4 days. 1,344 bands. 50 venues. One man's quest for the next big thing
He signed Keane. But record executive Martin Kierszenbaum never stops listening, especially at rock's most important showcase.
AUSTIN, Texas -- It's 8 o'clock on Friday night at the South By Southwest Music Conference, and the bouncer at the door of Buffalo Billiards is about to push mild-mannered Martin Kierszenbaum into the street. The giant yelling man doesn't care that Kierszenbaum is a legitimate badge holder, a badge holder, in fact, whose attention every other badge holder would like to attract -- not least the Go! Team, which is about to take the stage and whom Kierszenbaum, a senior A&R executive at industry powerhouse Interscope Records, wants to sign to a recording contract.
The club is at capacity and the bouncer is doing his job. So is Kierszenbaum. But pulling rank isn't an option at SXSW, where for four days every year the movers and shakers remember what it's like to wait in line. Plus, it's not Kierszenbaum's style.
After countless meetings and roughly 80,000 text messages, Kierszenbaum still doesn't know if he's going to land the Go! Team, a British buzz band that's being courted by a number of adoring corporate suitors. There's no telling whether he'll secure an opening slot on a high-wattage spring tour for his latest signing. He can't help wondering if the experimental rock group he's eyeing would be better served by an indie label. If he waits, however,
''You do the research all year long at the clubs and build relationships around the world, and I have to live with the fact that I might just miss the one," says Kierszenbaum, whose track record recently led Interscope to give him his own imprint, Cherry Tree Records. ''The reason could be as heinous as I pick the wrong show to go to."
The town is crawling with dealmakers -- BlackBerrys on hips, sales figures on lips -- ricocheting from showcase to brunch to hastily arranged hotel lobby powwows. They're here to buy and sell music. Kierszenbaum is one of them, and out of the kindness of his heart -- or, perhaps, seduced by the intoxicating scent of free publicity -- he's letting a reporter tag along. DAY ONE: Wednesday, March 16 Nobody's sleep-starved or meat-drunk yet, so conversation is lively at dinner with Stephen Budd and Paul Craig of the London-based SuperVision management company, whose roster includes current UK darlings Franz Ferdinand and soon-to-be UK darlings the Kaiser Chiefs.
Craig, who used to manage INXS but refuses to discuss the band's new reality show, praises the return of melody in rock music. Budd, who later in the week will have his arm broken by a bouncer, notes that two years ago he couldn't get a meeting at SXSW. Now British bands are the hottest thing on the planet.
Which is the bottom line at this otherwise lovely social gathering. Kierszenbaum -- 37, leather-jacketed, and endlessly congenial -- wants the Kaiser Chiefs to take the Lovemakers out as their opening act.
An electro-rock group from San Francisco, the Lovemakers are one of three acts Kierszenbaum has signed to Cherry Tree. Kierszenbaum's boss, the legendary record producer (Springsteen, U2, Patti Smith) turned executive Jimmy Iovine, who founded Interscope in 1990, gave him Cherry Tree as a sort of unbelievably generous bonus for a job well done. Kierszenbaum has recently brought the UK pop group Keane and the Russian duo t.A.T.u. to Interscope; the pair are collectively responsible for international sales of nearly 9 million.
He waits until Craig is literally pushing his chair back from the table to casually inquire (not for the first time, it turns out) about the tour. Craig is pessimistic; the guys choose their own openers. Can Craig get the Kaiser Chiefs to listen to the Lovemakers? Craig will try. The vibe is not promising.
A gleaming van and courteous driver are waiting by the curb outside the restaurant. At least it's not a limo, or a Navigator, says Kierszenbaum, who seems embarrassed. Tomorrow he will loan the van to the coveted Go! Team, so it's not for nothing that this 12-person vehicle is transporting two healthy people four blocks to the convention center to collect credentials and then three blocks back to the Lava Lounge to see the English Department.
Andrea Ruffalo, A&R coordinator at Cherry Tree, loves the English Department, a rough-and-tumble power-pop group from Brooklyn. Kierszenbaum, as usual, stands smack in front of the stage. He's less enthusiastic; the songs aren't there and the singing isn't great. But he likes the band's instincts -- and its clip-on ties.
DAY TWO: Thursday, March 17
Under duress, Kierszenbaum wakes up in time to catch Robert Plant's keynote speech. Plant disses Neil Diamond, whom Kierszenbaum loves. He ducks out early to lunch with soft-spoken, mop-topped brothers Ollie and Matt Jacob, owners of Memphis Industries, the tiny UK label that's in the enviable position of being home to the Go! Team, an eccentric, 6-piece multi-culti dance-pop outfit.
