The Big Crapshoot

Tracking South by Southwest

For the last 11 years, people have asked the same question on or around March 16: "Who got signed?" While the question naively implies that music industry movers and shakers just hand out recording contracts like business cards at South by Southwest, it's not an entirely invalid inquiry. Artists do get signed as a result of SXSW. It's a fact, as is the reality that the majority of acts playing the conference walk away virtually empty-handed. Like any other part of the music business, SXSW is a big crapshoot. And it's a lottery without printed odds.

Unfortunately, there are no real statistics as to how many acts have been signed over the years as a direct result of the conference. And if there were, how would one quantify that data? Does finding a lawyer, manager, booking agent, or publisher at SXSW qualify? What about finding an indie home for your band's next 7-inch single? Conference organizers admit they're equally empty-handed when it comes to hard `n' fast data. Every year, they send out a follow-up questionnaire to the acts that played SXSW, but each year only a handful are ever returned. Still, the number of talent submissions and music industry registrants every year rises exponentially. Business must be getting done in Austin, or perhaps there's just a whole lot of executives with a gold card to burn on hungry bands still holding out hope for a free barbecue dinner.

Either way, it wasn't terribly difficult to conduct an informal poll of 12 indiscriminately chosen artists and get them to talk about their SXSW expectations, experiences, techniques, and, yes, signing stories. Some found deals at the conference while others have built a support team to get that elusive record label contract. Other have used SXSW solely as a promotional tool. Whatever the case, whether they're international acts or hometown heroes, the stories herein prove that there's something to be learned about the conference from its artists. Maybe this year, more acts will send back their questionnaires. Meanwhile, here's a few bands, their SXSW sagas, and their answers...


The Old 97's

As a solo folk artist, Dallasite Rhett Miller had played six SXSW conferences, and attended seven. "I got a lot of interest, but probably rightfully so, they came out each year, saw me, and realized I was just a kid not ready to take on that kind of obligation," says Miller of his early SXSW near-misses. "But I'm so glad. How much would that have sucked to blow my wad as a 17-year old folkie?" Apparently a lot, because Miller and his alternative country outfit, the Old 97's, rebounded from several SXSW rejection slips with a packed 1996 showcase that fueled an immediate industry frenzy, which resulted in a multi-album deal with Elektra, starting with Too Far to Care due in June. And while the previous two years of national touring and an indie album on Bloodshot didn't hurt their cause, Miller contends that it was a pre-SXSW tour that brought them from the Gavin Convention in Atlanta, to a West Coast run, and back to SXSW that really fanned the flames. "We didn't really plan it, but by the time we got to Austin there were five or six labels waiting because they'd heard our name so much in the previous two weeks," Miller says.

The Old 97's

Expectations: "I really expected the thing that most people expect, that you'll be discovered out of the blue and that your show is going to be heavily attended by very important people because they really care about new music. None of that is really true. Your show is only going to be attended by important people if other important people tell them to."

The Austin Factor: "We couldn't get the time of day from anybody in the industry before we played the showcase. But it was good that we had played Austin a couple of times and primed it a little, so that when we did the show there was a packed house that included some actual fans. So they'd be singing along and in the quiet parts you could actually hear them. And at the same time, you could actually see the label guys looking at those fans and thinking, `This has got to equal money.'"

The Weasel Factor: "Not only did I get the cards after the show, but I got the whole `pull the lead singer off to the side and make friends with him' thing. They think if they tell me really personal things, open up to me and give me their home phone numbers, that it's going to make me feel obligated to sign with them or sell them my publishing. It didn't work that way."


[SXSW showcase: Thursday, Stubb's, Midnight]


The Dangerous Toys

Since 1988, The Dangerous Toys have been widely credited as SXSW's first real signing story. In what was the conference's second year, the Toys played the Back Room's last Sunday night slot to a crowd of ten. Frontman Jason McMaster was at that point treating the band like the side-project it was, and admits now that he was far more interested in playing with local progressive metal outfit Watchtower than with this new boogie-influenced hair band. But SBK Songs publisher Celine Armbeck was one of those ten people in the crowd, and fell in love with the band. Soon after, while still trying to convince McMaster to leave Watchtower, she began shopping for the Columbia deal the band eventually went with. She found the deal, McMaster quit Watchtower, and the band went on to sell over 700,000 units of their first two albums.

