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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The 2009 SXSW Wrap-Up

Milwaukee provides a strong presence at the overstuffed music festival

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Although attendance was up at this year's South by Southwest music conference, ticket sales were down, which is poetic given how the industry itself is wrestling with a similar problem. Music consumption is at an all-time high, yet music sales are downright dire.

The well of easy money that once funded the industry has dried, and the panels at South by Southwest (SXSW) prepared musicians to fend for themselves during the ensuing dust bowl. The title of one popular panel, "There's Still Lots of Money in Songwriting and Music Publishing," was the unofficial, cautiously optimistic theme of the Austin, Texas, conference, but most of that money now comes from licensing to TV, movies, commercials and video games, not from the magic label contracts of yore. Lectures prepared musicians to think of themselves not just as artists, but as independent entrepreneurs-ones faced with the hard reality that consumers will no longer pay for the product they're selling.

Of course, most people don't attend SXSW for the conference; they turn out for the thousands of free or essentially free concerts. Echo & the Bunnymen used their three shows to battle the conventional wisdom that they've mellowed into obsolescence with age, while Devo teased material from their first new album in nearly 20 years. Metallica played a not-so-secret secret concert, while Kanye West outdid them, gathering friends Common, Kid Cudi and Erykah Badu for a secret show so publicized it threatened to overload Twitter.

Fading '90s staples Fastball and Marcy Playground tried to rebuild their profiles with their SXSW gigs, while Third Eye Blind used theirs to cement their unlikely resurgence. Most of the journalists and bloggers the event attracts, however, are more interested in new bands than old ones.


Rising indie-rock acts The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Telepathe and Wavves fought to reap as much press coverage as possible by racing between multiple shows most days, though none of those bands monopolized the buzz the way Vampire Weekend and MGMT did at last year's festival. Other highlights included The Thermals, the rare blog-approved band with a background in pop-punk; Camera Obscura, the reliably lovelorn Glasgow, Scotland, indie-pop ensemble; and Little Boots, a burgeoning British synth-pop diva with a single portentously titled "Stuck on Repeat."

SXSW still attracts musicians of all stripes, even though the life-changing opportunities it once promised have largely vanished. In today's downsizing music industry, there are no longer any big breaks to be had, but SXSW offers an infinite number of little ones. It's a chance to play for greater audiences than most acts could ever draw at home, and maybe to catch the ear of one of the thousands of bloggers patrolling the city. The right SXSW write-up can ripple across the blogosphere's echo chamber, providing the kind of exposure that would have required "120 Minutes" airtime 15 years ago.

More than a dozen Milwaukee-area acts made the voyage to Austin, including Codebreaker, Peter Mulvey, All Tiny Creatures, Cory Chisel, Juiceboxxx, Jayme Dawicki, Invade Rome, Kid Cut Up, Tom Vollman, Fever Marlene, Pezzettino, Big Fun 4Ever and Terrior Bute. That Milwaukee was twice as represented as it was at last year's SXSW speaks to the growing ambitions of the city's music scene.

Codebreaker, benefiting from the kind of funky, danceable sound that attracted people from the overcrowded streets of the festival, twice played to full, engaged crowds.

"We had about 200 CD singles that we gave out in like 2.2 seconds," singer Steven Hawley says. "We've received positive correspondence from a lot of folks/new fans already … I got a chance to get some much-needed sunshine too."

Pezzettino accordionist Margaret Stutt played a solo show, but scored far more exposure by performing on the street during the afternoons, where photographers snapped pictures and onlookers stopped to learn more about her. A photo of the wailing busker made its way to the Web site of Minneapolis' City Pages, and a passing Los Angeles rock band, The Union Line, was so amused they invited her to sit in with them the following night. She did, working an impromptu trio of her own songs into their show.

Invade Rome booked three shows throughout their weekend, which culminated with a performance at the annual WhoopsyMagazine party that paired them with similarly heavy rock bands, while rapper Juiceboxxx committed to as many shows in just one day, a schedule that took a toll on him.

"I want to die," he moaned at the start of his final show of the night, looking dehydrated from the Texas sun. A wildly amused crowd helped him muster the energy for his usual madman routine, during which he swung from the stage, fell to the floor and crawled into the lap of an un-consenting stagehand.

Terrior Bute and Big Fun 4Ever took a more laid-back approach to the weekend. They spent Thursday watching friends and peers from Vicious Pop Records perform outside a vegan-friendly greasy spoon before taking the stage themselves.

After a set of their glitch soul-pop, Big Fun 4Ever turned heads when they announced they had a 7-inch for sale-few performers had brought any merch with them, so casual was the vibe-while the dry Austin air took a toll on Terrior Bute singer Jeff Graupner, whose nose began to bleed.

Without stopping their set to let it clot, with one hand he pressed a handkerchief to his face and a microphone to his mouth, pounding on the synthesizer with the other as blood painted his face and dripped on to his Moog and microphone. For all the spectacle, the crowd was barely fazed.

"I think it helped that we were playing after someone who was putting used cigarette butts into their mouth," Graupner posits.

For way more SXSW coverage, visit ExpressMilwaukee.com/onmusic.