AUSTIN, TEXAS - In a beleaguered industry that's changing as rapidly as Lady Gaga's wardrobe, Minnesota companies and musicians are facing the music biz together in harmony -- at least when there's free booze involved.
There was quite a confluence of home-team support among Minnesotans in Austin last week for the 24th annual South by Southwest Music Conference, the behemoth festival at which 2,000-plus bands play to as many of the 80,000 or so attendees as possible over four days.
Richfield-based retail giant Best Buy -- which never had much of a presence at SXSW before -- co-sponsored a party on the roof of the 6th Street club Maggie Mae's. Ironically or not, the company intended to promote its new-ish Musical Instruments stores-within-stores, which are taking over some of the space that used to belong to CD racks. All of the performers at the Best Buy/Vita.mn-backed bash were Minnesota acts.
"It feels a lot like a show at home, except for the weather," joked Jeremy Messersmith, whose comment would prove ironic two days later when the weather took a bizarre turn to Minnesota cold (actually, even colder). Introducing his song "Beautiful Children" during his official showcase Saturday night, Messersmith quipped, "Usually, I have to preface it by saying, 'Imagine a Minnesota winter.' But now I can just say, 'Imagine Austin today.'"
Another band at the bash, Solid Gold, was big enough to have band members' faces on a billboard in downtown Austin -- and savvy enough to avoid the old SXSW tradition of seeking a record label contract. Instead, the members said they came to SXSW to further their independent streak. Their presence at Maggie Mae's and at another party co-hosted by Cloud Cult manager Adrian Young no doubt drove some traffic to those events.
"It's nice to come here and try to help promote each other," said frontman Zachary Coulter cheerily, smiling even after his band endured a couple of electrical blowouts at the Minnesota party. "That's SXSW for you."
Solid Gold even gave City Pages music editor Andrea Swensson a lift in its van after she priced the airfare to Austin.
Other signs of Minnesota synergy at SXSW:
• Romantica flew into Dallas for the fest using free passes from Sun Country, which the Mendota Heights-based airline gave the twangy rockers in trade for some private performances and participation in its in-flight Minnesota music programming (there's even a photo of them in the airline magazine). After flying first class on a 7 a.m. flight, drummer Jim Orvis quipped, "I took the one free drink just because I could, but I didn't really want it that early."
• Former Babes in Toyland drummer Lori Barbero -- who now lives in Austin and works for SXSW as a production manager -- made the rounds to several Minnesota bands' showcases to make extra sure they had everything they needed to rock the houses. Said Barbero, "These are still all my homeys."
• Talent bookers for Minneapolis clubs First Avenue, the Fine Line and Cabooze -- in theory, sharp competitors -- could often be seen hanging together and comparing notes at showcases, putting up something of a joint front against the ever-consolidating corporate concert industry (see: the pending Ticketmaster and Live Nation merger). Their friendliness shocked the New York-based manager of nationally known Minnesota string-pickers Trampled by Turtles, whose first official showcase at the festival after years of national touring was a bona-fide knockout in front of a packed crowd on the Red Eyed Fly patio.
"He couldn't believe that we hang out like this, instead of trying to outdo each other," said Cabooze booker James (Taco) Martin while hanging out with the Fine Line's Kim King.
Said King, "I think one of the reasons the Twin Cities has more autonomy from the corporate music world is because we don't play real cutthroat with each other."
Things are as cutthroat as ever in the recording industry, though, and SXSW is a good indicator of how much bloodletting there has been. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the conference was awash with the staff and promotional dollars of big labels such as Sony, Virgin and Universal Music. Most of those names have vanished. Now, big corporate sponsors latching onto SXSW's hip branding include Levi's, Chevy and Pepsi.
Solid Gold found an unlikely corporate partner in Pepsi brand Mountain Dew, which has been upping its cool quotient with a new online singles/download offshoot called Green Label Sound. That's who put up the money for Solid Gold's SXSW billboard and paid for its new single and video, which MTV2 recently put into rotation.
"We found a good, short-term deal where they offered us some good opportunities and we didn't have to give up too much," Coulter said of the Green Label Sound partnership. "There aren't a lot of deals like that anymore."
Best Buy, which sponsored several other SXSW parties, saw a new marketing opportunity at the conference after years of staying away.
Instead of marketing its downsized CD retail business to record industry professionals and fans, the company is promoting its line of instruments and other musical gear to the tens of thousands of musicians at SXSW. The company is about to open its 100th Musical Instruments outlet nationwide; five are inside Twin Cities Best Buy outlets.
"Our whole goal is to make it easier for people who want to create music to do so, whether they're professional musicians or a kid making the next step up from 'Guitar Hero,'" said Kevin Balon, Best Buy's vice president of Musical Instruments, attending his first SXSW. "Obviously, this is a good place to connect with those kind of people."
In town for his second SXSW, Grant Cutler of the synth-pop duo Lookbook was impressed to see so many familiar faces and hometown brands.
"Whatever the sad realities of the music business are, at least we can have a good time together down here," he said.
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