A new Selena? Another Willie?
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Charles Attal, 40
Concert promoter, festival booker, and talent buyer with C3 Presents, the Austin company behind the Austin City Limits Music Festival, Chicago’s Lollapalooza, and shows at venues such as the House of Blues in Dallas and Stubb’s Bar-B-Que, in Austin
Brent Grulke, 47
Creative director of the South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival, in Austin
McCord: So we’re here to talk about the future of Texas music. But first, a lay of the land. How are things these days?
Attal: I think they’re good for us. It’s good to be an independent producer these days, right, Brent?
Grulke: It definitely is—in Texas.
Attal: Even outside Texas. A few years ago it was a little scary with all the mergers, with all the big production companies. But I think it shook out to our benefit.
Grulke: It’s also particularly good for people involved in live music, because there’s still as great a demand for it as there ever was.
McCord: I keep hearing that club attendance is down and that musicians don’t make as much money in live shows. Not true?
Attal: I disagree with that. Stubb’s has had a great year. Same in Dallas. And I know I’m paying artists more than I’ve ever paid them. The problem for some is that the label deals have all dried up, so you’ve now got to put your own record out. And records are driving touring now, instead of touring driving record sales.
McCord: So what about record sales? How can bands compensate?
Attal: It’s hard. If you’re not developing â€Šyour touring base, you’re in trouble. Unless you’re Madonna or one of the top ten acts in the world, you’ve got to tour to make money.
McCord: Say you’re a brand-new band five years from now. How do you get started?
Attal: Well, you work your local scene first. You get into conferences like SXSW. You work the clubs. The days of the big record deal are over; you’ve got to get exposed at the live level.
Grulke: And you’ve got to be imaginative about how you sell your band. You have to take greater control of your marketing than ever before.
McCord: What about the business side of music—labels, lawyers, management—in the future?
Attal: It’s mostly the labels getting hurt. If you’re going to put out a record and sell 50,000 copies, you don’t need a label. You need a good touring base, you need a good promoter, and you need—and can now get—a good distributor. The distributors are acting as the label, doing the marketing.
Grulke: I’d add that as music becomes less of a physical product, that’s where it gets interesting—because there’s the belief that music is essentially free. On the one hand, it means that the record companies have taken a hammering. But the upside is that it’s cheaper to make records than ever before, it’s cheaper to reach an audience, it’s cheaper to communicate worldwide. You’re going to find more ways of monetizing digital music too. Whether that will really be significant? I cannot predict the future.
McCord: There are few things more ephemeral in life than pop music.
Grulke: And there are so many things that you don’t have control over. In Texas, within the next 25 years, you’re gonna see a larger demographic whose primary language is Spanish. That’ll change the music business, of course.
McCord: Let’s talk about that. How will it change things for you?
Grulke: Well, for us, maybe not that much. But it’s going to be a significant market.
Attal: It’s already happening. The music that’s coming up from Mexico and South America is fantastic. And it’s relevant, whereas ten years ago it would have been hard to get a crowd for it.
McCord: Let’s consider some concrete examples. There are plenty of successful musicians in Texas today; who are the ones who will become even bigger?
Attal: The ones who are smart about how they tour, who are technologically savvy, who can work lean, and who are putting on great live shows. Robert Earl Keen is an example. He’s a great songwriter. He was relevant ten years ago, and he’ll be relevant in ten more years.
Grulke: The people who’ve figured out how to establish themselves—those are the ones I’d bet on. A bit under the radar is how huge George Strait is. He’s sold, like, 62 million records or something? There’s no reason he can’t do the same thing for another twenty years. The Dixie Chicks—they’re smart. You’d be nuts to think Beyoncé is not going to be a star in a decade.
Attal: You’ve also got bands like Spoon. They sell millions of records, they’ve got a killer live set, and their touring base is fantastic.
McCord: Who do you love that most people haven’t heard of—and you see having a long future? Throw out some names.
Attal: My Morning Jacket. I think they’re the next big touring rock band. Band of Horses.
McCord: What about Texas bands?
Grulke: I’m thinking, I’m thinking . . . Future Clouds and Radar is one.
Attal: Ghostland Observatory.
Grulke: And Spoon I count in that category.
Attal: There are a lot of bands out there that no one’s heard of in the mainstream who are making a living. Gogol Bordello, Hot Chip, Rilo Kiley—
Grulke: James McMurtry. He makes a living. Del Castillo. Just to mention a few Texas acts.
McCord: I’ll throw out some other names: Voxtrot. Iron and Wine. Okkervil River.
Attal: Oh, yeah. They’re all great.
Grulke: And every one has a distinctive voice. That, of course, is what has been most distinctive about Texas. It’s the kind of place where people come to pursue a career ambition and then figure out how to market it. When people move to Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, Houston—or are from there and stay there—they know that there isn’t the business infrastructure that there is in a Nashville or a Los Angeles. But they know that they can develop what they want to, how they want to.
McCord: Do you see one genre being healthier than another?
Attal: Right now the indie rock scene is strong. The White Stripes can play arenas all over the United States. The country scene—what I’ve seen—is massive.
Grulke: One of the things that people always find desirable—and Texas has a reputation for it—is authenticity. Hip-hop is not going away. Is it going to change? Will it mutate? The African American experience it derives from has been the richest source of musical-cultural influence in America.
McCord: What about Hispanic music? Is there another Selena waiting in the wings?
Grulke: Whoever does the next huge Spanish-language crossover, he or she is going to be very rich. But who it is? If I knew . . .
McCord: Who is the next Willie Nelson?
Grulke: Well, there’s no one that you immediately say, “Oh, that’s him.” Trying to find somebody who has Willie’s combination of integrity, widespread renown, and artistic quality and is loved by all, crisscrossing demographics? Who does that?
Attal: No one. Willie’s just too iconic. But I see Jack White being a great American legend musician. Or Jim James, from My Morning Jacket. That band could be legendary down the road.
Grulke: Well, and Spoon might be.
Grulke: Ray Benson is a great spokesperson for Texas and works tirelessly. There are certainly very credible artists. But is anybody gonna fill Willie’s shoes? Let’s let Willie hang around for another twenty or thirty years—in which case then we can have this discussion again.