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South by Southwest 1998

The Onion watches 70 bands, drinks free beer, and looks for metaphors in the music world's biggest industry conference.

Every March, thousands upon thousands of musicians, journalists, publicists, talent scouts, pony-tailed pager-users, hangers-on, and moneyed music enthusiasts converge on sunny Austin, Texas, for the country's largest annual music event, the five-day South By Southwest festival.

Between March 18 and March 22 of this year, no fewer than 800 conference-sanctioned musical acts put on shows for whoever would listen. Hundreds more, whose demos hadn't made the conference's cut, scrambled for whatever exposure they could find, playing peripheral clubs, handing out tapes and flyers, and, in a few cases, even staging guerrilla concerts on street corners and truck beds.

For musicians, the conference can provide either a thrilling career launch or another disappointing audition; for every band experiencing the thrill of an A&R scout's business card, plenty more played to modest crowds, sold a few tapes, and went home to wait tables and staff record stores on Monday morning.

Of course, the perceived goal of many acts in attendance was a record deal, but, as has been the trend at recent South By Southwest festivals, the conference's focus has shifted ever more toward exposing journalists and fans to newly signed acts.

It's a trend that's often decried by SXSW purists and struggling musicians. After all, who needs the exposure more: a band with a fresh record deal, a marketing machine, and a pile of desperately needed advance money, or a band that's relatively unheard, but might have a new sound?

The answer, of course, is both: Of the dozens of freshly signed acts whose shows were witnessed by The Onion at 1997's South By Southwest, most failed to sell more than a few thousand—and in some cases, a few hundred—records: Where are Sparkler, Thrush Hermit, Thin Lizard Dawn, 30 Amp Fuse, and Pluto now?

Those bands, several of which actually deserve and may someday receive a wider audience, may yet get their due, but they'll have to compete with a huge new batch of rookies. Major record labels are notorious for signing dozens of bands, quietly releasing their debut albums, neglecting to provide any sort of promotional push to develop an audience, and unceremoniously dropping them from their rosters. Sometimes, in the cases of bands who entered into these bad contracts, the labels even demand payment from band members for costs incurred in manufacturing, releasing, and promoting their music.

It's a nasty, nasty business, as anyone checking out the conference's many panel discussions quickly learned: With titles like "How Record Companies And Artists Torture Each Other," "Artists: If I Knew Then What I Know Now," and "You'll Be A Hit If You...," those seeking tips on surviving in the industry received a crash course in its painful realities.

The flipside, of course, is that fans making the trek to Austin were the beneficiaries of a staggering, exhausting smorgasbord of barbecues, parties, an ongoing film festival, and, of course, music, from roots-rock to punk to blues to country to singer/songwriter pop to the downright indescribable. Ska fans had to take long cab rides to check out a few secluded showcases—and shows featuring vaunted electronica acts were still relatively few and far between—but there was no shortage of big guitars, bands from Austin, and women wearing giant shoes.

Of course, only a small percentage of the 800 SXSW-sanctioned bands delivered any major surprises: For every Brown Whornet—a nine-piece group that whizzed from rock-opera to avant-garde noise to an ass-stomping cover of Pat Benatar's "Heartbreaker"—there were a million three- and four-piece all-male modern-rock bands performing overdriven anthems that all started to sound like mush after four days. A few exceptions had hooks to back them up: Drill Team, Pave The Rocket, and Gaunt sounded strong, with loads of potential, while the emo-rock band Jimmy Eat World was as amazingly powerful as it was last year. Cockeyed Ghost and China Drum might have gotten something going, if their shows hadn't been mixed at eardrum-shearing volumes. And, despite labels' insistence upon signing dozens of horrendous Live soundalikes (Cool For August, Foam, et al), precious few had slots in South By Southwest's showcases.

During a four-day period—the conference technically lasted five days, but the fifth is a low-key affair dominated by a whoop-dee-doo industry softball game and a few local showcases—The Onion managed to witness a whopping 70 bands, from the intimate street busking of Mary Lou Lord to the sweat-flinging, head-pummeling noise-terror of REO Speedealer, to the big-beat electronica of The Propellerheads.

In the interest of placating the many musicians, publicists, and label people whose employment hinges on media types attending their concerts, the following is a list of the musical acts experienced, endured, and eventually escaped by The Onion, in alphabetical order for your convenience:

