If you were to imagine the soundtrack for the death of the record industry, you couldn't do better than an acoustic version of "Iko Iko" played by a graying white man in a Hawaiian shirt and khaki cargo shorts standing in the bar-lounge of the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin, Texas, on Friday night of this year's South by Southwest music festival. Back in the go-go '90s, this was schmooze central, where every wannabe player clocked SXSW time.
Now, with sales tanking, labels consolidating, and staffs liquidating, it's a comparative dead zone. Retired couples box-step by the fireplace while a handful of industry grunts soldier on, draining the last $13 martini out of their soon-to-dry-up expense accounts. "I'd rather drag my penis through ten miles of gravel than be here," says Stephen Bazzell, lead singer of the unsigned Atlanta modern-rock band Uncrowned. He slumps down in a plush chair, scowling from beneath a baseball cap pulled tight over a red do-rag. Bazzell and his bandmates are killing time while their manager, Bret Bassi, is on a sofa across the way chatting with a (seemingly sloshed) publishing exec from Universal Records and a certain songwriter-for-hire.
"It's some guy who helped develop a band I fucking hate," spits Bazzell. He won't elaborate, but later I discover it's the mastermind behind the Oklahoma band Hinder, the most commercially successful new rock act of the past year. Hinder's shtick as a sleazier Nickelback is pretty crass, but they did record the most undeniable power ballad of 2006, "Lips of an Angel" (also a country hit for Jack Ingram), cowritten by the man on the sofa, Brian Howes. Uncrowned, who are in the midst of recording songs they hope will lead to a major-label deal, have already met with a couple of cowriters -- most notably Lee Miles, who worked on one of last year's surprise rock breakthroughs, the debut album by emo-ish Florida pretty boys the Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, and who recently toiled on the latest for neo-grunge lifers Puddle of Mudd.
But as the members of Uncrowned gain more faith in their own abilities, they feel increasingly uneasy about the cowriting gambit, a driving force behind more of today's rock hits than anyone cares to admit. They're trying to forge their own sound, but they also want to succeed, or least make a living as a band, especially since Bazzell and headstrong guitarist Jack Andrad have been writing music together since 2001 and touring the Southeast with different lineups since 2003.
"Dues have been paid for a while," says Axel Lowe, the drive-time DJ at Atlanta alternative-rock station 99X, who has known the band for years. "They're tenacious and likable and talented, and I think they're getting really close. It's just a matter of getting that one hit song."
But is it?
In many ways, Uncrowned exemplify the volatile, vulnerable state of today's music business, a world rife with confusion, delusion, great promise, and great risk. With CDs being eclipsed by downloading (which brings in far less revenue), major record companies are more desperate than ever to score megapopular acts. A band that sells, say, 300,000 albums is negligibly profitable at best. The large-scale services a major offers -- distribution, marketing, promotion -- are more suited to pushing Justin Timberlake from two million to five million copies sold. Few new rock bands approach that level, and it'll be obvious why they do: They will be the guys with the sculpted stubble and volumized hair, starring in a glossy video set in a church filled with flickering candelabra, directed by some guy named Nigel Dick. Prepare to grimace just so on the heartrendering chorus (that you didn't write).
And what does a "hit" mean anymore? Radio rotates only a handful of songs to an ever-declining audience, and MTV airs just a smattering of videos. Fans are more likely to encounter new artists via TV commercials or soundtracks, video games, file-sharing, Internet radio, MySpace, YouTube, etc. People are listening to much more music, and it's not uncommon for a random track to get passed around or downloaded by millions in a weekend's time. But it's rare for a single song to capture the mass imagination long enough for it to translate into a real career for the artist. So why would a young, loud, aggressive rock band like Uncrowned, or their management, bank on that one demographically transcendent fluke?
"Their problem is, they're functioning in the old system of waiting to be swept off their feet by a label or some giganto marketing push that's going to propel them to stardom," says a record executive who has met with the band and asked not to be named. "The new paradigm calls for you to take care of your own niche first."
