Call me crazy, but for this year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) music festival, I opted to take the scenic route and drive the 1,800-mile trek from New York to Austin... The chance to chill in the car, listen to tunes and see a bit of the country seemed more like a much-needed vacation than a grueling assignment.


Our Own Shirley Halperin Drives Into Austin for Some R&R
Call me crazy, but for this year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) music festival, I opted to take the scenic route and drive the 1,800-mile trek from New York to Austin. I’m not a big fan of flying (never was) and the chance to chill in the car, listen to tunes and see a bit of the country seemed more like a much-needed vacation than a grueling assignment. So, I grabbed my fellow SMUG-lifer Joe D’Angelo, and about 150 CDs and took off for the live music capital of the world.

The drive went off without a hitch. We made a quick pit stop in Nashville to see Music Row and visit our good friend Jim Flammia, who recently migrated from New York to take over the publicity duties for Lost Highway. And in honor of what has now become my favorite label, I threw in the O Brother soundtrack for the duration of our Tennessee ride. As usual, Arkansas was the most miserable crossing. Rain was pouring down and the highways are in horrible shape. Once again, we made a stop, this time to pay homage to the West Memphis Three (whom I wrote about in last week’s Planner) by taking a bathroom break in the town which accosted them. I can now say, "I peed on West Memphis." Two and a half days later, here we were finally in Austin where the sky is warm, the beers are cold, the weed in plentiful and the music rocks!

Day one of SXSW has traditionally been the time to settle in and such was the case Wednesday. Although panels had already begun, the action really started at the annual Hacks & Flacks dinner at Threadgills. Organized by Rhino Records (the guest list handled by the label's lovely flack Cathy Williams), attendance seemed lower at this year’s gorge-yourself feast. Perhaps that’s indicative of an overall trend, with the local Austin-American Statesman reporting that attendance for the conference was down an estimated 15 %. Nevertheless, it was nice to see some familiar faces: MCA Records' Erik Stein, ace indies Cary Baker and Sheryl Northrup, Deluxe Media's Barbara Mitchell and the CDNOW crew of John Bitzer, Carrie Borzillo-Vrenna and Allison Stewart.

On with the Show: The big Wednesday night brouhaha is another SXSW tradition, The Austin Music Awards, which took place at the Austin Music Hall. On the bill were local indie favorites Spoon, as well as Sixpence None the Richer and Asleep at the Wheel. I wasn’t there, but heard it was loads of fun. Instead, I ventured over to see Capitol’s newly signed OKGO at La Zona Rosa. A little bit of joke-rock (which I’m normally averse to) was exactly what I needed. When the band broke into a practiced and perfected rendition of Les Miserables’ classic duet between Jean Valjean and Javert, I could barely contain myself. On the other side of the spectrum, the Metro was the place to be for a fix of metal. Your Enemies’ Friends, whose record is executive produced by Sean of Slipknot, did a good job of grabbing attention (and people off the street) with their thunderously loud Sixth St. performance. And L.A.’s The Warlocks, mellowed the Hard Rock Cafe with their brand of psychedelia. We ended the night with New York’s +/- (pronounced plus/minus), which features former members of Versus and Tuscadero at the appropriately named Rehab Lounge. After this trip, I’m gonna need one.

Thursday’s activities included Robbie Robertson’s keynote address, which went slightly over the hour allotted, but provided a vivid detail of his years as an up-and-coming musician. He described his first meetings with Bob Dylan ("I thought he was from another planet") and the band’s seeming naivete in regards to being part of a musical revolution ("We had no understanding of that"). Overall, it was a lovely if not exactly inspiring trip down memory lane.

Immediately following the keynote was the SXSW interview with RIAA Pres/CEO Hillary Rosen [interviewed by the Hollywood Reporter's Tamara Conniff], who took time to address a number of key music industry issues, including copyright infringement, stating: "Copyright misuse litigation virtually never succeeds, whether downloaded or sold in China." She elaborated on the Napster case, explaining that their strategy has always been to "buy time" in order to get the technologies together. She also said that the Kazaas and Morpheus’ of today have "more traffic now than Napster ever had." On the anti-trust issue, Rosen defended the labels, but noted that she was "not privy to all the facts." Mostly, she said that music industry quandaries like the seven-year statute, subscription services, and artists rights and contracts, are due to "dysfunctional interests within the music business….[wherein] the consumer gets lost." The divide between record companies and artists, she said, "is often fueled by the managers and lawyers’ side." But Rosen was equally adamant in explaining that there are no victims in these debates and that everyone involved in the music business, from artists to record companies, to Internet labels are "willing participants" and that "everybody has the power to change a piece of it." According to Rosen, the RIAA does expect to come to a resolution of the seven-year statute soon by finding a "common understanding and compromise" between the opposing camps.

Still in discussion mode, other noteworthy panels on the agenda Thursday were: the A&R panel, moderated by Ian Montone and featuring Matador’s Gerard Cosloy, DreamWorks' Will Langolf and Hollywood’s Tom Morris, and a contract reform panel, moderated by Dave Marsh and featuring Jennie Toomey. Others on tap included: the Songwriters’ Panel, featuring Mike Daly (formerly of Whiskeytown), Pat Dinizio, Jesse Malin and Amy Rigby. There were also some boot-kicking parties: Capitol and MTV2 paired up to offer Starsailor, Ed Harcourt, OKGO and The Feds and SPIN rocked the Yard Dog with a killer bill that included The Sadies (on the Bloodshot label), Clem Snide and Josh Rouse. Meanwhile, Overcoat Records’ showcase featured the-psychedelic pop of The Kingsbury Manx, Americana staple Richard Buckner and bluegrass fanatics Jim and Jennie and the Pinetops.