Right from the start, it gave signs of German efficiency. The e-mail alerting me to my registration was addressed “Dear Ward,” and my badge, when printed out, noted I was from AUS, which I presume means Australia. Fortunately, I was in no danger of being mistaken for an Australian, since pretty much 100% of my time was spent at the SXSW stand, answering bone-headed questions to deflect them from the management folks, who had actual important business to transact.
Once I had my badge, I was also given a wristband, which I assumed was for entry into showcases. Since I had no intention whatever of subjecting myself to the barrage of mediocrity that is Euro-rock, I slipped it into my back pocket. Nope. Came the first day, I wasn’t allowed into the hall until the sweet, innocent-looking girl at the door had attached it. Sweet and innocent-looking she may have been, but clearly her day-job is bondage; over the next three days, unable to take it off, I developed a mild skin rash, and it got slimy when I showered. Not to mention the pain.
As always, there was a bag, and as always, it was devoid of goodies with any use, unless you consider an orange-flavored Chupa Chups lollipop to have a use. It did have a schedule of events, but this year, no book of registrants. It had been replaced by a Windows-only CD-ROM, showing how technologically sophisticated PopKomm had gotten. Two minutes inside the right computer and you’ve got a very nicely filtered list of people to spam to. I can’t wait.
Did I mention the bone-headed questions? Ah, yes, I see I did. Here’s my favorite. A giant of a guy in an appalling jacket walks up, and announces “I am Rossiyan boblisher. I look for boblishing bartners.” Then he stares at me. “You are interested?” Well, I explain, we’re not publishers, we’re an event. “Ewent,” he says. “You are not interested in Rossiya.” No, I said patiently, we’re like PopKomm, only larger, older, and in Texas. “Taixes,” he says. You could come and find partners at our event, because we have a trade-show like this, and lots and lots of people in the music business from all over the world come — not many from Russia, so you have a big advantage. He has this stunned-deer expression on his face. “So. You are not interested in Rossiya.” Whatever, dude. He takes a brochure and walks away.
Which I wish he hadn’t done. The charming folks at British Airways had lost the suitcase full of brochures, sales information, photographs, banners, and all the other stuff we were supposed to have at the stand. Our Festival Director spent lots of time on the phone trying to get them to give him some idea of when it would arrive. It was on “the next flight” from Tuesday evening until Friday morning, when it actually arrived. Too bad we were planning to be out of there by 4 that afternoon. So we were a little short of information, graphics, and the like, for the uninitiated, the vast majority of whom, thank whatever deities look over such things, were a great deal smarter than our Russian friend.
One great thing about this year’s SXSW stand is that now all submissions of music for the music festival are done online. You go to the SXSW website, upload your music samples, your press kit, your application, pay your fees, and that’s it. Given the amount of trash we’ve thrown away on previous Fridays, it was a sheer joy to say “We don’t want your CDs.” I came back with exactly one, from a gorgeous Norwegian woman whose artists, the Festival Director assured me, were the best-kept secret in Scandinavia. We shall see. He had also urged a CD on me last year by Deerhoof, a band with out-of-tune instruments and girlfriend vocals (the vocalist is in the band because she’s someone’s girlfriend — thanks, Tim, for coining this term so many years ago, and too bad it never caught on) that was excruciating.
So most of the time I was just standing there — PopKomm’s trade show isn’t the best-attended on earth, and it’s far smaller than it was when the event was in Cologne, I think — watching the passing parade, thin as it was. In my head, I was writing a fashion critique, because these days there’s so little originality in the music for sale at events like this that how its vendors and creators represent themselves is more interesting.
The worst fashion trend of the year — and it’s not limited to PopKomm at all — is the faux-Americanoid t-shirt, pre-washed and pre-distressed so that the silk-screen’s already flaking off when you buy it, pretending to be from some camp, tavern, gas station, bowling alley, or something in the ’60s or ’70s. What’s annoying about them is that there’s always a detail fudged, so there won’t be a lawsuit, and that makes the damn thing scream fake. Fortunately, as the weather cools, these won’t be practical to wear as outer garments. I blame Abercrombie-Fitch, who I think started this stupid trend.
Not that there weren’t a couple of clever t-shirts there. By a couple, I mean just that: one guy ran by with a shirt saying “Hangover” in perfect Heinecken script, while another guy, who looked like a German lawyer, had one saying “Malt Whiskey” in script that exactly mimicked Walt Disney’s signature.
But for the most part, the participants were drab. Tattoos…lord, where to start with the tattoos? If you have expensive tattoos, you don’t expose them to the sun because they fade and the outlines blur and you wind up with a couple thousand bucks’ worth of blotch. And if you’re going to invest that much money in tattoos, for heaven’s sake have a plan. When you walk around with your arms and legs (and, presumably, other regions you’re not showing us) covered wtih a patchwork of different styles and artists’ work, you’re what the tattoo artists call (not, mind you, to your face) a potato. And there were a lot of potatoes walking around.
Standing around like I was doing, you get to watch people’s faces, their attention to what’s around them. Sometimes you want to yell at them. Hey, you! Listen, dude, you guys have walked past here three times, and I’ve got to tell you, your girlfriend is a lot smarter and a lot harder than you are. In five years, she’s going to be on her way to a big-time law career and you’re going to be sitting in a bar going “Ummm, what happened?” And you, lady: listen, I’m not a pedophile, but is your 13-year-old daughter — the one you had when you were 35 — sitting at home naked? Because clearly you’re wearing her clothing. Yes, it’s that obvious. Go home and change and people might take you seriously. And while we’re on the subject, sir, you’re German, not Afro-American, and yet you’ve got several hundred dollars’ worth of hip-hop clothing on. This is something you’re ill-advised to do as your 30s wear on, let alone at your age, which I estimate to be over 45. Plus, you’re German. You just look stupid in them. Go home and change into some floor-length pants. And much as I don’t get the shaved-head look, well in evidence at PopKomm, of course, the short hair with a tiny rat-tail in the back is about as silly as you can get.
I only got to wander around the trade-fair once, and wasn’t terribly impressed. But then, I wasn’t in the market for much that was going on. One really bright spot was seeing a guy I knew when he’d just given up his gig driving a bus in East Berlin and who is now a huge star in the dance-music world, Paul van Dyk. Not only did he remember me, he even brought his wife by and introduced her. There are a few nice folks in this business. Plus, he’s now got a real interesting business going, something called Vonyc, a “radio and download station for advanced electronic music,” which he demonstrated to me. I’ll have to listen — the business model is smart, but for me the music’s the thing — but I’ve always admired Paul’s work, even though I long became too old to get into the clubs where he performs himself.
The thing is, I don’t pretend I’m doing anything but selling a product some friends of mine make. I’m not chasing a lost youth or “getting down with the kids” or any of that. There comes a time when you have to define your relationship to pop music, and an awful lot of Peter Pans seem to be wandering around the music business at events like PopKomm. It was, in short, more than a little depressing. But I did my job: I kept the numbskulls from the crew, chatted with some old friends I only see at events like this, and, Friday night, joined everyone at my favorite Italian restaurant for a typically fantastic meal, and at the end of the evening said good-bye to the folks as they got into a cab. PopKomm was over until next year, although next year, if I’m living in France as I desperately hope I will be, I may not be there.