The new paradigm. Maximizing outside revenue streams. Monetizing digital content. CDs as loss leaders. More and more you hear these buzz phrases thrown around by the type of people who, back in the '90s, would've been arguing abstractly about whether Kurt Cobain was a hypocrite or a savior. It's finally a DIY world (bereft of political context, of course). Musicians across all genres are necessarily, obsessively business-minded; it's not just gimme-the-loot rappers anymore. Since the Internet can reach millions of consumers directly, even standard indie labels may soon be pass é -- managers and booking agents wield the influence. The money isn't in record sales (down 20 percent this year), but in diversifying your brand beyond hoodie/T-shirt merch -- just recently, press releases have hyped Beck's Sketchel shoulder bag, an All-American Rejects-designed Pepsi can, a skate-shoe partnership between Etnies and Chester Bennington's tattoo studio, and an Urban Outfitters indie-rock tour featuring the Ponys, Voxtrot, and Tapes 'N Tapes. Artists who have yet to release a record are pursuing publishing and sponsorship deals. One of the most talked-about indie bands of the past few years -- Clap Your Hands Say Yeah -- is perhaps more notable for its no-label business model than its music.
But the problem with a DIY approach is that you have to do it yourself. And that means a generation of artists who spend countless hours attempting to manage their own affairs and hustle every angle. But what if you're not Pete Wentz or Jay-Z or Arcade Fire? What if you can't trade on a punk or hip-hop or indie tradition? What if your numerous marketing ideas haven't quite panned out? What if you've got a killer MySpace page and consistently draw 300 people in clubs three states away and sell several thousand copies of your self-released record, but can barely pay the rent? What if you were a passing industry fancy a couple years back, but now that you're a far better band, interest has waned? What if you're so anxious to jump-start your career that you let your manager come hat in hand to the freaking guy from Hinder?
What if you're Uncrowned?
It's Thursday night at SXSW, and Uncrowned -- singer Bazzell, 25; guitarist Andrad, 24; bassist Stuart Clark, 25; and drummer Scott Sellers, 26 -- are surveying Austin's Sixth Street. The downtown area, closed off by police barricades, is a product tie-in petri dish, where the five-day festival's 11,000 registrants, 1,400 bands, and thousands more hangers-on try to cultivate a cultural buzz. But for Uncrowned, whose Friday show isn't an official SXSW event, it's a plum chance to scam -- in a professional capacity, of course.
"If you're in a band and you walk up to a girl, it's an event, when normally it might qualify as stalking," says Andrad, laughing. With his perma-shades, carefully mussed thicket of hair, three ornate tattoos (all Dalí paintings), chunky silver jewelry, and confident, louche stride, he's the group's unquestioned leader. A diplomat's son born in New Jersey and raised in Italy, France, England, Spain, and Israel, he speaks five languages fluently. Tonight, his strategy is to take Polaroids with potential fans and write the band's show info on the back. Then the Polaroid can be used as a free ticket.
After the band promise their manager that they won't stop until the camera is empty, we're off. For the next two hours, it's a blur of clingy sundresses, numbingly tight low-rise jeans, blinding tans, pierced belly buttons, strappy heels, French manicures, and sheepish hugs. The guys' charm is easy and unflagging. The campaign peaks with a couple of athletic blondes in microminis and black stiletto boots. "Equestrian instructors," confides Sellers, the husky, wisecracking drummer with a rooster-ish rocker 'do. "They invited us to go horseback riding out by the river and through the hills. They said they'd make it worth our while."
Do you think they'll come to the show? I ask.
"I can only pray," he answers, folding his hands.
Then, the group is suddenly confronted by one of the festival's most familiar sights -- a street teamer hawking free Trojans. A late-20s brunette wearing a tennis shirt and slacks, she hands out samples and enthusiastically asks, "Are you a band?" The guys nod, give a perfunctory run-through of the Polaroid routine, and are quickly back on the move. I think she really wanted to come to the show, I say to Andrad. Didn't you think she was cute?
"I don't do cute. I do hot," he announces, grinning.
Don't you wanna get any guys to come?
