Craig Stewart, Emperor Jones Founder and SXSW Alum, Has Died at 53

Stewart also ran the Trance Syndicate label with husband King Coffey

Craig Stewart at the 2018 Austin Music Industry Awards (Photo by David Brendan Hall)
Craig Stewart, an Austin Music Industry Hall of Famer who spearheaded the Emperor Jones label and worked for South by Southwest, has died at age 53.

Stewart’s mother, Missy Stewart Stanwood, confirmed his passing on Facebook this morning. The label head was living with dementia in a nursing home and had recently contracted COVID-19 prior to his death.

Stewart ran the influential Trance Syndicate label with his husband, Butthole Surfers drummer King Coffey, before starting the offshoot Emperor Jones in 1995. The imprint served as a genre catchall for bands who piqued Stewart’s interests. He issued projects by post-rockers the American Analog Set, garage group the Crack Pipes, and indie mainstays the Mountain Goats over the years, among others.

"It's all over the map," Stewart said of his music taste in a 2003 Chronicle interview. "I just really like tons of different shit. I've never really gone after anybody, it just kinda happens."

Stewart’s eclectic interests as a music fan guided his label leadership more than business savvy. In the Nineties, Emperor Jones released an album of never-before-heard Roky Erickson songs benefitting the troubled artist’s trust fund.

"It's not any way to start off a fledgling label, because Emperor Jones is pretty bankrupt right now, but I think it's pretty important for Roky," Stewart told the Chronicle in Greg Beets’ 1998 feature on the labels, “Weird Bands From Texas.”

A music curator in more ways than one, Stewart also spent much of his career working for SXSW. Conference co-founder Roland Swenson remembered his colleague in a statement to the Chronicle:

“Craig was a true music man. He loved music and dedicated his life to discovery and promoting artists he felt were worthy of being heard by a wider audience. When he discovered a new artist he felt was truly deserving he would share his discovery with everyone he cared about. The world is a poorer place without his passion.

“He made us laugh.”

Craig Stewart (l) and King Coffey in Feb. 2018 at Palm Door (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

In 2018, Stewart was inducted into the Austin Music Industry Hall of Fame. Providing an introduction at the ceremony, Swenson highlighted that Emperor Jones acts “owned their master recordings and were free to sign other deals.” The Chronicle recap of the event read:

Stewart isn't a household name, but anyone who knows him or what he's done bends the knee. People like him are the reason the Industry Hall of Fame exists. Organizers didn't expect him to show up – he's been rendered unable to speak by a neurological disorder – but when Swenson called his name, he walked onstage with his husband, Butthole Surfers drummer King Coffey. Everyone suddenly shut up and listened.

With Stewart by his side, Coffey explained that his mate loved music more than anybody and how he dedicated his life to championing obscure bands. As Coffey spoke, Stewart smiled broadly and gestured in a way that screamed, "Yes! He's saying what I want to say." I wasn't the only one wiping away tears.

Figures across the Austin music community, including Cherubs, End of an Ear co-founder Dan Plunkett, and Emperor Jones alums the Crack Pipes, shared tributes to Stewart on Wednesday. On Facebook, Charalambides member Tom Carter said Stewart was responsible for “dragging [the band] out of retirement in the late ‘90s.”

“He was so generous with the artists he cared about and would move mountains to make good things happen for them, and was a master of making the offer one couldn’t refuse (in a non-Godfather way, of course),” Carter wrote.

Inspire A.D. owner and former Beerland booker Max Meehan wrote: “I feel very fortunate to have known a man who transcended merely being an Austin institution; he was a big, warm star that directed and helped people beyond state lines. There are not too many as passionate as he was about music on such a profound level.”

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Craig Stewart, Emperor Jones, South by Southwest, King Coffey, Trance Syndicate

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