Faster Than Sound: I’m Just Not Into Labels

CD Baby brings DIY Musician Conference to Austin, Sidewinder won’t be ready for SXSW, and PledgeMusic withholds Fastball campaign funds

Gina Chavez (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Relocating from Nashville, independent music distributor CD Baby imports its annual gathering to Austin for the next two years. The DIY Musician Conference promises three days of practical artist education Aug. 16-18.

"At other conferences I go to, the biggest problem is industry people just talking to the industry," shares CD Baby Marketing VP Kevin Breuner. "They're not giving information specific to helping artists move their careers to the next level, like how you get a manager or book your own tour."

Breuner jokes that the 20-year-old brand now abbreviates "Completely Digital" Baby. After making its name as a go-to online CD store, the Portland-based company successfully pivoted to digital music distribution. Exclusive deals with Spotify and Apple Music boosted the platform's artists, who earned over $100 million last year. That represented a 25% increase from 2017.

Their DMC convergence previously pulled a majority out-of-state audience, tapping local recording studios, businesses, and artists for programming activities. Further details coming in April, the Austin weekend lands at the Downtown Hilton Austin with evening performances at Cheer Up Charlies.

Representing Gibson guitars at California's sprawling NAMM Show, local performer Gina Chavez phones in to describe CD Baby as "an extra team member" helping navigate streaming. The bilingual local's career track includes an NPR Tiny Desk performance and tours as a U.S. State Department cultural ambassador, all endeavored without a label or management.

"I don't see [streaming] as income, but more as engagement," says Chavez. "If a fan is on Spotify, they should be able to listen to me on Spotify, because that provides a longer-term relationship."

Third Root (Photo by Robert Hein)

San Antonio hip-hop trio Third Root splits its upcoming album, Trill Pedagogy, into four EPs in an "experiment" to boost online traffic, which they track on CD Baby and additional platforms like Bandcamp. Known onstage as Easy Lee, MC/poet/educator Charles Peters describes the bite-sized outputs as "this continuous promotion leading to a big vinyl piece" in March. Both Peters and Chavez sold physical copies on CD Baby in the early Aughts, making the platform a natural choice over other popular distributors like DistroKid and TuneCore.

Last year, local duo Mikaela Kahn and Jordan Burchill responded to an Instagram post by cineaste Spike Lee requesting song submissions from independent artists. The folk-pop duo's debut single, "Lion Eyes," ended up in the acclaimed director's Oscar-nominated BlacKkKlansman. Without a label, Kahn says navigating the legal details of mainstream film placement proved "really confusing." They use CD Baby's add-on Pro Publishing services to collect international royalties for the song.

"We both went to a great music school, but I wish they would talk more about monetizing your work," admits Burchill, a University of North Texas alumnus. "Now, we're doing research and figuring it out on the fly."

Sidewinder Benched, Beerland in for SXSW

Red River alley between Sidewinder and Beerland (Photo by John Anderson)

Last week, a Downtown Commission meeting updated long-running efforts to enclose an alley in the Downtown Red River Cultural District (revisit "City on the Fence Regarding Red River's Homeless Problem," Jan. 25). The fate of neighboring, now-shuttered venue Sidewinder also waits on the alley planning process. Next door, punk hovel Beerland returns as an official South by Southwest showcaser after many years as an unofficial venue, citing relaxed rules as incentive to join.

The former's 715 Red River locale, once home to the Red Eyed Fly, is listed for lease by Capital Leasing, Management & Sales. According to VP Ron Meyeres, the city requires installation of another emergency exit to the ex-Sidewinder before the outdoor space can function. He says construction permits depend on the alley project and coordination with future Waller Creek development.

"It's just a mess," says Meyeres. "We can't get the maximum use out of the building as a live music venue until we get a secondary exit."

While Elysium owner John Wickham no longer counts involvement with the property, Meyeres is in talks with a group of local venue owners "seriously considering" leasing the space under a special arrangement where rent increases once the outdoor stage gets up to code. Until then, the bar operates on a 200-person inside capacity with just 49 allowed outside.

"It just kills me that we can't have [the building] open for South by Southwest," adds Meyeres, whose firm owns and operates East Seventh Street event space Ironwood Hall. "Permits are due Feb. 8, so we're racing against time."

Alongside the loss of Sidewinder's two stages, Beerland head Richard Lynn says SXSW representatives "have been much more accommodating and flexible" about programming, prompting their addition as an official 2019 venue. Beerland founders Randall and Donya Stockton maintained unofficial status for many years before selling the storied space to Lynn last year.


Fastball (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

While the world ogled new Fyre Festival footage, local Nineties heroes Fastball found themselves at the center of a different music industry scam bonanza. Band management revealed that crowdfunding service PledgeMusic owed them over $20,000, prompting an outpouring of high-dollar complaints from other artists against the service. The unpaid earnings stemmed from a campaign supporting the 20th anniversary reissue All the Pain Money Can Buy, including smash hit "The Way."

Fastball manager Peter Wark says PledgeMusic coughed up $10,000 following major bad press, including a Billboard exposé.

"[PledgeMusic] was taking other artists' money and spending it on salaries and offices and other things," elaborates Wark. "They should have had two very separate bank accounts. It's a bit of a Ponzi scheme."

Fastball singer/guitarist/co-frontman Miles Zuniga is mostly glad fans received their pledge products on time, including T-shirts and vinyl the band went out of pocket for. Though he admits the missing funds would help fund a publicist for an upcoming LP, counting money isn't his gig.

"I'm a lifer," explains Zuniga of his varied music career. "I'm not good at anything else, so it wouldn't matter. We had one record that was super huge, but you never know what's going to happen. That's what makes this job fun. It's not like being an accountant."


Nathan Hamilton self-published his first book of poetry, including a hardback edition with accompanying photography. His Engineless Hour collects the same vivid, gritty vignettes conjured in the local songwriter's shadowy roots-rock. This time, the verse without music "allow[s] for a bit more depth and, if I am honest, more vulnerabilities," shares Hamilton. "I also wanted to make the book so as to have a physical object for people to experience without being led away by a click or link. It is the very intention inherent in the title."

The Music & Entertainment Division of the city's Economic Development Department hosts a discussion session 1:30-3:30pm this Saturday, Feb. 2, at Downtown event space LZR. The third "Amplified Sound Compatibility Meeting" continues efforts to collect "proposed solutions from stakeholders," like venue owners and local developers, on the Agent of Change ordinance to govern noise levels near entertainment districts. Community feedback will shape department recommendations to City Council this spring.

Float Fest was denied a permit by the Guadalupe County Commissioners Court, just days after a study tasked by organizers of the San Marcos River event revealed a total economic impact of $12.3 million in 2018. Residents presented concerns over traffic, safety, and river cleanliness before commissioners voted against the annual summer fest, planned for July 19-21.

Warm Sugar launches a February residency at Buzz Mill's Town Creek location. The homespun country quintet offers velvety folk melodies Saturday from 6-8pm, with a cozy cider special to boot.

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CD Baby, Gina Chavez, Third Root, Sidewinder, Beerland, Fastball, Warm Sugar, Nathan Hamilton, Float Fest

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