"I was always told that in order to be a rock star, you needed two things: The girls wanna have sex with you, and the guys wanna be you. If we get the girls, the guys will come." Is that what you really think, or are you just bullshitting?
"That's your job to figure out," he replies, still grinning.
It's a fool's game to judge anyone by what goes on at SXSW. The hypercompetitive, overstuffed atmosphere can turn a meek Takka Takka-streaming blogger into a SoCo-swilling blowhard with an agenda. And away from the festival free-for-all, Uncrowned revert to being earnest, humble, committed musicians who just want their songs to be heard. The band's self-released debut CD, 2005's Simple Sick Device, is a skillfully arranged maelstrom of melodic post-grunge with electronic tinges and huge choruses. It's also an obvious triangulation of Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, and Nine Inch Nails, which Andrad admits ("It's like our little redheaded stepchild"). But a newer track, "Devil in My Hand" (recorded gratis by the owner of a cush Atlanta studio), which melds grinding guitars and falsetto vocals, and has a boyish cri de Coeur refrain -- "Say it with conviction / Say it like you lived it" -- is as affecting as anything currently on modern-rock radio.
What gives Uncrowned a genuine artistic and emotional core is the intense, unlikely friendship between Andrad and Bazzell. The former grew up in relative luxury overseas, worshipping his father the Air Force military attaché (later, Jack was even recruited by the State Department); the latter was born while his father the con artist was in prison, and spent his teen years in youth homes and with foster families. At age eight, he was singing "My Prerogative" on street corners for spare change, and at ten, he was helping his dad bilk a church mission and later rob the minister's house. Bazzell and his parents spent many nights sleeping in their Ford Fairlane. And at 11, he remembers watching federal agents chase his dad into the woods behind a Wendy's.
"That was a big year for me," he says with a trace of sarcasm. "We got caught in a hotel in Suwanee, Georgia. The feds knocked on the door, and me and my mom hid under the bed. Beforehand, my father had said we should bring the car across the street, and he'd meet us and we'd be out of there. I don't know how he got away, but here he comes, and he runs right by us, says, 'I love you,' and went down a hill, and that's the last I ever saw of him. Then these dudes with suits and .40-calibers stuck one in my face." Bazzell wouldn't see his mom for three years.
He was immediately on his own, but that's when things turned around. "I was finally taken in by this family -- it's hard to find a home for an 11-, 12-year-old kid, everybody wants a two-year-old-and that's when the musical world came into focus for me. [Smashing Pumpkins'] Siamese Dream came out, and then Korn's first album -- all these angry, energetic albums -- and I had all this stuff that was pent up in me for so long. Those albums were really my epiphany."
Wanting to be more involved in music, Bazzell joined his school chorus, worked at strengthening his voice, and eventually was offered a scholarship to the University of Georgia -- for opera. He lacked a few credits, so he attended a junior college in Gainesville. But the dream of Puccini arias soon ended.
"My grandfather, who was the only person I ever felt was a real father figure to me, was dying of cancer," he continues. "I just felt alone and started binge drinking and let myself go. I would be in there trying to sing 'Ave Maria' drunk. I started a punk band, my first band. I had dyed-orange hair and I'd pass out onstage. It was like this Nick Cave droning creepiness that would go into a drug-induced, Iggy Pop chaos thing. I just embraced that disdain for life, and the music was so passionate. Iggy Pop is a god, man. You find that and it's like, That's rock'n'roll! You wanna wrap your skin around it. But it just became too intense for me. I spiraled out over the edge." And that's when the partners met. "Irony of ironies, Jack was at our last show. I walked up to him and told him that his band sucked, but he was good. And for some reason, he saw something in me."
Andrad was adrift at the time, as well. He'd been studying music at Miami Dade College North, but dropped out when his father died in 1999, and then moved to Atlanta. A cosmopolitan shredder who loved Judas Priest and Slipknot, he believed he'd found his singer, but the orphan ex-punk wavered.
"It was awkward in the beginning," says Bazzell. "He'd ask me for my vocal ideas, and I'd be out in left field; and I'd ask what his ideas were, and I couldn't comprehend what he was saying -- so we made awkward music. But then a friendship grew, a true musical brotherhood. Jack could've ditched me many times, but he believed in what I could do. Basically, he saved my life."
