High stakes for artists at South by Southwest
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High stakes for artists at South by Southwest

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Garth Brooks, right, takes part in a keynote conversation with the Wall Street Journal’s Hannah Karp, center, and Amazon Worldwide Digital Music vice president Steve Boom during the South by Southwest Music Festival on March 17.

AUSTIN, Texas >> What if they gave a music festival and people of certain ethnic backgrounds couldn’t get in? It sounds like the subject of a dystopian novel, but the question hovered over the South by Southwest Music Conference as it wrapped up its 31st year on March 19.

The conference itself has always been a welcoming place, with more than one-quarter of the more than 2,200 performers coming from foreign countries. This year, the festival saw performers from China, Somalia, Peru, Ukraine and dozens more countries on stages across Austin playing in front of tens of thousands of registrants from across the music, tech, film and gaming industries.

As singer-guitarist Olivia Scibelli of the Nashville quartet Idle Bloom said of the conference, it is an oasis of “no misogyny, no homophobia, no transphobia, no Islamophobia — it’s great we can connect with each other in this space.”

But the oasis wasn’t quite as diversely populated as it might have been. A number of foreign bands and artists scheduled to play the conference were denied entry to the United States by customs officials, including Italy’s Soviet Soviet, members of Egyptian-Canadian hardcore band Massive Scar Era and London-based drummer Yussef Dayes. Though each year of the festival has seen bands turned away at the border because of visa issues, the problem is “magnified … because of the current political climate,” the conference said in an email to registrants. In the past few weeks, the Trump administration has imposed stricter immigration policies targeting Muslim-majority countries, and as the conference was under way Trump proposed to dismantle the National Endowment for the Arts and radically undercut the country’s cultural infrastructure.

Against this backdrop — of specific ethnic groups, and art in general, under siege — the stakes never were higher at South by Southwest. It wasn’t just about business as usual, the deal-making with agents and labels that typically underpins most of the high-profile showcases. It was about using the stage for something more than just self-promotion.

“If you take one thing away from today,” said feminist drummer-rapper Madame Gandhi as her galvanizing set wound down on the conference’s opening night, “it’s own your story, own your voice.” Gandhi’s parents are from India, and her performance was about outsiders trying to find their place in an inhospitable world. “The future is female,” she declared in one of her anthems, but her steely voice and agitated drumming also conveyed that a long road stretches ahead.

That spirit of resilience resonated throughout the ContraBanned showcase Friday at a 6th Street club, a forum for artists representing Muslim-majority countries that are the focal point of the Trump administration travel ban. While St. Patrick’s Day revelers roamed the streets outside, singer Bassel Almadani of the Chicago-based indie-funk band Bassel and the Supernaturals was speaking out for his heritage. “I am the product of Syrian parents,” he announced soon after stepping on stage. His music was steeped in introspective perspectives on family, ethnicity and the notion of home even as its high-stepping rhythms conveyed a more joyous tone.

Another artist on the ContraBanned lineup, rapper Emmanuel Jal, was a child soldier in Sudan before finding a home in Toronto and forging a career that allowed him to tell his story through music. “My country is still at war and people are dying,” he said before his set. “It’s a responsibility I cannot run away from.”

It was an evening in which the Iranian fusion music of the Mamak Khadem Ensemble brought cheers of recognition, as the singer’s ululating voice floated atop a polyrhythmic river that included her finger cymbals. It was a reminder that for some, music is more than just entertainment, it’s a lifeline, a connection to a community.

The power of that message chafed against the tone at many of the panels in the Austin Convention Center, in which a “playlist culture” increasingly dominated by a handful of streaming services (notably Spotify and Apple Music) left a troubling aftertaste. Talent scouts spoke of digital data as the new criterion for finding and developing the Next Big Thing, a more reliable way of measuring not only how often fans engage with a particular artist’s music but how deeply. “There are plenty of artists who say, ‘I do this for me, it’s in my soul,’” said SonyATV talent scout Jacob Fain, but those aren’t the kinds of artists that will attract corporate dollars. In other words, the musical landscape on the internet — once seen as a means of leveling the playing field between mainstream artists and those on the fringe — is now starting to resemble the old-fashioned music industry in the way corporations use data to empower themselves.

It was particularly dispiriting to hear Nile Rodgers, the co-founder of Chic and the architect of countless hits for artists ranging from Madonna and David Bowie to Duran Duran and Daft Punk, advise artists to associate themselves with corporate sugar daddies. “Our future is going to be with a lot of brands,” he said at his keynote address.

Even the biggest-selling artist in Austin, Garth Brooks, had his doubts about the digital future. He recently worked out a deal with Amazon Music Unlimited to make his catalog available online after the failure of his own ghosttunes.com venture. Brooks, who played a couple of free concerts in Austin over the weekend, framed himself as a reluctant participant in a shifting internet-based culture. He has a master’s degree in business, and he was all business as he addressed streaming services that cater to hot-take judgments and short-attention-span listening habits: “How many songs do you love that you didn’t love at first?” he asked. How does a listener “discover what you don’t already know? … I fear for new stuff, different-sounding stuff.”

The superficiality of streaming services can be countered by direct-to-fan marketing by artists, some executives insisted. The difference between connecting with an artist versus liking a song can be profound, said Martin Goldschmidt, co-founder of the Cooking Vinyl label. Because of the quick-cut nature of streaming, music has “lost that intimacy — direct-to-fan can bring that back because the listener is dealing directly with the artist, not just a track on a playlist.”

The erosion of that personal connection, artist manager Benton James warned, could diminish the art even further. “A lot of the digital discussions we’re having have so little to do with becoming a better artist,” he said. “People in this business have to be careful about not being fulfilled by having (a certain number of) Facebook likes, because being in the business of selling this average product is really fleeting. Everything is about catering to this immediate satisfaction (of the consumer). The danger is we’re going to end up with a whole lot of mediocre music that you never want to listen to again.”

Fortunately, there was plenty of evidence in the streets and clubs of Austin that the music could be — indeed, had to be — about something more. As Madame Gandhi took the stage, she put into words what many of her fellow music lovers were feeling: “I’ve been thinking about how I’m supposed to live in a world where our president has zero f—to give.”

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9 BANDS AND ARTISTS WHO RULED AT SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST

>> A Giant Dog: Yes, a big shaggy dog of a band, and completely lovable and undeniable with their big riffs, megaton hooks and energetic showmanship.

>> Priests: Wicked political commentary wrapped inside jagged post-punk songs.

>> Madame Ghandi: A one-woman band who plays drums and raps the feminist blues over electronic soundscapes.

>> She-Devils: Montreal co-ed duo with Audrey Ann Boucher’s deadpan femme-fatale vocals emerging from a fog of decaying rhythms.

>> Valerie June: Memphis singer who channels ancient blues, country and gospel voices.

>> Dude York: Seattle trio delivers brisk pop-rock melodies with metal flourishes and arena-rock theatrics.

>> Hoops: The chime of New Zealand’s 1980s indie-rock wave washes across this Indiana band’s instantly memorable songs.

>> Cherry Glazerr: Clementine Creevy, a slender spitfire of a guitarist, knows how to command a stage.

>> Noname: The Chicago MC blends call-and-response vocal riffs with her band and audience as she deftly expands the conversation begun on her excellent 2016 mixtape, “Telefone.”

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