The Dangerous Toys

The Story: "The credit as the first signing is funny, because people still ask how we did it, and I've got to admit I didn't even know what SXSW was until somebody told me we were playing it. I didn't give two shits because I was in Watchtower. I was green. I didn't know anything about the music business. I was trying to make records with my friends at my own level. We didn't even have a demo, picture or anything. And I certainly didn't expect anything. Plus, we'd already played three times that week. So, we went out there to the Back Room and drank. We said `fuck' a lot, and it was a totally shit gig. Then Celine comes right up to me after the gig and says `fuckin' killer,' blah, blah, blah. I'm like, `I'm not even in this band. You need to go talk to them.' I blew her off. I wasn't trying to be a dick, but it was really their band. And I was in a bad mood because I knew that everyone was right and that I should take the Toys gig. But I was thinking about my friends in Watchtower that I'd played with for seven years, trying to balance it all. It's kind of funny, because I did finally apologize to Celine after we got the record deal. I said, `I think we need to start off again on another foot.'"

The Real Story: "There's another part of this story. I guess I can tell it now. Celine Armbeck actually came down here looking for Oynxx, the girl that used to sing for the guys that were the Toys. They were called Oynxx and [Armbeck] had been down for SXSW the year before and seen them play. When she came back to see Oynxx again, it was with different people in the band. There was no `Scottie Turbo' or `Markie Starr,' it was some other bad hair metal players. She said, `this ain't the same' and asked Bobby McNeely, a local guy that's famous for being Peter Frampton's tour manager, what the fuck's different about this band. He explained that the guys in Oynxx fired her and she took the name, and they've got this crazy thrash metal guy fronting them now. She wanted to check it out and stayed in town to see this band, the Dangerous Toys. So the real story is that she got the news from a local and was sent over. She was looking for something else and found me. Maybe the system does work after all."


Lisa Loeb

From 1991-1994 Lisa Loeb kept coming back to SXSW. While she admits she was disappointed by the lack of interest in her first SXSW performance, the New York singer-songwriter says the networking experiences and seminar information she picked up in the process more than paid for the trip. In 1993, returning as a solo artist, Loeb continued to network, played a couple of hotel rooms, and eventually met Jim Barber, a Geffen A&R rep who'd seen her showcase on a tip from one of Loeb's friends. Barber was impressed, took Loeb shopping at Atomic City, and casually kept in touch with her throughout the year. But by 1994, the still-unsigned Loeb had landed a track, "Stay," on the Reality Bites soundtrack and returned to the conference to sort out a flood of offers -- many from people she'd met at previous conferences. The outcome? Loeb got the crash-course in SXSW bidding wars she'd dreamed of two years earlier, "Stay" went on to become a Number One Billboard hit, and Loeb settled on Barber and Geffen after all.

Lisa Loeb

Expectations: "With Liz And Lisa [the first year's duo project], there were some record companies interested. I think we expected to go there, find people really excited and sign us. We expected to be `discovered.' But looking back, it's more important that when you get there, you do a good show and do everything possible to get people to come see it. Because, at least from my experience, it seems like there was never a discovery per se. I'd meet people at different shows or at one of the hotels where everyone was hanging out. I'd meet those music-business types and their friends, our mutual friends, and simply try to get them to the show. We made sure we had plenty of tapes and brought the fliers to pass around. Not so much to random people on the street, but if you did meet someone you liked, you'd give them the flier to remind them when you're playing. Shameless self-promotion."

The Austin Factor: "The key is that [all the A&R reps] are in the same place at SXSW. There was a lot of access to them and so if you were networking, it was easy to see one friend from New York, or even one person you kind of knew and they'd introduce you to the four other people they were talking to. Now, looking back to the year I got signed, it seems like there were a lot more of the upper-level music business people I didn't think I would have been able to meet the first year I was there. I didn't even know those people were around really the first time. Maybe they weren't.... I also met people that might not have been in the top level of the industry but are the ones doing a lot of the actual work -- people that when you're ready to get signed in two years have a much better job and are now actually able to sign you."