Pursuing this band is Kierszenbaum's second-highest priority in Austin. Ruffalo, an efficient, thrift-store-loving twentysomething, opens by acknowledging that they were late to recognize the Go! Team's ''brilliance," which is true. They've had a recording of the music for eight months.
So Kierszenbaum has to step up the salesmanship, explaining that Cherry Tree's mission is to take left-of-center groups into the mainstream.
''We'd like to create an indie-major hybrid," he says, ''an artist-centric environment that has heft and resources. I would bring knowledge of the US market, and the reputation of this label. But I wouldn't be prescriptive. I'd listen to you guys. How did you create the excitement in the UK?"
The Jacob brothers are young, but they're savvy enough to know they're sitting pretty. They express minimal enthusiasm. Kierszenbaum drops the Keane bomb. Ruffalo mentions her huge emotional response to the Go! Team.
And Kierszenbaum points out Interscope's history as an independent label with adventurous taste. He reels off a few names from the 1000-watt roster: Nine Inch Nails, NWA, Marilyn Manson, Dr. Dre. On the big label's boutique imprint, he says, you won't have to trade autonomy for influence. He doesn't want to change the band's essence.
Two minutes later he asks which TV shows media-averse band leader Ian P. would be willing to do.
We walk down 6th Street, the main music drag, to the Blind Pig and the real reason Kierszenbaum is here in Austin. Cherry Tree's flagship artist, the Canadian singer-songwriter Feist, is performing the first of several showcases. Feist is an alternative torch singer, a no-nonsense sprite scratching at a big old electric guitar, and her label head, like most everyone else in earshot, is mesmerized.
''I want people to know about Feist," Kierszenbaum says. ''Feist, Feist, Feist."
Inevitably, though, there's more to being a major corporate player than tooting your own roster's horn. Kierszenbaum is looking for the lawyer Fred Davis, son of Clive, who is somewhere in the Four Seasons hotel lobby wearing a red polo shirt. Davis represents a reggaeton band from Puerto Rico called Yankee Daddy that Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes is signing to another Interscope boutique label, Star Trak. Word is Davis is a hard-hitter. This seems to be some sort of a good-will meeting.
''Jimmy encourages people to be executives," Kierszenbaum says of his own boss.
Film School, a noisy shoegazer band from San Francisco that's on Kierszenbaum's list of acts to watch, plays at 8 at Buffalo Billiards. Kierszenbaum appreciates the intense textures but frets about what market constraints and major-label expectations would do to them. He's not sure he could ask these guys for a three-minute song. ''It's not just a question of are they good for us, but are we good for them."
We cross the street to check out Trevor Hall, who might be signed by one of Kierszenbaum's colleagues. The verdict: Hall is a new kind of kid, a sensitive singer-songwriter who listens to hip-hop and writes about bullet holes. Kierszenbaum's not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing.
Outside we run into the three guys in High Speed Scene, a new Interscope band that's been on tour with the Futureheads. They show off their spread in the new Spin magazine. Everybody's happy.
Important business happens on the phone walking to the show by up-and-coming rapper M.I.A. The pop-reggae artist Shaggy calls to talk about his next single. (It's a common misconception that A&R executives only find and sign talent. In fact, A&R involves shepherding an album and the artist through every phase of the album's cycle, from conception and recording to marketing and sales. Kierszenbaum also does A&R for such Interscope artists as Sting and DJ Shadow).
Copious calls are made on behalf of Flipsyde. The band is Rage-Against-the-Machine-meets-Snoop-Dog-meets-Santana, from Oakland, and Kierszenbaum signed it to Cherry Tree after hearing three songs. The band, whose album is due out in June, had been in advanced talks with Warner Bros.
At the moment, Flipsyde is on the road with labelmate the Game, and Kierszenbaum is working on the project between showcases, during bathroom breaks, in the van.
Trying to get in to to see M.I.A. -- an Interscope artist as of a few weeks ago -- is insane. Kierszenbaum waits patiently but can't resist whipping out his BlackBerry and daring the label publicist, who's already inside, to demonstrate what kind of juice he's got.
Not much, as it turns out. Kierszenbaum gives up. He's back at his hotel by midnight.
DAY THREE: Friday, March 18
Meals start to blur: Breakfast with BMI. Lunch with BMG Music Publishing UK.
Keane and Feist publish through BMG, but Kierszenbaum's angle is Humanzi, a Dublin band fronted by a 22-year-old singer Kierszenbaum says is the Irish David Johansen. He wants Humanzi, which isn't playing at SXSW, and so does BMG. There is no tangible benefit to brunching with the coveted quartet's wanna-be publisher, but proximity can't hurt.
