SXSW: The Business of Music

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It was obvious that this wasn’t just another flight as I got on my plane to South by Southwest. Hairstyles, fashion choices, and a surfeit of indoor sunglasses clearly indicated that this was a rock and roll crowd. Musicians struggled to fit guitar cases into overhead bins, and I spotted Minneapolis singer-songwriter Gary Louris making his way down the aisle.

In Dallas, I chatted with Louris as we waited to change planes. He’s got four shows scheduled for the conference to promote his new album with Mark Olson, his ex-bandmate in Minneapolis roots-rock band the Jayhawks. The disc, called Ready for the Flood and released by the New West label, is an acoustic, stripped-down album that highlights the Louris-Olson harmonies that were a Jayhawks trademark.

My Dallas-to-Austin connecting flight was even more rocking as the ratio of SXSW-bound music industry folks increased to the saturation point. Peter Jesperson, the New West A&R exec and former Replacements manager, hopped aboard. In Austin, baggage claim bustled with instrument cases, and outside the terminal a limo driver walked around with a sign reading “Bar Kays” as he looked for the legendary Memphis band.

A shuttle van to the hotel turned into a networking opportunity for the passengers, which included one hip-hop tour manager; two guys from a graphic design firm; two women from an “orchestral pop” ensemble; and one magazine journalist, me. Business cards were exchanged, gigs announced, and war stories traded. The tour manager spent half the ride on his cell phone discussing the cost, in British pounds, of concert gear for an upcoming tour. Business taken care of, we disembarked and prepared to immerse ourselves in the festival.

Later that night, after midnight, I found myself looking for one more gig to catch after the excellent 4AD showcase  at Central Presbyterian Church. Aha–I recalled that one of Louris and Olson’s gigs was just two blocks away. I hustled over to the Victorian Room at the Driskill Hotel, where Louris, Olson, and their two acoustic guitars were holding a crowd spellbound with just their acoustic guitars and voices.

Their new material fit seamlessly alongside the Jayhawks classics that sprinkled the set, namely, “Over My Shoulder,” “Two Hearts,” “Waiting for the Sun,” and, as the closer, their biggest hit and perhaps my favorite Jayhawks song, “Blue.” The crowd let out an exuberant cheer at the distinctive opening notes, and as the honeyed harmonies filled the room, it seemed to me that at South by Southwest, business as usual is sometimes transcendent.

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