[SXSW showcase: Saturday, Texas Union Ballroom, Midnight]


Seed

In 1993, Seed secured a spot on SXSW's wait-list. In truth, the local pop outfit that had only been together nine months and had only just begun drawing a following at the Back Room, never really expected to get into the conference anyway. So they employed what's since become a genuine SXSW back door route: booking rehearsal time at the Austin Rehearsal Complex. The band figured mangers and labels would already be at the ARC checking in on their signed talent's pre-showcase rehearsals, so the trick then became getting those music industry types to stop by the space next door for a quick private listen. And at the ARC, Seed did indeed get someone's ear -- producer Howard Benson, who went on to secure the band a deal with Mechanic/Giant for their debut, Ling. "We're kind of back in the same situation now," says Seed guitarist Dean Truitt of the currently unsigned band's SXSW plans. "We really didn't apply this year, and we're doing another thing at the ARC. The first time, we spent $30, and it's wound up being the best $30 we ever spent. Who knows?"

The Story: "We just decided to book a morning slot at the ARC, partially because, at the last minute, they lifted us from the wait-list and gave us a Sunday night slot. Fortunately, Jared Tuten [Pariah guitarist] knew this guy Howard Benson, who'd basically been just walking around the ARC. He'd made a career of typically producing metal bands and I think he had it in mind that he wanted to make the crossover and find an alternative band. So Jared told him that his friends were rehearsing in room one and that he should check it out...

"Ironically enough, Michael Goldstone, who we knew as the guy that signed Pearl Jam and a bunch of big bands, had come by earlier and actually listened to a song or two. So we weren't immediately impressed that a producer was in the room to check us out. What could he do for us? But we played him two songs, one of which was "Doe," which eventually became a single on the album. Howard was impressed, but we didn't have a demo at the time. And two months later we sent him a demo that was really a third of what became the record. It winds up that he was just sort of a maverick producer that wanted to find his own band and shop it himself. Later, he wound up bringing to town not only a guy from Atlantic that we almost signed with, but also the folks from Mechanic -- part of Giant. That's who we went with, and by recording with Howard, who'd discovered us, we were able to have the label take a more hands-off approach. [Today], we all realize the whole deal was more a case of right place, right time than anything else."


The Presidents Of The USA

In the four months leading up to SXSW 95, The Presidents of The United States of America had become the hottest unsigned band in the country, mostly on the strength of an indie CD that would eventually be re-released as their multi-platinum Columbia debut. As such, their ASCAP showcase at Steamboat (also featuring the as-yet-unsigned Refreshments) garnered what was perhaps the conference's largest A&R clusterfuck -- including Columbia's Josh Sarubin, who eventually signed the band. Two years later, POTUSA guit-bassist Dave Dederer admits the band was already on the verge of making a decision when they accepted a showcase slot, but says it was fun watching the A&R community chase them.

The Experience: "It's really interesting to think about now, because our new album is selling so-so, this tour will be mellow, and no radio stations want to interview us. But that weekend was sort of the opposite pinnacle. I remember going into the lounge of the Four Seasons, the center of the conference, at 2am and thinking I'd just have a drink and go to bed. Within five minutes there were six or seven industry people, lawyers, publishers, booking agents. They're buying, so I'd stay. Needless to say, I had a lot of free meals that weekend."

The Weasel Factor: "It was useful to have all those A&R guys in one place. When you're in Seattle, they come and give you all kinds of special attention. That was the first time we were in the weaselfest scenario and got to see people interact with each other. So, while we ate the meals and hung around the bar, we also used the conference to see who was fairly straight-up and consistent with their Seattle behavior and who wasn't."


Michelle Solberg

On the eve of her sixth straight SXSW, local singer-songwriter Michelle Solberg says she believes that although she's yet to land a deal at the conference, the return engagements will at some point give way to long-term pay off. "People haven't come and thrown money at me," she says, "but it's really been a good thing to just build my exposure and establish a general reputation." In 1993, Solberg not only played the conference, but also found a crowd of national heavy-hitters eyeing her set at The Austin Music Awards. And while some genuine major-label interest, and an odd Four Seasons hotel room tour, followed the awards set, Solberg took the self-released route last December for her Liquid CD.

