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Thursday, March 27, 2008
Music's greatest theme park
Special to The Japan Times
In mid-March, as spring began uncoiling anew, the world's music industry once again turned its eyes to Austin, Texas, the self-styled "live-music capital of the world," for the annual South by Southwest industry conference and festival. Planes disgorged thousands of band members, record-label bigwigs, promoters, producers, journalists, music fans and more, all of whom converged on the city's tiny downtown district for a week of live music, seminars and schmoozing.
A particular highlight of the festival is Japan Nite. A SXSW staple since 1996, last year's Japan Nite launched the Stateside career of Osaka's Oreskaband, who went on to join the massive Warped Tour and star in a forthcoming Hollywood movie, "Lock and Roll Forever," and is undoubtedly the prime event for any Japanese artist hoping to crack the West.
This year's Japan Nite included shows by cartoon punks Ketchup Mania and garage rockers Detroit 7 (interviewed on this page) as well as newcomers Sodopp and others. Extremely well attended — with lines outside the Elysium music venue for several hours and an ebb and flow of punters coming and going — it reached its 550-person capacity at least once. Its organizer, SXSW Asia, arranged other Japanese showcase events, too, for around 15 acts (including ragtime honey Maki Rinka, interviewed below, The Pillows, The Emeralds and more), and all with the support of Japan's trade body JETRO.
"The Japanese acts are consistently well received at SXSW and are notable for their creativity and work ethic. I admire them a great deal," says Brent Grulke, who joined the festival as a stage manager in 1987, its first year, and is now the creative director of the music event (there are film and "interactive" offshoot festivals that take place, too).
Wandering along 6th Street between March 12 and 16, one might consider Austin a music theme park. Almost every building seems to house a stage, with drums and guitars bleeding through the walls and windows and battering the senses from early afternoon till early morning. Music-industry folk from all around North America, Europe, Britain, Latin America and so on rub shoulders with the Tex-Mex locals, working taxi drivers to death and consuming obscene amounts of free steak and beer at showcase parties. It's a wonderful way to spend the week.
Grulke is in charge of coordinating this multilimbed mass of conference craziness. "It's hard to interact with as many people as we do," he sighs, speaking with The Japan Times in the aftermath of this year's event. "Over 11,000 acts applied to perform at the festival this year. Over 1,700 artists performed. There were over 20,000 industry professionals and journalists at SXSW. The stage crews and production staff number in the thousands. There were tens of thousands of music fans at the event. There are sponsors. There are city service people, hotel staff, drivers, volunteers . . . the list goes on and on. We're a small company, and all of these people need to be communicated with and — ideally — put in a position to enjoy their participation with SXSW."
He needn't worry. Enjoyment seemed topmost on the minds of the revelers — sorry: conference delegates — at the 83 official stages at the festival, which saw live performances from not only the bright young hopes of tomorrow (selected by SXSW's "listening committee" through a rigorous application process) but also such celebrated old-timers as REM and The Lemonheads. Such a relaxed and convivial atmosphere produced the perfect conditions for business talk: Everyone knew that almost everyone else was there to further their business in some way, and conversations struck up with strangers at live shows, hotel lobbies, shared taxis and softball games over the week could help shape the world's music charts for the year to come.
Grulke says that international content (24 percent of the artists at this year's event were packing a passport) is a key factor in the festival's ongoing success. "It's quite important to have a globally diverse contingent of acts and entrepreneurs," he says. "And it's vital (to music businesses) to have a global marketing strategy. When the entire world is potentially your market, it's important (for industry workers) to make the connections to develop that strategy. Plus, exposure to a wide range of aesthetic visions can be inspiring to creative growth as an artist."
Perhaps the strongest foreign presence came from the British, with shows all over town hosted by magazines such as NME, Q, Kerrang! and Mojo; a centrally-located venue painted up as the British Music Embassy; and showcases from such up-and-comers as Manchester's art-poppers The Ting Tings, mammoth live band Enter Shikari, actor and glitch-hop rapper Riz MC, and the barely known bluesy country singer Liz Green.
"There is a very real opportunity for acts and their representatives to meet with and be seen by like-minded artists, journalists and media delegates, as well as industry professionals who may be in a position to further acts' careers," says Grulke, explaining the allure of a SXSW showcase for foreign artists.
"Sometimes this results in immediate rewards for an act, such as a series of festival bookings, but more often it's a matter of making fans and friends one person at a time, and staying in touch with those people on a regular basis."
That said, Grulke admits that an appearance at SXSW is not the be-all and end-all in cracking the States. "For most artists it is a long-term effort, one in which a SXSW showcase serves a particular need," he says. "A SXSW showcase alone is rarely enough to put an act on the map."
While the bands, delegates and punters went home happy after the traditional closing softball tournament and barbecue this year, the festival leaves a certain amount of turmoil in its wake. Congested roads, noise pollution and the swamping of the tiny Austin-Bergstrom International Airport are no doubt a real concern for the locals. But Grulke is keen to point out that the cash the festival brings to Austin is enough to balance attitudes somewhat.
"Last year, the economic benefit to the city was calculated at roughly $94 million, so for many people in Austin SXSW is very welcome," he says. "For other people, the sheer numbers of people visiting Austin during SXSW make their daily lives more demanding, and those people are sometimes, understandably, less than excited when SXSW rolls around. Still, the majority of the people in the city are very supportive of the event; the number of people who offer their time, and participate in some way or another, is truly humbling."
Indeed, as the dust settles, venues hang out banners that read "Thank you SXSW," Waterloo Records crams to bursting with shoppers and every taxi in town bustles with knackered attendees who have invariably underestimated the lines at the airport and are about to miss their flights. The carnival is over for another year. But the impact will be felt for months to come.