Hip Pocket

In Austin, Texas, it's a neck-and-neck race between art and commerce at South by Southwest

It's no small thing to garner that level of attention at SXSW. Chitchat abounded at the capacious La Zona Rosa for what turned out to be a disappointing show by professional Band-obsessed mopers Mercury Rev, although Modesto's Granddaddy pulled off the same trick and got away with it, mainly by presenting its absurdist songs as trance music instead of standard-issue rock-pop. The Tin Hat Trio, with its contemplative set of pomo tangos at the Speakeasy, had trouble being heard over its own monitors, surrounded as they were by a crowd of folks babbling over their bourbons; Austin American-Statesman jazz critic Michael Point was standing near the stage, grousing about the lousy choice of venue for a group that functions poorly as background music.

No such problems at the Man's Ruin showcase at Emo's, where the Jack Saints' drummer Regal stripped down to his socks and nipple rings halfway through the trio's set of Iggy-fied slop. And since what got everybody's attention at Dieselhed's show at the yuppified Iron Cactus wasn't so much the bands standard hillbilly folk-punk, but its smooth-rock cover of Mel & Tim's "Starting All Over Again," maybe the problem with SXSW is that the gimmick is what gets you heard. Power, schmower; what's your angle?

That aspect of the conference -- the gimmickry of it, the exclusionary nature of it -- is probably what inspired an angry fan (a fan!) to somehow muscle to the front of the stage near the end of Tom Waits' show and rant -- to Waits himself -- about how she couldn't get into the show, badgeholders got all the good tickets, etc., etc. At that point it was a lost cause, but you can't blame her for trying. If South by Southwest is the whole of the music industry in miniature, it's an industry of gatekeepers: label heads and PR pros trying to define what should trickle down to actual listeners, art and commerce either colliding or running with each other. Eight hundred bands later, though, there was still no better idea about how musicians can use the power Lucinda Williams mentioned, or even if they have it. And whether those gatekeepers have an idea about what's best for music -- or if they're all just faking.

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