Expectations: "At first I was kind of freaked out by the whole affair, but I've since used it to really learn a lot about how the industry works. Just seeing all these bands in one place reminds you how many people all over the world are trying to do the same thing you are. But the best thing is that by doing it a number of years you can build relationships, and they know who you are in the industry, versus just being in Ohio somewhere and never having them get a clue. Now, I see a lot of the same faces at the showcases. But it's more about the people you may have met three years ago that didn't think you were ready then, but now, when you send them stuff this year, they promise to check out your showcase again. I'm of the opinion that eventually if you keep on learning and people are interested in watching you develop something is bound to happen. It's an investment."


[SXSW showcase: Friday, Ruta Maya, 1am]


Cake

It's no secret that as SXSW grew in the first part of this decade, the major labels saw an opportunity to help "break" their baby bands -- sometimes even planning debut release dates around the conference as a chance to start a press, radio, and booking buzz. In 1994, Capricorn Records used the conference to showcase Cake, a young Sacramento band that had just released their debut, Motorcade of Generosity, three weeks earlier. And while that album yielded a minor hit in "Rock `n' Roll Lifestyle," it wouldn't be until 1996's follow-up, Fashion Nugget, that Cake truly began to sell albums. According to the band's frontman, John McCrea, it was immediately following their SXSW showcase that they began to see the secondary impact of SXSW: The word-of-mouth buzz.

Cake

Expectations: "We really just showed up in our little van and played our little show. Back then, we really didn't know what it was all about and how well established it was. We'd played smaller conferences back home in San Francisco and that's what we expected. It was an amazing thing to pull into town here and see so much music. It was really unbelievable."

Results: "A lot of times on the road, from right after the show until today, we heard people from all over the country say they first saw us at SXSW, or had friends see us in Austin. And it's not just fans, but all kinds of music industry people, who are now in the position to really help us at radio stations and on tour. At the time, you can't tell what your impact is. You know there's a lot of people there, but it's very difficult to gauge their reaction. But I'm now sure that the SXSW appearance really helped a lot of people remember us."


The Instruments

Instruments (originally "Texas" Instruments) guitarist Dave Woody knows his place in SXSW legend as one of the handful of acts that've played every conference since the beginning. "They asked us to do it the first year and then every year we applied and they said `yes,'" says Woody. "So we figure they've always been nice, and by now, it's also nice to keep the streak going." Woody says he's confident the conference has helped the band move along several indie record deals and has no doubt been responsible for yielding an impressive collection of national press clips. And although the local band turned 13 last December, Woody reports their approach to SXSW is perhaps the one aspect of their careers that's never changed; the band see the conference as simply a chance to play.

The Early Years: "I think we released [The Texas Instruments, 1987] right after the first conference. It was exciting because SXSW was brand new and nobody knew what it was going to mean or what could happen . But it actually did a lot of good, because when we went on tour right afterwards, we had a certain amount of journalists and people that had seen us at the conference go to our road gigs. Now, we're lazy and everyone has to come to us... so it works out really well."

Expectations and Results: "We've never really been that much of a hopped-up, press-the-flesh kind of band. But SXSW has helped us because I know it's played a direct role in several of our releases. We've certainly met a lot of indie labels this way, which is the route we've always chosen anyway.... It's not that we don't take it seriously, but we don't get overanxious or expect too much either. SXSW has always been good to us, letting us play. And after you play a couple, you figure out what it's good for: some exposure and the chance to play in front of people that don't ordinarily get to see you. Anything else is gravy."


[SXSW showcase: Thursday, Trophy's 11pm]


Better Than Ezra

Before their 1995 SXSW showcase, New Orleans' Better Than Ezra had developed a hometown crowd, toured consistently, and released a indie debut that sold nearly 15,000 copies regionally. Theirs was a case of a successful grass roots uprising. But while their Soundscan figures and road receipts should've been enough to attract major label attention, Better Than Ezra was basically overlooked until their SXSW showcase at Steamboat. Today, frontman Kevin Griffin readily credits SXSW with helping the band land their Elektra deal and says he's declined the conference's repeated invitations to return in fear of taking up the space of some small, unsigned band.

Better than Ezra

Getting In: "It was definitely pivotal for us. For a band coming up in Louisiana, SXSW was the thing you strove for. We had gotten turned down a lot by the conference when we first started. Finally, we got in, and it happened. SXSW started the serious courting. People may have heard about us, but we made so many new contacts. Until then, in the eyes of the industry, we were just a rumor. People hadn't seen us. So here we could play in front of presidents and people who could makes decisions."

