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SXSW illustrates the glory and frustration of the music business

Iggy Pop performed for an episode of “Austin City Limits” at ACL Live at the Moody Theatre during the South by Southwest musical festival in Austin, Texas.
Iggy Pop performed for an episode of “Austin City Limits” at ACL Live at the Moody Theatre during the South by Southwest musical festival in Austin, Texas. The Associated Press

During the South by Southwest Music Conference showcase by his band the Cult, lead singer Ian Astbury expressed mild annoyance with the reaction he was getting to material from “Hidden City,” the band’s 10th studio album, released in early February.

The new songs like “Dark Energy” don’t veer too far from classic Cult songs, but they show a bit more restraint and less melodrama and grandiloquence, especially vocally.

The Cult, now in the midst of its fourth decade, is still a formidable live act, one trying to remain current and avoid the label of heritage or legacy act — which is tough. The new songs received polite reactions, but there was no doubt what the crowd of 2,000-plus in ACL Live had come to hear: the hits and classics, most of them decades old.

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New music might keep a band revived and reinvigorated, but there’s no guarantee fans will be interested in the new stuff or accept those songs replacing favorite songs during live performances. The music world isn’t what it used to be. The competition is fierce. Good luck getting radio play. Touring is essential, and the road is crowded.

Thursday afternoon, during his keynote address, musician/producer Tony Visconti analyzed the state of the industry, and his prognosis was predominantly dire. He scolded record labels for sacrificing quality for redundancy: “Formulas are being repeated more than they’ve ever been repeated.”

And then the guy who produced 14 David Bowie albums encouraged artists to strive to be different and urged labels to find them and nurture them: “Look at the freaks out there, the really weird ones. That’s what the public wants to hear. They want to hear something different.”

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If this music conference proves or attests to anything, it is that there’s no shortage of bands and musicians striving for some manner of success in a discombobulated music industry, whether it’s a veteran band like the Cult trying to reignite glory days or any of the thousands of newer or younger bands struggling to be recognized.

SXSW does provide some opportunity for bands, weird or mainstream, to get discovered or noticed by fans, record labels, the media, other bands. Over the course of four days, more than 2,200 bands and artists performed in Austin. A walk down Sixth Street and the cacophony of music pouring out of dozens of venues creates a concrete sense of just how many bands flood the town every year.

Some were established acts, like Loretta Lynn and George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, scores of others were independent acts just trying to muster traction or momentum in a crowded landscape.

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One of my SXSW “discoveries” was British singer/songwriter Holly Macve, although she hardly qualifies as “weird” or a “freak.” Macve’s strength was her captivating performance of appealing music that bears familiar sounds and influences. She is on a label, Bella Union; her first album is expected later this year.

But Macve is entering a world where veteran bands struggle to get radio airplay and where even the most experienced music industry insiders can’t pin down a surefire way to launch a band and keep it solvent. The good news: There are more portals than ever to try to navigate, more options to consider, more ways to make music and promote it and unleash it. The bad news: More bands than ever are doing it.

Astbury told his audience where the Cult was headed next (Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa), then proclaimed (or confessed) that his is a touring band. There was a time when touring was optional or at least not as required as it is now. Those would be the days Visconti was recollecting, when bands or artists sold millions of albums and everyone made lots of money.

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The Cult hasn’t put a record on the U.S. charts since 1991, when the now-platinum “Ceremony” reached No. 25. So it hits the road and heads to places like Tulsa, Salina, Sioux City. These days, bands must take their music on the road, not only to sell tickets and merchandise but to help arouse sales of their physical recordings, which are imperiled by streaming service.

But on the road, bands face a market flooded with other touring bands and with other entertainment options, a market that offers guarantees to few.

So what motivates a band to spend the time and money it invests in hitting the road, especially in an event like SXSW, which is a crapshoot for most bands, one with a variety of variables: What time do you play? Who else is playing at that time? What will the weather be like? One night during SXSW, it rained heavily for more than an hour in Austin, which wreaked havoc on outdoor stages and on bands loading and unloading gear.

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For bands like Not a Planet from Kansas City, it’s about potential and the faith that anything can happen, even during a 30-minute set.

“This year was our fourth year attending South by Southwest, but we still have yet to land one of the coveted official slots,” said Nathan Corsi, singer and guitarist for Not a Planet. The band played a few unofficial gigs in Austin, including at the MidCoast Takeover, sponsored by Midwest Music Foundation of Kansas City.

“That doesn’t really stop you from playing in potentially packed rooms all week, though. We like to play at least four or five gigs during South by Southwest. For us it turns into a marathon every day to find parking and schlep gear from one side of town to the other.

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“I often wish that I could take a little more time to go see other bands and just listen. There are amazing musicians all over the city, but it’s also a unique opportunity to get your music out there. You never know who is listening.”

On his Facebook page recently, long-time musician and former Kansas City resident Mike Dillon posted this above a link to a New York Times story titled “Touring Can’t Save Musicians in the Age of Spotify.” It’s a pep talk to bands and a picture of life on the road:

“Valid points. Now get in the van, breathe some toxic petrochemical ass vapors and make some (money). Watch out for those 18-wheelers and texting drivers. Your manager, agent and club owner depend on you to feed (their families). Damn, my back hurts. Get back in the van, quit complaining, kid. Back when I toured, we walked 20 miles to the speakeasy and played on pie tins.”

If SXSW teaches anything, it’s that most of our favorite bands expend plenty of sweat and money to create and bring to us the music we love, with little or no guarantee of success, however they define that. For that, we should all be grateful.

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain

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