Bassist Clark joined early on, but it took seven drummers and a few years before Sellers auditioned in 2004. And it has taken another two and a half years for the band to fully connect. "We're actually starting to make music from all of our influences," says Bazzell. "I feel like Jack and I are just finding our artistic voice. Before, we were getting to a place where we were gonna make art, but we weren't doing it. Now it's starting to feel like we are."
His words, which usually have a wounded, wary edge, sharpen. "I don't deserve anything for what I've been through -- life doesn't work that way. But I do believe this band deserves to be heard. With my original experiences put with this music and these guys and this chemistry..." He pauses. "I just feel lucky to be alive. I wanna live 500 years."
It's probably not the best idea to discuss your future over Jell-O shots and scrambled eggs. But that's SXSW. The Texas sun scorches the Iron Cactus patio, and everyone is squinting as Uncrowned and manager Bassi meet with Jason Spiewak, a founding partner of Rock Ridge Music, an "independent" label affiliated with Warner Music Group. After some industry chatter -- digital and mobile marketing, etc. -- Spiewak leans forward, almost smirking. "So I'm curious about your little label-shopping expedition," he says, referring to the band's fairly public pursuit of a record deal. "What exactly are you looking for?"
"We're looking for an A&R who can really be a part of our family and grow with us," Andrad says, but Spiewak cuts him off.
"You know there's a chance that guy will be gone by the time your record comes out. Selling promise isn't good enough. It's about what you can bring to the table now." Andrad's cool demeanor begins to dissolve. "Well, what we bring to the table is that we're a hardworking band with kickass songs and great stories," he says, a bit defensively.
"We've done things that other unsigned band haven't -- we've got instrument endorsements from a half-dozen companies, we have a guitar in the Hard Rock Cafe's memorabilia collection, we've had songs on television shows. We've even done house remixes and Spanish remixes of our songs."
"Is that based on a fan base, or are you just hoping?"
"The Latin rock market is huge," Andrad replies.
"Listen," says Spiewak, "labels want to know basic facts: What sales history do you have? In what touring markets do you have a strong following? Do you have a substantial online presence? And we have to get back to the music. Music powers the format, not the other way around."
"All I know," Andrad says firmly, "is that we've put our lives into this band, and we're going to accomplish great things, and we've already accomplished great things, and if somebody wants to be involved with that, fine."
Finally, Bassi, who had gotten up to take a call while most of the ball-breaking transpired, suggests that we ask for the check. Nobody objects.
It's meetings like this that remind you why virtually every band that has any success, no matter how underground, has a cold-eyed manager. Even the savviest musician can buckle under the burden of writing songs, touring, and handling business. For years, Andrad was de facto manager, and if not for his dauntless ingenuity, Uncrowned would've crumbled.
But after playing a number of label showcases and not signing a deal, the band had a bitter split with their drummer at the time, and things took a turn. First, they entered and won the 2004 Shot at the Cabo Wabo battle of the bands, sponsored by the Hard Rock Cafe and Sammy Hagar's Cabo Wabo Tequila. The grand prize was an invitation to play Hagar's Mexican Meltdown birthday bash in Cabo San Lucas.
"I thought the battle of the bands was a bad idea, but they didn't ask for my opinion on that one," says David Prasse, an Atlanta attorney who works with Mastodon and the Whigs, and has supported the band pro bono since before it was even named Uncrowned (after a Charles Bukowski poem about an unsung boxer who defeats champions in nontitle fights). "It's too much like sports. I know, in a sense, music is competitive, but battle of the bands? It's art. It's not arm wrestling."