The Results: "It was kind of like we had been teetering on the top of a hill waiting for someone to push us off and get momentum going. Our slot was for a Thursday night at Steamboat, opening for Rex Daisy, another unsigned band that had a much bigger buzz than ours. Everyone showed up. It really got the ball rolling. You can become a bit of a commodity for those few days. It was that night that we hung out with the people from Elektra, who we wound up signing up."


David Garza

David Garza is another one of those gray-area success stories, where finding a producer at SXSW meant finding a deal. As a member of Twang Twang Shock-A-Boom, Garza played his first SXSW in 1990. Six years of solo SXSW showcases followed with only nominal interest. But in 1995, after Garza nearly abandoned hope of using the conference as his launching pad, the wife of producer Stiff Johnson (G. Love, Cypress Hill) kneeled down to tie her shoes in front of Steamboat and liked what she heard from outside. After the gig, Johnson and Garza traded numbers, which ultimately led to the pair meeting in Philadelphia to record a demo. In turn, that session's tapes gave way to a legitimate major label bidding war that ended with Garza choosing Lava/Atlantic, which will release his national debut in August.

David Garza

The Experience: "By 1990, Twang Twang Shock-A-Boom was playing SXSW at Studio 6A, with people from CBS and A&M expressing interest. But it was kind of fun and games for me. I just thought it was cool to be playing the Austin City Limits stage. By the next year, I'd broken up with my band and realized major label deals were difficult to come by; and with Twang it came so easy, because we got so popular so quick, I thought everybody must get these [deals]. But you have to actually call these major label people in advance and half of them don't know who you are and the other half don't care. But by 1992 or 1993 I really began to take it too seriously. I'd spend January and February biting my nails, worrying about what was going to happen at SXSW. Everyone around me is asking the $20,000 question: "When are you going to get signed?" The only reply, if you're an Austin band is "SXSW." Hopefully, at SXSW they'll see you, like you, and sign you. But it never actually happened. I've played a good five SXSWs with random interest, but nobody knocking on my door on March 16 saying "You're the one," contract in hand."

The Lesson: "There were always the handshakes, always the business cards, always the I-love-yous. Then there were the guys that said, `Play 50 gigs and call me.' Ever hear that one? Yeah right, like I'm going to sit there with a freakin' pencil marking off gigs just to call. Then you play 50 gigs and it's "And you are...?" But the thing I learned is that every one of these major label people are humans that like to laugh and have fun. They come to SXSW because the weather's good, they can play golf, and eat Mexican food. And there's lots of bands. But they want to have fun, not get hounded. You just have to let them breathe and do the talking. If they don't talk, they're not interested. And if you keep talking and talking you're going to fool yourself into thinking they're interested because they sat there and listened. They're really not listening, they're just trying to figure out who they're going to go talk to next anyway."


[SXSW showcase: Thursday, Steamboat, Midnight]


Placebo

For many of SXSW's international acts, the conference is about finding the same things their American counterparts are seeking: a record deal, publisher, lawyer, or booking agent. But few international bands arrived at SXSW with the kind of frenzy Placebo brought with them to last year's conference. Less than a year after playing their first gig, a string of overwhelmingly positive British press clippings brought over 35 different labels to see and meet with the band in London. After they narrowed down the pack, they chose Hut Recordings, an autonomous Virgin Records imprint that's home to the Smashing Pumpkins and Veruca Salt in the U.K.. But the deal still left open the band's American rights to any label within the Virgin family, which set off another bidding war that ended with their decision to release their stateside debut on Caroline. And to the band's surprise, says frontman Brian Molko, Placebo not only found a label over their weekend in Austin, they also found an American music publisher.

Expectations: "Right before the conference, we had just gone through the laboriously horrible two-faced, fake-plastic-smile process of meeting every single record company guy you could image -- eating with all of them and seeing how they'd try to impress us. Some were genuine while others said, `Come up to my hotel suite. I've got loads of cocaine and skunk weed we can get wasted on.' Usually the ones with the drugs were the ones we didn't like, so we made a game out of basically taking them for a ride instead. In our minds we knew we wouldn't sign, but would just do their drugs. No worry, they're free. We figured we were game for another round in Austin."

