Austin is like one giant music mall with a new band in every store front -- each one waiting for an A? representative's impulse buy.
Rick Winward is ambling through the streets of Austin searching for new bands to sign with his small, Philadelphia-based label, Big Pop. Over the course of the SXSW conference, he'll see about 60 unsigned bands. He watches two songs and leaves. If he likes the music, he makes a note of it and moves on. He'll call up the band later to request a tape.
"I don't like bum rushing a band at a show," he explains. "I've been in a band and if an A? guy came up to me when I was done playing and started schmoozing, I'd think, 'who's this loser?''"
The former member of the band Electric Peace doesn't come off as a jaded and cynical, stereotypical industry hack. At 34, the wiry redhead could be Richie Cunningham's hipper, younger brother. Donning a red flannel shirt and green pants, he looks like most suburban teenagers riding the clean cut edge of grunge, right down to the goatee.
Winward started Big Pop after working several years in promotion, artist management and A&R for Enigma, Champion Entertainment and Alpha International, respectively. Five thousand dollars in capital, a few credit cards and a four-person staff was enough to get the company off the ground in late '93. But in the past two years, Big Pop has only released four records.
"Is that it?" he wonders out loud, running over the releases again in his mind. "God, that's depressing."
The up-and-comer would like to put out six to eight releases a year, but with a wife and two-year old daughter, he doesn't have enough capital to waste money on a lot of failures.
"It's hard, I know I'm conservative, but at the same time I realize that independent labels don't make a name for themselves by making conservative choices."
Winward has been scouting for bands at the conference before, but this is the first time hunting for himself and is dedicated to making the time as productive as possible.
He's mulled over write-ups in the weekly Austin Chronicle , the daily Austin-American Statesman and the SXSW Guidebook as well as asked for hints from friends. The result is a crib sheet itinerary that will take us to some four shows an hour over the next five hours. Big Pop is looking for "modern rock." When asked what bands he likes, Winward diplomatically replies that he's drawn to good songs more than a particular sound. The majority of his work experience has been in radio promotion and he's naturally drawn to good hooks.
Our first stop is Emo's for the Austin-based band, the Adults. With white brick walls, serial killer pictures and wooden beams, this club ain't no CBGBs, this ain't no disco, it's a surreal Ground Round floor show.
The band members are all dressed in brown suits with ties and sport closely cropped, peroxide-blonde hair. The band may have intended a silly take on '77 punk-style, but they come off looking more like a Hitler youth group. The songs are slightly better than average pop punk.
Winward bobs his head for a little while and then gets less enthused as the first song ends. He scribbles something on his note paper and puts it back in his pocket.
After the Adults stumble through another tune, we head over to Tropical Isle to see the Canadian band, Moxy Fruvous. They're singing a tongue-in-cheek, doo-wop tune about "loving your boss." The seaport decor of Tropical Isle, added to the goofy band, equals cheese overkill.
Winward decides to leave after three-quarters of the first song. I tell him that Moxy Fruvous is the kind of band college frat boys would love.
"That might be good," he considers.
"I was joking," I reply, "and besides, they seem more like the kind band of the you'd go to see live rather than buy their records."
"You can sell a lot of records with a good live show," he replies.
It occurs to me that this evening is as much about a sound investment as musical appreciation. Winward says there's two major things he mulls over when seeing a band: (1) does he like it (2) if he does, is there a way to market it.
The next band on our itinerary, Outhouse, fits that bill moderately well. The band is nothing original, not even close. But if I was going to put money down, I'd say their Sugar-meets-Squeeze pop punk sound has as much potential as any Bush song. I might not rush out to buy their album, but I wouldn't turn them off if they were on the radio. Their stage presence is friendly and unassuming. Plus, they've got goofy t-shirts that say "I'm having a Maalox Moment" and Mademoiselle
Big Pop's main man is interested, but less excited. We leave after three songs.
The hectic pace is getting unnerving as we stride to the next club. Most of the participating venues are bunched together on one street -- Sixth Street. As we wade through the crowd, it feels like Austin is one giant music mall with a new band in every storefront -- each one waiting for an A? representative's impulse buy.