Still, the rock-star treatment was seductive: Hagar's driver chauffeured them from the airport to the lavish, all-expenses-paid Hotel Hacienda Beach Resort, where the staff greeted them with margaritas -- "From Sammy!" As Andrad wrote in a blog post, they were "like four kids at Christmas." After the show, they were lured into a beer-chugging contest by the dark prince of multiplatinum rock cheesery, Nickelback's Chad Kroeger. To make a gross story short, Kroeger and Andrad faced off and slammed between 11 and 13 Coronas each, before nature said no. A queasy Andrad was led over to a trash can by Kroeger, who stuck two fingers down the guitarist's throat. Without blinking, Kroeger walked over to a sink, washed off his arm, and barked, "Bartender, two more." Next night was a party for TV's Blind Date, where the guys so captivated the producers that they were later flown out to Los Angeles to tape an episode. Three of the four band members participated (Bazzell had a girlfriend at the time), and at the end of the show, the band performed a set in a Hollywood club. During this time, Bassi, who had heard Uncrowned's song "You Deny" on the online radio station GarageBand.com, e-mailed the group. A drummer for more than a decade who also has an MBA, Bassi, 29, had just started working with the Chicago firm KMA Management, which reps a number of young rock bands but is best known for breaking nu-metal ragers Disturbed. Laconically cool but persistent, he admired Uncrowned's skepticism. "They drilled me with question after question," he says. "They wanted a layout of what it would be like working together. They asked me about my time commitment, since I was working with other bands."
Bassi's first goal was to have the band refocus musically, suggesting that Bazzell take voice lessons and Sellers drum lessons. He wanted Andrad to concentrate more on songwriting. "We used to jump around onstage like monkeys on acid," says Sellers, "but Bret said cut that shit out and strip it down."
In a way, their SXSW show was the culmination of a two-year rehab. And when I speak with Jason Spiewak a week later, he relents: "I wish I'd seen them before we talked, because the live show is kickass. They have the one thing that you can't rehearse, and that's believability. I believe that they're up there and it's real."
But the fact remains that Uncrowned want to be stars in a way that is increasingly endangered. It practically takes a priestly blessing for a youngish rock band to cross over to a mainstream audience -- i.e., be recognized by people who don't follow music -- and remain artistically credible. Rather, the objective is to cut operating costs, serve your core audience, and forgo the foie gras (it's too cruel, anyway).
Bassi demurs. "Our company approaches bands that we believe have the ability to be, and want to be, wildly popular on a nationwide scale," he says. "And that usually leads us down the path of a major label, because they have the marketing money and distribution channels. It's riskier than a DIY approach, where you sell your music online and keep everything in-house, but the rewards are potentially greater. In developing a band like Uncrowned, we try to do everything now that an indie label would be doing, so we can show a major they're taking the reins of a horse that's already moving."
He's backed up by an unlikely source. "I'd rather be on no label or a major label," says Nick Stern, manager of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. "Indies usually can't sell a ton of records -- and you only get a percentage of those sales, anyway. They can't pay you an advance and they can't give you tour support, so how are you going to make any money? How are you able to quit your day job, which is the goal for all these kids? At least a major label can cut you a check up front."
But Uncrowned have grander dreams. They want to put on the eyeliner and watch the lights come up on 30,000 people and eat Kobe filet and be respected artists. And after talking to Bassi a couple of weeks after SXSW, I find out what that kind of ambition ultimately means.
"This is a tough one," Bassi says slowly, "because David Prasse has been with the band from the inception. But we're transitioning into working with Jeffrey Light, the attorney for Christina Aguilera and Red Hot Chili Peppers. It's one of those things. The band is all about building a family, and David was, or is, a part of that family. But with the kind of contacts Jeffrey Light has, he can go straight to the top."
It's rare when you're working on a story that you get a legitimate chill, but I did when I got off the phone with Bassi. Prasse, who cut his teeth booking shows in Athens during the early-'80s underground-rock renaissance, is one of the smartest, most genuine, plugged-in people I've ever met in the industry. And there had been several times I'd wondered why he still had anything to do with Uncrowned.
"One thing that's different about those guys from the indie school," Prasse says carefully, "is that they're not precious about what they're doing. They wanna reach a lot of people. With some musicians, what they're doing is from the heart, and they don't care if anybody pays attention. Whether R.E.M. was like that or not, they convinced us they were, and it endeared us to them." He hesitates for a second. "With Uncrowned, I just don't know."