Results: "I was very impressed by Famous Music, who became our publisher in America. At Steamboat, we played for 20 minutes and a guy named Bobby Carlton, who works for Famous Music, came in, and saw us play for those 20 minutes. He'd never heard of us before. By the time we got back to England, he's put in an offer. We were quite amazed, because he hadn't heard any demos and decided on the strength of seeing us for 20 minutes that he wanted us. We spoke about it a lot and knew that we really wanted to break America, and have our music come through here. So we thought it would be very good for us to have an American ally, and went for the Famous Music deal. After all we'd been through, it was a surprising and perfect SXSW outcome."


Whiskeytown

"Before SXSW, I really hadn't had much interaction with label people, but soon enough we got very fucking familiar with the record industry," says Ryan Adams, Whiskeytown's frontman. After the band rose to the head of last year's hot No Depression class with an album on Mood Food Records, it seemed like everyone but Adams knew Whiskeytown's 1996 showcase at the Split Rail would turn into a major industry event. Adams himself says he was more excited about the opportunity to hang out with the Old 97's and get drunk with a handful of Austin friends than he was about playing the show itself.

Whiskeytown

"The typical thing for us to do would have been to not even show up." says Ryan. "I didn't show up to headline the Eno River Music Festival, the biggest music festival in North Carolina because I was hungover. SXSW was the one thing we did make, the one thing we showed up for that people could talk to us. And it wound up being the turning point."

After the show, Adams says he was mobbed by pushy A&R reps wielding their business cards, forcing his quick and nervous retreat. Meetings, both in Los Angeles and back home in Raleigh, North Carolina followed, and Whiskeytown eventually settled on the Geffen-affiliated Outpost Records, which will release their debut in August. But the band paid a price for their new accessibility and interest: three members, including both halves of the rhythm sections, left because of the chaos.

"In the end, playing SXSW was a great experience and something all of us are going to remember," says Adams, who's returning to play this year's conference, partially to visit several of the now-close industry friends he'd made in the process of not signing with their labels. "But after it's all said and done, the labels wanting to sign us was probably more detrimental than it was positive."

The Showcase: "If you're a good band, your phone rings totally off the hook as soon as you get home. We were a totally fucking lousy band at SXSW. I couldn't keep my guitar on, I was drunk, the microphone kept falling over, and I think I fell over myself once or twice. I remember I loved playing the show the way we did, but I was surprised at how well it went over because we had no intention of going up there and being anything for anybody. Much later, after we signed, a lot of people admitted they thought it was too rough or ragged, but that's who we were. But we just played like we do and I was amazed at the interest."

The Response: "As soon as we finished, everyone in the world wanted to talk to us, especially to me. We all kind of split up and I wanted to hide. It was madness and I couldn't take to anybody. I was really needing a dr ink. I talked to a few people and they scared me, so I sort of squirmed away. And as I was kind of standing there, all these other people started coming and somebody from SXSW grabbed me by the arm and escorted me to the van. It was partially because we were interfering with the next band coming on, and also because they knew I didn't know what the fuck was going on. Then there were people knocking on the van windows, and I just kind of looked at them. It was kind of rude, but in retrospect I wished I'd done it more."

The Aftermath: "As soon as we got home, our lives were different. There were people flying in to meet us that had seen us at SXSW, but never met us before. It really became a political issue, and the band started losing touch with each other. In the process of choosing Outpost, we went through headfucks from five different labels, and I felt like they were playing each of us in the band against each other. There wasn't a practice space, and we were expected to fly around and have all these meetings, keep our jobs, and continue to tour. No matter where we went, there was an A&R person there. It got to a point where people in the band were skeptical of what this band was really about anymore; it was getting stupid, almost like a talent contest.... That whole part of my life was fucked up. I actually hated most of it. I think I liked the attention, but I realized later what that kind of attention will do to a band. You can really start to lose yourself and SXSW was the turning point."

The Lesson: "This year, we're playing on a bill with Hazeldine, a really great band from Albuquerque that I expect will go through a lot of the same shit we did. I've already gotten them a lawyer and have basically gone ahead and found them some armor, some smarts. I've told them that when they're done, do yourself a favor, let me take your guitars off stage and you just fucking leave. Don't talk to anybody. I want them prepared, because I wasn't."


[SXSW showcase: Friday, Waterloo Brewing Co., Midnight]

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