Dallas' Doosu gives Winward more of a rush than anyone so far. Their choppy, groove rock straddles a line between School of Fish and Filter. Winward shimmies as each song becomes more metallic, almost approaching White Zombie-style riffing.
"Maybe it's just the light show," he says,"but this is the most invigorating performance I've seen so far."
Doosu isn't my cup of tea and the neo-deco club, Icon, looks like a set from Miami Vice, complete with laser light show. The band looks like a bunch of metalheads who've jumped on the grunge bandwagon. Then again, White Zombie and Filter are both money makers.
Austin's American Analog Set quietly mines the post-Velvet Underground territory. They play simple, but catchy melodies filled out by an organ. Winward wants out after a minute.
I try to convince him that he should record American Analog Set cheaply and release an album just to build up the name of the label.
"Trust me, there's a small, but dedicated audience for that stuff," I say, "like Luna or Galaxie 500."
As I hear myself get more enthusiastic I think: "you heard one-half of one song and you want to sign them?"
Los Angeles' 7 Deadly 5 serves up late '60s saccharine pop - Fifth Dimension meets the Turtles fun and it might just be Big Pop material.
"They're certainly the oldest band we've seen," laughs Winward appreciating the band's hooks and harmonies. "That could be an angle."
The four members appear to be in their mid-30s and might pass for minor characters from The Flintstones.
"How important is appearance?" I ask.
"When I was working at Enigma, trying to promote the Smithereens to radio programmers, everyone told me 'these guys won't go anywhere, they're too ugly,'" he recalls. "We just decided to turn their looks into a hook, and it worked."
Coincidentally, I'd just seen Pat DiNizio, the Smithereen's front man, during a layover in Houston airport.
"Well, he should be very marketable these days because he's fat now, too," I quip.
As we see more bands I realize this rapid-fire evening is like being forced to ride the Tilt-A-Whirl three or four times in a row. At first it seems fun, then its nauseating. My calves and neck are getting stiff. My frontal lobe is ossifying.
Winward informs me that we're now supposed to check out Robert Bradley & the Black Water Surprise. The band is already signed to RCA, but two members of the Black Water Surprise are probably going to produce the next album of the Big Pop band, the Holy Cows.
"I'm having a meeting with them at 2 a.m. about the album and I have no idea what they look like," he explains.
The producers, Michael and Andy Nehra were suggested by the band. Winward considers the early-morning meeting a sort of pep rally before the recording.
With only $10,000 to spend on the album, he's had to convince the Nehras to cut their rates several times.
"They told me initially: ''our rate is usually $750 a day, but we'll do it for $500.' I said: 'Look if we get to the end of 20 days and the album isn't done, I'm in big trouble.'"
Robert Brandley turns out to be one of the best acts we see all evening, a 40-something soul singer who belts out tunes in a husky, Otis Redding-style voice.
We finish the evening with the Georgia band, the Vidalias.
"Good traditional country," surmises Winward, "but not really Big Pop. "
We head over to Katz's 24-hour deli and wait for the Nehra brothers.
I ask if he has minded having my dissenting opinion along for the gauntlet ride.
"Not at all," he assures, "but I'm thinking about the bands I liked and how a lot of the crowds watching them were rather blas to the music. I wonder if I'm out of touch with the current tastes."
Winward plays me the Holy Cows demos for the next album on Big Pop. The sound is solid bar-rock in the vein of Tom Petty, but certainly not "modern" or "alternative."
At 2:15,Robert Brandley and the Nehra brothers appear. Winward and the producersdiscuss which songs need reworking, how to capture the best performance and the number of tracks necessary to pull off the project.
At the end of the meal, Winward offers to pay for me and I insist on kicking in money for myself.
"Sorry," he jokes, "old habits die hard, but that one made a lot more sense when it was someone else's money."
Settling up the check at Katz's Deli with a soul singer, two producers and an A? man I think, well, it's not Andy Warhol's Factory or Tommy Mattola's mansion, but it is Rock 'n' Roll.