Understanding the Art of Marketing Popular Music

A few months ago I was fortunate enough to make a business trip to Austin, Texas, compliments of the Internet music company, I work for.

If there’s anything that I learned in college, it’s not to pass up a free meal — or a free trip, for that matter. I had no idea when I got the job that promoting music and handing out flyers would end up taking me to one of the most interesting and tiring events of my college career, let alone supply me for one week with a killer hotel room, free food, open bar and nonstop amazing shows every night until 3 a.m.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Why in the hell would anyone want to go to Austin?

Contrary to popular belief, Austin has no cowboys, no rolling plains and not a single head of big hair. Austin hosts the biggest music conference in the nation. Put 7, 000 musicians and record moguls together and you have the music industry’s nonstop party, better known as South by South West. For one week Austin hosts over 1,000 acts, showcasing the cream of the crop — new up-and-coming bands from all over the world, and the best barbecue this side of the Mississippi.

So as I’m on my way to Texas, sitting between the CEO for Spin magazine and some indie musician sporting yellow leather pants, I’m wondering how I got here. I’m not a musician (well, other than singing in the shower) and I’m not up there on the industry’s corporate ladder, but I do know my music.

I was overwhelmed by “”the industry’s”” presence upon my arrival at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. There were bands performing at Gate 26 and in the airport’s food court, right smack in front of Arby’s. I wasn’t even in the center of all the action and people were already throwing themselves onto anyone that looked capable of signing a record deal for them. This was definitely going to be a tiring trip: work hard, play hard.

This proved to be true the moment I entered my hotel lobby. A stack of 3,000 company flyers promoting a talent show were shoved into my arms and needed to be stuffed under hotel doors and placed in every club by midnight. The competition was so stiff and the rivalry so obnoxious that it threatened my enjoyment, my reason for being there in the first place — the music. I was being stickered by 20 different Internet start-ups while watching a belligerent representative for College Broadcast streak across the stage screaming unidentifiable marketing slurs.

Since when did a music conference become a popularity contest? The countdown to my self-destruction started day one. Dot-com vs. dot-com, the battle of the industry had begun.

By day, South By South West took over the Austin Convention Center with a trade show exhibiting countless newborn Internet music sites. These were pretty much identical to one another, varying only in each one’s choice of gimmicky give-aways. By the end of the fifth day I had so much free schwag, it was a miracle that American Airlines let me back onto the plane.

I have to admit, free loot was the only way for companies to single themselves out in the sea of ‘Net start-ups. I scavenged everything from wind-up, fire-spitting Godzillas, guitar picks, shot glasses (on a string, no less), vintage band posters and, if I got up early enough, fresh waffles at the rockrgirl.com booth.

With over 500 different companies under one roof, it was surprising that so many were of no interest to me — dare I say, wasted Internet space? Look, just because the Internet is the preferred marketing tool these days doesn’t mean that everyone should put up a site. I mean, guitarpickcleaning.com? I just throw mine away and get a new one.

Aside from that, nothing happened during the day other than schmoozing one’s way onto a guest list. Here’s where the truth of Austin come out, where I divulge the misfortunes of South by South West’s politics.

By night, South by South West doubled in population. It was like Disneyland — shoulder to shoulder but without baby strollers. There were even more bars than those in Pacific Beach and the Gaslamp put together. In order even to be acknowledged as a person in Austin, you had to be sporting an $80 (limited access) wrist band or the VIP badge, at $300 a pop. To be quite honest, the wrist bands weren’t even a solid guarantee. I saw a lot of angry wrist-band-wearers watching shows out on the street through the windows.

I began to discover that things were not as cut-throat as I thought. If you have the money, you are automatically given first priority. I’m not just talking about the passes — even for the musicians trying to get signed, money and image was everything in Austin. Even if you were sporting the same VIP badge as the guy next to you, one of you will have priority over the other — either it’s because you look better in snakeskin pants or you’re standing in line with Janeane Garofalo.

South by South West began to take its toll on me by day four. It might have been the fact that I was force-fed eight margaritas by the boys of Tenacious D the night before, or simply that I was disappointed in the principles of the music industry. Not only do boy bands and Britney Spears make me bitter, but the people who create these “”stars”” were everywhere, and they’re 10 times worse, promoting money-hungry, gimmicky plots to change the way the world sees music. They walk about scouting out possible candidates that they can mold to their “”standard.”” It’s like a mass-cloning mission. Just thinking about them makes me bitter!