After lunch Kierszenbaum hooks up with the guys from the Brisbane indie label Dew Process, who persuade him to come to the Australian barbecue.
It's an off-the-grid event that turns into serendipity. Kierszenbaum is falling in love.
The object of his affection is a band called the Grates. They're rough, but Patience, the frontwoman, is a supernova. His raves come in pitchman-perfect sound bites: ''Judy Garland fronting Sonic Youth!"
The myth of this music festival -- that an A&R guy might wander into a tent outside the Austin Hilton, lose it over a lo-fi pop-punk band, and two days later be meeting with them in the LA headquarters of his major label, which is exactly what happens -- comes into surreal relief.
''If you trust yourself and fail, that's OK. It happens," Kierszenbaum says. ''But if you don't listen to yourself and you fail, you kick yourself forever."
Later, Kierszenbaum takes another look at Film School, which is playing at the Spin party. This group is causing him grief -- a great band, but not, he thinks, a great fit. SXSW ends up being more about reality checks than about discoveries, Kierszenbaum believes. ''If we come here to sign bands we're not doing our jobs," he says. ''We should know about it first, and this should be the tail end of it."
Next meal: dinner, back to the Four Seasons, hosted by Gregg Latterman, founder of Aware Records. Guests -- among them former Toad the Wet Sprocket frontman Glen Phillips and Ashlee and Jessica's dad, Joe Simpson -- quietly toast Aware hitmaker John Mayer, who is indirectly footing the bill.
For this, Kierszenbaum is, unbelievably, missing the Ian Hunter show, which he's been talking about for two days. He knows that his passion for the former Mott the Hoople frontman is completely uncool, and he doesn't care.
At 9, Spin darlings High Speed Scene do a show at the Hard Rock, and Kierszenbaum is, as ever, front and center, in cheerleader position.
A half-hour later he's about to see the Go! Team play live for the first time.
Over the course of the festival the buzz on the band has become deafening. Buffalo Billiards is full, and the bouncer is freaking.
But Kierszenbaum displays Zen-grade patience. And his new friend Ollie Jacob, the Go! Team's UK label head, helps. Kierszenbaum steps inside the club, and sidles through the audience to the lip of the stage. He listens, and watches a very turned-on crowd listen, and smiles.
FINAL DAY: Saturday, March 19
Wooing the Go!Team will have to wait. Today is Feist day.
Kierszenbaum lunches with her at a Mexican restaurant. After a brief, unsatisfying stop to hear another band, he takes in her set, at a party for the magazine Fader.
A freak storm blows in during the show and threatens to bring down the tent. Feist is unfazed, nobody leaves, all of which bodes well for her future in this business.
After a stop at the Island UK barbecue, Kierszenbaum has dinner with a handful of colleagues and friends, among them Lisa Ingram, a San Francisco photographer and childhood pal of Ruffalo's who is one of Kierszenbaum's most reliable sources for hot young bands. She's got great taste -- and she's the Lovemakers' landlord.
At some point during the evening -- honestly, nobody can remember quite when -- Kierszenbaum breaks away to check out Tom Vek, ''a super-hot signing" in the UK four months ago who's been on his radar ever since.
He's diplomatic in his disappointment. ''It's not like seeing Keane," he says. But he's intrigued enough to keep an eye on how Vek, and his ambient garage funk, develops overseas.
Yes, this means someone else might pick him up. It's a risk he takes every day.
Norway's Kings of Convenience are playing Antone's, and Feist is there to join in, so Kierszenbaum isn't far behind. Ruffalo is close to tears; it's hard to say whether this is the result of Feist's moving performance or the mind-body meltdown that occurs after four consecutive 18-hour days in Austin.
Kierszenbaum budgets in a rest stop at the hotel before a wee-hours stop at the Vice magazine party. His plane departs in three hours, but he's come to see the Go! Team play again.
This show is even more over the top, and the audience (Elijah Wood is spearheading mayhem up front) is going crazy.
''Part of the allure of a band like this is they create a community," Kierszenbaum says later. ''You can't use audience reaction as the only gauge, but it's a big part of the puzzle.
''In the end, we have to make sure that recorded music gets bought, and bands that do well live sell the album. We'll continue talking to Ollie. We're very, very interested."
THE DAY AFTER: Sunday, March 20
At 7 a.m., after one hour of sleep, Kierszenbaum boards a plane for Toronto. He's going to hear another band.
Joan Anderman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.