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The Austin Diaries: Four Days at South by Southwest

Do the Hustle

Click to read about: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4

Thursday, March 14, 2002 - Steve and I got up around nine this morning, and went downstairs to have breakfast. It’s very pricey to eat breakfast at the Driskill, and they make lousy espresso! I think I’ll just find a Starbucks tomorrow, because my espresso is more important than good Eggs Benedict. We decide to go on down to the convention center early for two reasons, to get the booth all set up and also to go hear Robbie Robertson’s keynote address. The trade show opens up at 12:00 noon, so we have plenty of time to set up the computer, put out our giveaways (We have some small flyers describing OnlineRock’s services for people to take, we also have some cool bottle opener/key chains with OnlineRock emblazoned on the top. We scored with the bottle openers, they turned out to be just about the most popular giveaway item at the show!) and get ready for what we hope is the onrush of people to the booth.

When we get there, it’s fairly well apparent that we are the early birds. The trade show floor is basically devoid of people, save for us. It gives me a chance to go check out how all the other exhibitors are set up, unencumbered, so I go take a look around while Steve gets the computer going. It’s a good size area, not as big as I thought it would be, however. I read in the local rag the night before that attendance is down by 15%, but I don’t have past experiences to compare it too. There are still plenty of exhibitors at the show, and some have obviously spent lavishly on their booths.

There are booths by all manner of music biz companies, ASCAP, BMI, Blender Magazine, Spin Magazine, Crown International, AMP Merchandising, AFTRA, Rainbo Records, The Indie Contact Bible (our next door neighbors) and on and on. There are also booths by Miller Brewing Co. and Jim Beam, just so we won’t forget which booze to drink later, I guess. Then there are a couple of booths set up that make me scratch my head in wonder; MusicPlayground, which makes a kind of combination air guitar/karaoke software. You can play along to your favorite tune by strumming a tennis racket while you sing. Huh? I don’t get why they are at a convention that is directed at musicians and music biz people. They ought to be at Circuit City, or something! Across the isle from our booth is another one where they are demonstrating some kind of makeup and lipstick. What’s up with that, anyway? I surely don’t know!  

I finish my tour and get back to the booth, and there is Charley from Indie Band Manager crouched down behind our table. He’s got his laptop and he’s plugging it into our Internet connection. He needs to check his emails. Charley turns out to be one of the real “nice guys” at the show. He offers us a free copy of his software package that functions as a band management database for indie musicians, record labels, publicists and agents. Steve offers to pay him for it anyway, everyone’s here to make money after all!

It’s getting close to 11:00, the time for Robbie Robertson to start his keynote address, so Steve and I finish getting it all ready for the show, and head on over to Ballroom B/C to catch his speech. When we get there, I’m a little surprised that the place isn’t full, but that just means we get better seats. Robbie comes out right on time, and I’m amazed at how dapper and clean shaven he looks for a rock star at eleven o’clock in the morning, very Hollywood with shades and a blazer. He opens his “keynote” address by telling everyone that he doesn’t even know what a keynote speech is, but he’s been asked to do it, so he’s going through with it anyway. He also jokes about how he’s surprised to be here so early, and thanks all of us for rolling out of bed to attend. He then digs into the meat of his speech, which mainly consists of a retrospective of his career. I was hoping that he would be a little more topical this morning, and address some of the issues that are important to us little guys in the big, bad music biz. But it’s mostly all about him, except for a couple of things.

He insists that he won’t join the chorus of doom and gloom regarding the state of the recording industry. He’s not going to blame the Internet for the state of the industry, (“Good!” I think to myself ”Because the Internet is the savior of this business, not it’s executioner.” I’m glad he’s not intent on sounding the death knell of Rock on account of people like us, as so many other music biz types are! ) and he does not necessarily agree that there is a dearth of good music out there. He just thinks things run in cycles.

