March 23, 2005

SOUNDING OFF, Vol. 5

Festival Face-Lift: Improving SXSW for 2006

The massive line on March 16 to claim badges and the lack of concrete information about wristband availability surely tested the patience of those who attended the South by Southwest music conference/festival in Austin, Texas, from March 16-20.

But other issues plagued SXSW '05, and it's likely that some -- and possibly all -- could return in 2006.

That said, here's a short list of suggestions concerning important yet totally manageable areas that SXSW organizers should consider when putting together the next edition.

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1. Allow only one evening showcase per act for the entire festival: Nothing against Robyn Hitchcock (above), but did he truly deserve three prime-time performance slots -- with two on the same night? Hitchcock was booked to perform at 10 p.m. March 17 at the Blender Bar at the Ritz, 8 p.m. March 18 at the Cactus Cafe and 10:30 p.m. March 18 at La Zona Rosa.

It can be argued that Elvis Costello has a larger fan base than Hitchcock, and Costello only played one SXSW show -- March 16 at La Zona Rosa, which is among the larger venues in town. The point is this: Other acts with a fraction of Hitchcock's success and acclaim that would have benefited tremendously by a SXSW showcase were denied the opportunity to play this year due to the triple Hitchcock booking.

2. Enforce a limit of two consecutive SXSW appearances (Austin-based acts excluded): Nobody wants to see the same ol' stuff year after year, especially in this day and age when artists often go a few years between new albums. If a "two straight then wait" rule for non-Austin acts were to go into effect next year, then Tom Freund, Brent Best, Shooter Jennings, The Silos and Glen Phillips would be among those not participating in 2006, based on their appearances in 2004 and 2005. See ya in 2007.

The exception for Austin artists is simple: They should always have the home-field advantage. After all, they live in the town year-round, so when fans, media, publicists and label honchos visit every March, Austin's finest -- Spoon, Grand Champeen and The Derailers, among others -- should reap the benefits.

3. Recruit panel moderators who actually moderate: Year after year, individuals are put in charge of moderating panels and do everything but that. And so, with any given panel, there's always at least one panelist who hogs the floor, and many times the heart of the topic gets nudged aside as speakers -- and sometimes audience members -- go off on personal tangents.

Moderators should take their cue from Andy Schwartz, who was in charge of the panel called "Dissecting the Buzz" on March 19. Like a top-notch quarterback, he managed the clock well, relied on his panelists to contribute equally and had them working as a team.

The same can't be said of David Katznelson, the moderator for a panel held March 17 about A&R after age 30. The topic had tremendous potential, but certain panelists gave brief, cliched responses to questions asked by Katznelson and audience members. When that happens, it's the moderator's job to follow-up the short answers by asking for more details and relatable examples, and Katznelson didn't do enough of that.

Almost as much time, if not more, was spent on defining what an A&R rep does and determining the shelf life of an artist in the current music industry climate instead of how the assembled A&R reps (all over 30, by the way) went about their work today as opposed to years past.

4. Avoid having panels with similar themes: In addition to the aforementioned A&R panel, SXSW '05 featured one called "A&R and Artist Development in a Hit-Driven Business." There were two health-related panels held March 19: one called "Living With Hep C," the other "Health Care for Musicians."

That's roughly 300 minutes devoted to two similar areas, not four separate topics.

Instead, the A&R panels could have been combined into one that ran 30 minutes longer than usual (with a five-minute break included), and the health panels could have been handled the same way. The remaining 90 minutes could have been used for one longer-than-usual panel on something else, or better yet, a pair of 45-minute panels.

The Austin Convention Center is big enough to handle additional panels, and there are always enough festival attendees to justify extra sessions.

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5. Go back to keynote addresses and ditch the keynote conversation concept: Sure, Little Richard had everybody laughing in 2004, and Robert Plant (above) proved to be a great storyteller with his appearance this year. But these keynote "conversations," as they were billed, lacked focus at times, especially the rambling Richard session with an awe-struck Dave Marsh.

Plant's chat with Bill Flanagan ran way too long, thanks in part to the self-serving, career-spanning video that preceded the talk and the airing of music from Plant's latest album.

In years past, Robbie Robertson and Daniel Lanois literally stood on their own feet and addressed the festival-goers directly, and as a result, their advice and messages rang true.

-- By Chris M. Junior

Sounding Off, a music opinion column, appears regularly on www.medleyville.us

Posted by medleyville at March 23, 2005 05:35 PM
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