Upon my return home, I was cranky from being awake 48 hours straight, having boarded the plane at 5 a.m. after leaving a rave at 4 a.m. I was also cranky from dealing with one-too-many mainstream producers.

Again I ask: What is becoming of music? It’s like they’ve forgotten that talent is an issue. A lot of the best bands at the conference were being considered only if they were willing to modify a few things. Modify what? Their image? It’s a good thing I was there for the music, and I gladly reminded myself of that each night, so I could enjoy myself. With all frustration aside, Austin provided a great showcase of talent. My enjoyment of music has been rekindled.

With that in mind, let’s talk about the bands and leave aside my disappointment for the industry and its standards. The scene is punishing me, but at least musicians are fighting back and creating original music. Here are my picks for the best up-and-coming musicians featured at South By South West:

At the Drive-In (El Paso, Texas): Energy. That’s what comes to mind when I think of this band. Energy and passion. The lead singer not only falls to the floor with epileptic-like spasms, he bounces back and forth on the stage, frequently planting handstands on the drum set. The band is successful in getting the crowd involved with the show, sporting self-grown afros and tight T-shirts. They are the epitome of the emo scene and played an amazing 70-minute set. The club was tiny, but even from the back of the room you could get into the performance. Every song sounds different and is equally good. These guys are definitely one of my favorite bands of the moment, and I highly recommend buying one of their albums: “”In/Casino/Out,”” on Fearless Records; or “”Relationship of Command,”” on Grand Royal.

The Causey Way (Gainesville, Fla.): The stage was humorously set up as an altar to the lead singer, sporting candles, cheesy Sears portraits, flower bouquets and a keyboardist wearing a bicycle helmet. The five-piece band wore lab coats and nurse outfits, an almost a blinding sight under the blacklights. The singer has a very unique voice, half-speaking and half-singing. The words “”he’s so purrrr-fect, he’s so puuurrrrfect like a pussy cat”” are still stuck in my head. I was flashing back to all those ’80s classic cult bands and how they had the unbelievable ability to make me an instant groupie. Check these guys out on the Riffage Web site, http://www.riffage.com.

Back Yard Babies (Stockholm, Sweden): Good old-fashioned punk is back, even if we have to import it from Sweden. I think I fell in love with them the moment I caught a glance of their 10-inch mohawks and spiked leather jackets. It was the same rush of excitement as when I bought my first Operation Ivy cassette in the ’80s. Granted, I couldn’t understand a word they were saying — their music broke the language barrier and they were hilarious performers. Besides, it seems that swearing is the universal way to get a crowd cheering for you. I even recommend these guys after the experience of having the lead singer hock a loogie on me. Maybe that’s the one thing that didn’t translate well.

DeathRay (Sacramento): This band features two members from the well-known band Cake. I had no idea that ’70s-style industrial britpop could come out of Sacramento. Nevertheless, the on-stage dancing won me over, along with the cheesy love-song lyrics and easy sing-along factor. I never thought dancing could be so sexy. Well, I know that Beck can do it, but the organ player? Amazing. They’re a very entertaining bunch and sold out two shows during my stay in Austin.

The Mr. T Experience (Berkeley): These guys have been around for a while, but they’re starting to make public appearances again. To put it simply, they play “”songs about chicks,”” and say so before each set. One of their best albums, “”Love is Dead,”” is a tribute to sucky failed attempts at love and relationships. This is the music we can all relate to. They are very poppy, ska-like, with lots of ’60s rock ‘n’ roll back-up vocals, but differ with the blunt bitterness of rejection. Their comedy act and synchronized guitar swaying, similar to ZZ Top, is a show in itself and worth seeing. They use to play live all the time at Soma in San Diego, but since the 13-year-old hangout closed last year, I haven’t seen much of them around.

Modest Mouse (Issaquah, Wash.): I’ve actually been following this band for the past three years, but this was the first time that I was able to see them live. It was one of the most unbelievable concert experiences of my lifetime. Modest Mouse are 10 times more amazing in person than they are on any of their five albums. I had no idea that so many different noises could come out of the same three instruments. Midway through the show, the lead singer lifted his guitar up to his mouth, where he used the pickup as a mic to distort his voice. I was a little concerned when he pulled out a bag of live crawdads and handed them out to the people in the front row. I think Modest Mouse could quite possibly be one of the more ingenious groups out there now.