It’s been a year since concert venues and music festivals closed their doors indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the music and culture sector, the cancellation of the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin in March would be a harbinger of the coming crisis. The event marks the start of the all-important spring-summer festival and tour season as the music section features emerging young talent. With the decline in physical album sales, the festival is also the economic backbone for artists and behind-the-scenes workers, from managers to caterers to event organizers who make everything work.
The SXSW Music Festival returns as a virtual international event from March 16-20. Though it signals a proverbial light at the end of a tunnel, its digital comeback also illuminates the long and uncertain road to recovery as venues reopen await reopening and the industry returns to an increasingly digital landscape again.
Every day this week, KCRW will feature different artists playing SXSW 2021 along with other workers in the world of live music. They all reflect on the past year and share their predictions for the future.
Randy Randall is no stranger to SXSW. As the guitarist of the LA noise rock duo No Age, he played at the festival at least half a dozen times. With acts playing more than 10 sets a day in front of a crowd of potential new fans and powerful industry players, this is an opportunity full of organic encounters that can transform a band’s life. Randall knows this well, as SXSW helped No Age meet its first booking agent and land a record deal with legendary alternative label Sub Pop.
Five No Age albums, countless tours and a solo record later, nothing could prepare Randall for the chaos that had wreaked the music world last year when he grappled with the cancellation of an international tour, the closure of a record press, and a studio break-in .
When he returns to SXSW this week, he will debut as a solo artist with a live impromptu set of ambient guitar and pedal music, all performed on an LA freeway overpass.
KCRW speaks to Randall about the challenges he faced as a musician over the past year, the ongoing role of events like SXSW and the future of touring.
KCRW: What was planned for your career in the last year before the pandemic?
Randy Randall: “We had released a No Age album called ‘Goons Be Gone’ in June and had planned advertising, marketing and booking of summer and autumn tours through the US, Europe and Japan. These were all in the process of working on it and getting holds and making schedules that would revolve around the album’s release. It was going to be a big year for us.
We’d already been working on a follow-up album and when it all hit we thought we’d just keep working on it and see what happens. The canary in the coal mine was the closure of the record facility. The production of the record would not be on time. It was enormous to understand how delayed everything would be, that these weren’t just delays in tours or canceled festivals, but that it went all the way into the supply chain. Nobody was in the factories, nobody kept records. ”
What does the recovery look like for you and your colleagues or does it mean for you?
“A lot of people are thinking about it now. Ideally, relaxation means for me the opportunity to play several shows in a row. For example, if we could book three, five, or 20 appointments in a row in America, it would be a big step back to the life we lived before the quarantine and lockdown. Maybe that’s still cake in the sky. I think it might take a while. It’s no secret that everyone from small, independent DIY bands like us to big bands like the Rolling Stones make most of their income from live shows and merch sales, not album sales. “
There have been many unprecedented conversations about pay and work in the music industry over the past year. Do you think that live music will continue to be the main source of income in the future? Or could artist-led security precautions be taken?
“I have hope, but for a band our size, streaming sources have been seen as some sort of necessary evil. It’s a feeling that every penny we can get is better than nothing. I would be reluctant or pessimistically optimistic to think, “Hey, that would be cool. That could happen. ‘But I don’t know what reality is like.
One big thing that has come to the rescue of a lot of musicians was Bandcamp as a location and their Bandcamp Fridays where they lost their percentage every first Friday of the month. It was a great gathering cry. You see the community popping up around the world to directly support artists. We see great advantages from this and were able to tap additional sources of income such as the sale of T-shirts. It has also prompted us to create things like limited editions and unique merch ideas from our archives, for example selling old bootleg t-shirts, to reprint a zine during this time when we are sitting on our hands a lot, that we had and even sell old equipment. ”
They have found success through the LA DIY scene and small independent venues like The Smell. Will they survive this? What do you think the LA music scene will be like when it returns?
“A lot of people use this Roaring 20’s metaphor that the second things will open up, everyone will just go insane and be in bars all night. And I think that’s a good sign for live music.
From the musician side, everyone somehow steamed. It was a big reset button. I think there are probably 80 to 500,000 albums, all of which will drop once we feel like the touring is going to happen again. It’s going to be an explosion of new music. But the implications of this will be interesting.
Venues that have been bought out for good or bad by companies like Live Nation like The Echo and The Regent will be able to take this as they have a greater wealth of corporate funds to fall back on. But places like The Smell always fluctuate from month to month, even in the best of times. It often feels like it’s only a matter of time before The Smell and similar rooms, if they haven’t already had to shut down. Where will they appear next? ”
How will that develop in the future?
“With a lot of independent, really small DIY venues for all ages, it’s not so much about the prospect of making money, but about the needs of the community. You’re going to go somewhere, there must be something. With the need for communities to long to gather together and share ideas and their creative outputs, will they burst through the seams of cracks on the sidewalk? It’s going to happen because you can’t really stop it. I have no idea what it looks like, but I want to be there. “
Do you believe that given the move to streaming and the virtual landscape, major festivals and industry events like SXSW will continue to have the same impact and relevance to the industry and beyond?
“It’s an interesting animal. I have the feeling that every year people talk about how it “isn’t like it used to be”. The feeling that I had from visiting SXSW in 2015 is that what we experienced in 2007 has become rather rare. And I think that’s because things have already shifted online and social media has exploded.
Now the digital footprint of an artist, and an aspiring artist in particular, is much more of a factor. I think what happens now is you can get a feel for how an artist will behave just by their social media footprint, whether those are followers or who their friends are or what is happening and what the buzz is online . I think what people used to be able to take away from a physical show, just be there and meet them, is now acceptable to be done online. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a very structured way that promoters, booking agents, and record labels now approach aspiring artists. There can be people who put out records with labels that they have never met before. “
Randy Randall will be performing virtually at SXSW from March 16 to 17 as part of the Dedstrange Showcase.