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Wednesday, Mar 20 1996
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Southern Exposure
Usually, a 10th anniversary is cause for a re-evaluation of purpose, but at last week's South by Southwest music and media conference, the general attitude was if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Of course, the Austin festival has changed drastically since its inception, when it was primarily a forum for unsigned bands. In the past few years, it's become both an opportunity for labels to showcase their hottest groups for critics and bookers and a crash course in expense-account revelry for over 5,000 writers, musicians, publicists, and label and radio folks. As Managing Director Ronald Swenson wrote in the 1996 SXSW guidebook, 200 "completely unsigned bands" and 300 indies were scheduled to play, vs. 100 major label acts. But the small fry were competing with legends like Iggy Pop and George Clinton for audience support. In his opening remarks, SXSW Creative Director Brent Grulke pleaded with conventioneers to "support the less commercial forms of music South by Southwest presents." Complaints about the corporatization of SXSW are growing tired, though, as newer grass-roots events like SF03 and NXNW pick up the slack.

The SXSW saga parallels the fortunes of the alternative nation, a point underscored in panels like "Does the Major/Indie Partnership Work?" and "Is AAA Still Relevant?" Jousts flew in "Why Rock Criticism Sucks," as writers debated ethical concerns of objectivity, critical integrity, and, er, selling promo CDs. British singer/songwriter Robyn Hitchcock provided comic relief, describing critics as "deformed, dissatisfied people" and "middle-class wise guys." "Songwriters: The Record I Wish I'd Made" featured artists like Mark Eitzel, who each played a song that was a seminal influence on their work. Surprisingly, country crooner Vic Chesnutt picked a "hippie skippy" number by Yoko Ono. Like last year, there was only one hip-hop-oriented panel and a meager showcase of primarily Texas rappers. "SXSW stands for 'South by South White,' " quipped MonGo Nikol of Hip-Hop Verses the World. The Fugees, though, booked at the last minute for the Columbia shindig, kicked off an amazing outdoor set that was put on hold when a lightning storm threatened to fry the band. Bay Area acts like Dieselhed and the Meices packed 'em in, but the biggest buzz was on Imperial Teen, whose set at the Driskill was witnessed by editors from SPIN and the Village Voice. Or so Samples heard: We were lost in the boonies trying to find the Chicken Shack where Keyboard Money Mark was playing. When the cops came, he was shanghaied to the SPIN closing party where his performance inspired people to dance on the furniture and dump hotel property off the 16th-floor balcony. "We are reliving Hammer of the Gods," someone joked, an apt metaphor for SXSW.

By Sia Michel

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Sia Michel

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