Accapelicans (an Australian band whose members sang a cappella but were not, in fact, pelicans), The Adults, ADZ (a powerful punk band known as The Adolescents way back when its members were closer to adolescence), Altan, ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, Arab Strap, Baby Gopal, Bardo Pond, The Blue Rags, Billy Bragg, Brown Whornet, Buffalo Daughter, Cable, China Drum, Cockeyed Ghost, DJ Liquid Todd, DJ Q-Burns, A Don Piper Situation, Drill Team, The Euro Boys (an unpredictable, good-humored Norwegian surf-rock instrumental band), Tom Freund, Garageland, Gaza Strippers, Corey Glover, Cottonmouth Texas, Gaunt, Godbullies (still scary in the best way), Golden Delicious, Gordon, Gov't Mule, The John Doe Thing, John Wesley Harding, Robyn Hitchcock, Honky, Imperial Teen (lamentably not up to the perfect imperfections of its terrific debut), Jah Warriors, Jimmy Eat World, Jon Langford & Skull Orchard, Mary Lou Lord, Los Straitjackets, Nick Lowe (whose amiably charming keynote address, peppered with terrific songs, was an early highlight), Tara MacLean (a lovely-voiced singer who has a bright future on the Lilith Fair circuit, for what that's worth), Robert Mirabal, Mojave 3, Mr. Mirainga, Muckaferguson, The Mysteries Of Life, Paul Newman (a fairly powerful, emo-ish band, not an internationally acclaimed 73-year-old actor), The Old 97's, OP8 (Lisa Germano + members of Giant Sand), Pave The Rocket, Pee Shy, Phlyr (Cop Shoot Cop's J.F. Coleman, doing some strangely compelling electronic stuff), Prince Paul & The Automator (who were reduced to announcing raffle winners between sets), The Propellerheads, REO Speedealer, Royal Trux (whose ironic, sneering slop-rock led to many a Sonic Youth sighting), Servotron, 17 Hippies (despite its name, a great ensemble from Berlin containing considerably more than 17 members), Shift, Todd Snider, Solex, Spoon, The Streetwalkin' Cheetahs, Sunset Valley, 10 Speed, To Rococo Rot, Tribe 8, Volebeats, and Don Walser.

As always, the most successful acts did something unusual with their strictly enforced no-more-than-40-minutes in the spotlight: Cleverly packaged shtick like Servotron—a purported all-robot band that made fun of the humans in attendance when it wasn't playing angular punk rock that recalled Devo in both spirit and sound—was a hit. Nashville Pussy's fire-breathing, Motörhead-style fury was the subject of such hype that hundreds couldn't get in; let the premature, unfair hipster backlash begin. There were lengthy lines keeping people out of shows by Dwarves, speaking of over-the-top gimmicks, while good buzz on Bran Van 3000 and Mike Ireland & Holler produced similar results.

Curiosities like a revitalized Tommy Tutone and a comeback-bound Corey Glover (of Living Colour) drew plenty of interest, as did a headlining Soul Asylum, despite its widely acknowledged career slump. Chris Whitley's attempts to generate new interest after parting with his major label proved fruitful; hundreds stood in line for his showcase. Billy Bragg showcased material from his upcoming Woody Guthrie tribute album; the record, which will utilize Wilco as his backing band, comes out this summer.

If the most successful had buzz on their side, the best found a way to do something the others didn't. Mary Lou Lord spent hours busking on Sixth Street, taking requests and avoiding the smoky confines of Austin bars while making a few bucks in the process. Buffalo Daughter balanced the inventive electronic and sample-based material of its album New Rock with thunderous live instrumentation. The Old 97's played a sweaty late-night gig that went on for hours, complete with magnificent, supercharged requests and the accompaniment of ex-Xer John Doe. The Propellerheads cranked out your standard, Chemical Brothers-style big-beat blast, but made it more powerful with a live drummer.

And, perhaps best of all, during an appearance on an acoustic stage in the afternoon, Austinian singer Don Walser played a humble but breathtaking set of high lonesome cowboy music, complete with yodels. In a conference filled with fashion and earplugs and overdriven guitars, Walser's set was a welcome, unpretentious respite, filled with simple music that sounded pure and real, in a genre that didn't need to have "alt-" slapped in front of it.

The rest ranged from silly, gimmicky fun (the surf-rock of The Euro Boys and the wrestling-mask-clad Los Straitjackets), to frothy pop (the No Doubt-ish Baby Gopal), to engaging guys-with-guitars (John Wesley Harding, Nick Lowe, the always unpredictable/inexplicable Robyn Hitchcock), to dull go-nowhereness (the aimless, wanky Cottonmouth Texas, allowing a loud rock band to drown out the quirks of its record), to wonderful should-be stars (the members of Volebeats took about two minutes to reaffirm their hooky, acoustic greatness).

As happens every year, convention-goers engaged in recurring gripes: The badges and wristbands that secure entry into all the shows have gotten too expensive. (It doesn't help that the plastic wristbands—which get fans in the shows, but not the conferences, and cost considerably less than the $450 VIP-style badges—make fashion-minded participants feel as though they're stuck at a waterpark for five days.) The unsigned bands are getting overshadowed by the more heavily promoted acts in attendance. As seems to happen every year, one label decided to lay off a few dozen major employees during or directly before the conference. Panels addressed conflict between writers and publicists, acts and labels, retailers and consumers, and so on.

But at the heart of it all lay a cavalvade of free beer, barbecue, CD samplers, magazines, and more, as well as an onslaught of music you'll never find anywhere else: Where else are you going to see and hear the lesbo-punk of San Francisco's Tribe 8, the lilting jigs and ballads of Ireland's Altan, and the bizarro-land mish-mash of Austin's Brown Whornet—all in one night?

Perhaps the greatest thing about South By Southwest is the way it encapsulates the very nature of the music industry: Hype and heavy promotional campaigns are powerful, but great music can still find an audience. A band gets 40 minutes to make its case—and, for audience members seeing 70 acts in four days, usually not more than 10 or 15—before the next one comes on to take its place. And fans have unlimited options, but often flock to the shows everyone else came to see.