dahlia was on my list, as were the more pretty-sounding pop of Fear of Men.
Briefly, but liked: There’s also lots of running around at SXSW, and some acts I saw for little more than a song or two. When back in Los Angeles, I plan to explore more of the rootsy, haunting, beat-driven Deep Sea Diver, as well as Mount Moriah, another rootsy band, and also on Merge. Finally, on Merge again was the upbeat pop rock of Mikal Cronin, whose band supplied three guitars that were caught in an endless race, and the songs romanticized the foolishness of being a hopeless romantic.
SXSW by the numbers (of one reporter):
Total number of bands seen: 42, fewer than in years past, but I spent more time covering industry panels this year.
Best Austin beer sampled: For three years running now, it’s (512)’s IPA.
Night I received least amount of sleep: Friday, 3.5 hours.
Number of cookies eaten: 36
Number of proper meals eaten over a span of six days: 3.
Longest amount of time without any food whatsoever: 42 hours.
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