I personally don’t agree with his assessment of the industry, although I too don’t think there is any reason to cry doom and gloom. But I do think the industry is in the sorriest state it’s ever been in, and I blame the major record labels for that. They aren’t finding the great bands anymore and getting it out to the public. They don’t want to waste money developing bands anymore, they only want home runs. In this type of environment, they prefer the prepackaged boy bands; there is always a teenage female audience for that stuff. He does wonder, however, what would happen to an artist such as Bob Dylan these days, when it would take three to four albums before he reached his potential? I think we already know the answer, don’t we? He wouldn’t get signed!

But see, Robbie wouldn’t really know about that, anyway. The Band hit a grand slam with “Music from Big Pink” on their first at bat. Yeah, he paid his dues for years before that touring with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, certainly. But as a recording artist he was extremely lucky, it was up, up and away from the first record. Of course, talent had something to do with it. But even talented artists can take a while to catch on with the record buying public.

He went on to say that it wasn’t the healthiest situation for them as people, or as artists. That the merry go round of “record and tour, record and tour” was damaging to them, and that he decided it wasn’t challenging him as an artist. So he had to create his own challenges, and that was why he wanted to call it quits with The Last Waltz. It was a way to put one era to an end, and begin again. He was also very concerned about Richard Manuel, the multi-instrumentalist who unfortunately died not long after The Band stopped touring. Richard had the (not so unusual) problems affiliated with life on the road in a Rock band. Problems that eventually took his life.

The real thrust of what he was trying to say, however, is that Rock aint dead yet. And he implored all of us to get in touch with what it was in the first place that made us connect with the music. Because most of us don’t get into this to be a “Rock Star”. We get into the music business as a result of a spiritual connection to the music. Most of us do this because we have to; it’s who we are. So Robbie asked us all to get back in touch with that, because that is where the greatest music always comes from. I agree with that sentiment wholeheartedly. You have to do what you do without thinking about the end result, just make the best music that you know how to and hope that there are people out there who like it, and will buy it.

The speech ended up lasting almost two hours, and in the local press poor old Robbie got flamed for the length of it. I thought it was very good, and that he was very self-effacing, humble and warm. Steve had to leave in the middle and head into the trade show without me, as someone needed to man the booth. When I came out of Ballroom B/C, there was already quite a commotion in the hallway outside the show. As I made my way back to the booth, I spotted someone I recognized from his picture on our Web site, Toby Slater. He was out hustling, working the crowds in the outer hallway, handing out flyers for his showcase gig. We spoke briefly, and I was impressed. He was doing what you have to do these days if you want to have a career in music, hustling his skinny little ass off! He thanked me for the exposure we have given him, and I thanked him for the exposure he has given us. It’s a reciprocal thing, you know. 

Back in the trade show I was very pleasantly surprised; it was a madhouse! Tons of people walking around, and there was a small crowd in front of the OnlineRock booth. “Oh, this is awesome!” I thought. This is only the first day, and the doors just opened a little while ago. I took my spot in the booth, ready to do the dog and pony show. The people just kept coming, indie musicians, label representatives, advertising sales reps from various publications, a reporter from the San Antonio Express, and many of the people that also had booths at the show. All kinds of people just kept up a steady stream, checking us out. Steve and I took turns leaving the booth to talk to other people, only to return to find our booth still jumping.

The time just flew, and pretty soon it was six o’clock and time to close up shop for the day. Neither of us had had any lunch, and we were tired and hungry. We decided to walk down to Stubbs and have some killer Bar B-Q. I imbibed a couple of great martini’s to go along with the brisket, and everything was great. When we got back to the hotel, we realized we were going to be turning in early this night. So, we hung out down at the piano bar and shot the shit with Kirk for a while, had another drink or two, and basked in the glow of a really good day. After a while we went back to our room. I know it’s pathetic, but we were in bed by ten. Oh well, the wild Rock and Roll party would have to wait until tomorrow night.

Click to read about: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4     

Stay Tuned,

The Virtual Musician

 
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