Minnesota bands descend on South by Southwestby Chris Roberts, Minnesota Public Radio
What some call the spring break for the music industry, "South by Southwest," is underway in Austin, Texas. It's one of the biggest festivals in the country and a curated event. This year some 22 Minnesota bands have been invited to perform. For local musicians, South by Southwest is a chance to reach wider audiences and if they're lucky, impress influential players in the music industry.
St. Paul, Minn. — The Twin Cities art rock band "Coach Said Not To" has a new CD coming out, entitled "Mini Series." The group finished it just in time to present to the movers and shakers at South by Southwest.
This is Coach Said Not To's first trip to Austin. The band had no plans to attend the festival until members received an invitation from the British label Fire Records, to play at its showcase. The group offered a free downloadable song on its Web site, and somebody from Fire heard it on the BBC.
Keyboard player Lee Violet says the offer was impossible to refuse, and the band's appearance seems to be generating a little buzz.
"We've gotten four e-mails from record labels and producers and stuff who just said 'we're coming to your show and checking you out,'" she says. "We don't know what that means at this point but, I mean maybe something will come out of that, maybe it won't. If not we're gonna have a good time eating spicy food. That's what we're most looking forward to."
South by Southwest -- or 'South by'-- is now in its 20th year, and is strikingly similar to the Sundance Film Festival in its evolution.
It started out in 1987 as an upstart festival in far flung Austin, Texas devoted to unsigned independent musicians. Since then a film festival and an interactive media conference have been added on.
As it's grown in popularity it's been, to a certain extent, appropriated by the mainstream music industry, which has tried to soak up its cachet and indie credibility.
Jon DeLange co-owns Tinderbox Music in Minneapolis. Tinderbox is kind of a one-stop-shop to connect pop musicians with people in the music industry.
Delange says with over 1,300 bands from around the globe converging on Austin this year, it's easy for musicians to be swallowed up if they've never been there before.
"If you're going for the first time, you have to really think about it, pretty far ahead of time."
The festival features more than 50stages, most of which are within walking distance of each other in downtown Austin.
There's the official festival and its adjoining conference, and the unofficial festival, which has sprung up in conjunction with 'South by.' Many clubs have opted out of the festival to rent out their spaces or present their own music.
To attend conference events and seminars, which cover nearly every aspect of the music business, you need a badge. To take in the music, you need a wristband.
As a veteran 'South by' attendee, Jon Delange has seen the cost of badges and wristbands skyrocket. He says the walk-up price for a badge this year is almost $600, and the wristband he bought on ebay cost 4300. Delange says for your average band, the festival is becoming unaffordable.
"Think about it," he says. "They've got four guys in the band. They're going to drive down in a van, they got to come up with a hotel. They've got to probably rent some back line and some instruments, especially the ones I suppose who are flying in, and then they've got to buy wristbands or they can only go to the one show that they're playing. And that's a bummer."
Tinderbox co-owner Krista Vilinskis points out one perk for musicians who are invited to perform. They're eligible to get a free badge to attend conference seminars, which she believes are very useful.
But Vilinskis says for groups to truly benefit from the festival, and get influential eyes and ears at their shows, they have to be willing to do some glad handing. Some get pretty creative.
"I've seen bands wear fish suits and hand out their flyers, and CDs," she says. "It's crazy, but people network. It's a huge networking thing."
At Tinderbox Music on the eve of the festival, the phone is ringing constantly. Jon Delange suspects it's band members, desperate to get some kind of entre into 'South by," which makes him chuckle.
"Here's the big secret," he says. (phone rings) "There's another band calling right now. The big secret is: I think we as industry people get more out of it then the bands."
DeLange freely admits he's headed down to Austin primarily to schmooze. His schedule has long been planned out, and much of it involves meetings with record labels.
"The smaller ones I'm probably a consultant that's trying to help them grow, and some of the larger ones I'm chasing trying to see if we can win their account, trying to be their publicist, promoter, distributor," he says.
St. Louis Park singer songwriter Dan Israel is becoming a regular at "South by Southwest,' but only after years of trying.
"Ten solid years in a row I got rejected, three of which I lived there," he says.
When asked what a trip to Austin is worth to musicians, Israel deadpans...
"Frequent flyer miles. Bad hangover. No."
All joking aside Israel says what's ironic is that an appearance at South by Southwest often leads to more media exposure in the Twin Cities.
"It's a weird thing to have to go 1,200 miles to get extra attention at home but it does happen," he says. "And you also get to, this is weird too but you get to talk all the people from Minnesota that you never seem to see all in one place. But when you go to all the Minnesota-based shows they're all there. You get face time."
Israel says he enjoys playing for the new audience the festival provides. He says ideally, he'd come back from Austin with a great record deal. He knows, however, that's not likely to happen, and as an indie musician with a full time job and a one-year-old son, he's not sure he'd want it to.
- All Things Considered, 03/15/2006, 5:50 p.m.