AUSTIN, Texas -- Savages, a U.K. quartet that made new converts with each gig at the South by Southwest Music Conference, was in a particularly nasty mood during its final appearance Saturday.
"Last stop at a horrible (expletive) festival," hissed singer Jehnny Beth, before she and her bandmates -- bassist Ayse Hassan, drummer Fay Milton and guitarist Gemma Thompson ripped into their venomous "Husbands."
The band had played a series of short sets around town, one of 2,500 bands struggling for attention under trying conditions: sound checks were done on the fly, if at all, at venues that aren't necessarily built to accommodate bands or music. Most up-and-comers had to pay their way to Austin in hope that something, anything might happen to accelerate their careers or turn them in a positive direction. Savages were among the more fortunate: they had built anticipation with digital, do-it-yourself releases and a much-praised appearance last fall in New York. Now they were back to capitalize, and a domestic deal with the highly respected Matador Records label was reportedly in the works.
Seeing a band that almost nobody knew about a year ago seize the moment is the premise on which South by Southwest was built. But the festival has also become something else: a platform for dozens of stars performing for big corporate money to advertise products. There was Ice Cube cavorting on an eight-story stage designed to look like a vending machine, shilling for corn chips. There was Prince making a crowd wait for hours before delivering hits and deep cuts in the name of a cellphone. There was Justin Timberlake promoting his new album with help from a car manufacturer.
Money from multinational conglomerates is nothing new in the music business, of course, but here it was particularly lavish, a tale of the one percent grabbing the lion's share of the attention and the dollars at the expense of everyone else. Talent agents estimated that performers like Ice Cube and Prince hauled down $500,000 or more to perform at their non-sanctioned South by Southwest events, which in turn brought thousands more to Austin who came not to attend the music conference but the countless corporate shows and parties surrounding it.
When South by Southwest began 27 years ago, it was primarily a regional festival that celebrated up-and-comers and Texas-bred artists. But since the mid-'90s demise of the New Music Seminar in New York, South by Southwest has grown in stature to become a platform for music-industry promotion. This year, conference-sanctioned events helped launch new albums, tours or projects from such heavy hitters as Green Day, Dave Grohl, Vampire Weekend, Nick Cave, Iggy Pop and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Some agents, managers and artists groused that the stars were taking away from the newcomers the conference was supposedly created to expose. Indeed, to attend Saturday's Prince concert required a six-hour time investment that effectively negated any opportunity to see the hundreds of other bands performing that night.
Artists lower on the food chain than Prince often performed with less than ideal sound. The intricate, delicate layers created by the electro-soul band Rhye were hampered by a faulty mix at Buffalo Billiards, and bands such as Youngblood Hawke ate up as much as half of their alloted time trying to adjust their mix and fix their gear. Dirty looks flashed at sound technicians were almost as common as free drinks at the various VIP parties. As Martin Atkins, the former Public Image Ltd. drummer-turned-music oracle proclaimed at one of his typically irreverent seminars on the music business: "Practice for catastrophe."
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