Lately I've been thinking about the State of the Scene. Once upon a time, a bounty of amazing improvised rock groups – or jambands, if you will – that once trekked up and down the two coasts of this great nation, but no longer. They continue to tour, of course, but now many rely on giant festivals like Bonnaroo to introduce themselves to new audiences. You don't often find bands that specialize in live improvised music, rather than recordings, at music-industry clusterfuck conferences such as New York's CMJ or Austin's SXSW.
For better or worse, however, that's where most indie groups these days garner recognition, buzz, and, if they're really really lucky, a recording contract. SXSW and its ilk are good for a small minority of ambitious young rockers. And even if they don't get signed, they usually have a pretty good time and snag some free liquor, food, or sunglasses for their trouble.
Conversely, the people who put on these events do very well indeed. A SXSW pass costs hundreds of dollars, while the hundreds of bands who play the event are compensated either in wristbands or with $250 in gas money. Meanwhile, large soft drink, beer, chewing gum, sneakers, and other companies spend thousands upon thousands of dollars in marketing their wares to conference goers, who may or may not realize they are paying for the the privilege of consuming all this advertising.
Guitarist Mike Haliechuck of the Canadian punk band Fucked Up (only in Canada, kids) analyzes all of this much better than I ever will in "SXSW Why?" Haliechuck weighs the pros and cons and comes to the conclusion that while music conferences are good for a minority, it's the conference owners and their corporate sponsors who are more likely to come out ahead. Having been to both CMJ and SXSW exactly one time each, I came away feeling like a very small cog in a big greasy machine. But I'm lucky. I live in New York, which is a 24/7/365 music conference in itself.
Haliechuck writes about how SXSW creates a critical mass of people willing to pay for the privilege of gazing at billboards sponsored by large corporate concerns, such as Mountain Dew. With the corporate end of the music industry in its own death throes, more thought is now being put into how to extract money from consumers they might used to have spent on what they now get for free.
Something that should be forefront in the minds of every band and every record label is how this is the most visual example of music money leaching away from the people most connected to music....This is the crux of the matter - there is a big pool of money out there that everyone is trying to get - the music industry is panicking because a lot of the money that used to go from music consumers right to them, is now going to companies that are posted just on the periphery of music, letting bands and labels spend money making music, and then swooping in with music related marketing strategies aimed at getting some of that relatively free money.
After three years at SXSW, Fucked Up has obviously figured out how to make the event, and the sponsorship opportunities it provides, work for them. Other bands, Haliechuck warns, will probably not be quite as savvy. Fortunately, anyone who reads his thoughtful observations on manufacturing of indie-rock sausages in the hot Texas sun will come away just a little, or perhaps a lot, smarter about the process than they were previously. And there's nothing fucked up about that.
What's important to remember is that even if you are a small band with no label, or even just a fan of music, every decision you make at the festival has a ripple effect on the music industry, which you are a part of. If you are a band, and are offered to play the Dewars Pampers Ultra Soft stage, it may be a legitimately good decision to take part in, if you can get a good slot and play for a few hundred people, and maybe even walk away from the show with a cheque. But is it worth playing in the middle of nowhere to no people if the only meaningful economic relationship created by the show is between a few companies that won't pay you, and a few hundred people that are still asleep while you are playing? If you are a label, is it worth taking a few thousand dollars from a beer company to help pay your bands that day if they are just going to turn around and use those bands in a print ad without paying you? It all comes around in the end.