Industry Profile: Brent Grulke
By Larry LeBlanc
This week In The Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Brent Grulke
As creative director for the South by Southwest Music & Media Conference Brent Grulke has watched the Austin, Texas event grow from being a local street party to a global event.
He has been there since the conference began in 1987 with an independent, entrepreneurial focus, working the first few years as a stage manager.
This year, SXSW will be held March 13-22. Over 13,000 attendees will be on hand for panels, industry discussions, trade show exhibits, and five nights of music (March 18-22) by more than 1,800 acts-- hailing from over 50 countries, and performing in over 80 venues.
Among acts performing are: Tori Amos, Ladyhawke, Echo and the Bunnymen, Ben Harper and Relentless7, Pendulum, Willie Nile, Bedouin Soundclash, Cadence Weapon, Les Breastfeeders, Miracle Fortress, Twilight Hotel, Two Hours Traffic, the Cliks, the Duhks, Dent May, Ra Ra Riot, Gabriella Cilmi, Ximena Sarińara, Primal Scream, Wallpaper, Pete and the Pirates, Melissa Auf der Maur, Justin Nozuka, Luke Doucet, and Melissa McClelland.
Among the featured speakers are: Quincy Jones, Martin Atkins, Devo, The Oak Ridge Boys and Carlene Carter. Artists speaking on various panels include Britt Daniel, Amanda Palmer, John Wesley Harding, Jessica Lea Mayfield, Mandi Perkins, Sylvain Sylvain and Anya Marina.
Inspired by the New Music Seminar held in New York in the 1980s, Nick Barbaro, Lewis J. Meyers, Ed Ward, Louis Black and Roland Swenson founded the SXSW festival in 1986 to promote Austin’s rich music scene.
In 1987, 700 registrants participated, and over 200 acts performed at 15 clubs. In 1994, SXSW added film and interactive media events to an expanded schedule. That year, it registered over 4,000 participants and showcased 500 musical acts at 28 venues.
With Austin--the capital o f Texas -- as the self-proclaimed “Live Music Capital of the World,” music is obviously a defining element of city’s cultural scene as well a significant component in its tourism pitch.
With, perhaps, more music venues per capita than any other American city, the city has a vibrant live music scene revolving around the many nightclubs on 6th Street. On any given night, fans can select from literally dozens of live shows covering most musical genres.
It has been estimated that SXSW 2009 will have a full economic impact of over $110 million on Austin’s economy.
Roughly $18 million will come from the operational impact of permanent staff and operational expenses of SXSW, and the balance of $77 million will come from attendee spending. They will contribute about $18 million to local food and drink establishments, $12 million in hotel expenditures and $7 million in the transportation and automobile sector. Another $13 million has been tagged as the value of media coverage that Austin receives with SXSW. Born in North Platte, Nebraska, Grulke grew up in Omaha, Chicago, Columbia (Mississippi), and Houston. He picked the University of Texas to get a BS in Radio/Television/Film largely on the strength of Austin's live music scene. It was at the U of T that he became arts editor at the student newspaper, The Daily Texan.
Upon graduating in 1983, Grulke worked as a sound engineer in Austin’s music venues, and was a sound engineer or tour manager for such acts as the Wild Seeds, Doctors' Mob, the Killer Bees, the True Believers, Winter Hours, Bad Mutha Goose, and the Prime Movers.
As well, he was the music editor at The Austin Chronicle.
In the late ‘80s, Grulke worked in San Francisco for a production company installing audio and video systems and he worked as a sound engineer at local clubs. He later lived briefly New York City, and then Los Angeles, working as a tour manager and sound engineer.
While living in Los Angeles, Grulke became manager of Spindletop Records, an independent record label, where he was responsible for the label’s marketing and distribution. The label’s roster included: Jazz saxophonist Boney James; Texas power pop band, the Allisons; violinist Doug Cameron; blues funksters Soul Hat; Texas blue guitarist Long John Hunter; and New Orleans' Neville Brothers. Grulke returned to Austin in 1993 when the label moved there.
Grulke began to book industry panels at SXSW in 1994. The following year he became creative director, overseeing panels and all aspects of the music festival.
You became the creative director of SXSW in 1994.
I was presumptuous enough to think that I could do (the job). In fact, it was a lot of on the job learning, particularly early on. My belief was that I could avoid politics and that artistic merit would trump everything. I was very naďve.
But you started off at SXSW as a stage manager in 1987. You must have had some idea of the politics in booking acts?
Sure. But when you a techie, it’s you and the band against the world. You are a little army. You know that everybody is out to fuck you. So you keep your head down. It’s a very different mind set (than being a booker).
Were you inundated with applicants from bands in 1994?
Oh yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. And it has never let up which is great.
How many bookers were there then?
There were a grand total of three of us doing everything in the music conference.
You have 8 bookers now?
Largely because there are so many bands, I needed to create a situation where I could try to have a better idea of the big picture (of the conference).
Also, isn’t it harder keeping in touch with the street as you get older?
Absolutely, I’m not (on the street) anymore. I have no illusions about that.
It has been argued that by the ‘90s SXSW had become a high-profile launching pad for major label acts. That new and unsigned acts were being shunted aside.
However, consolidation of the major labels followed by staff and roster cutbacks in recent years seems to have brought SXSW back to its indie roots. Have music industry cut backs impacted SXSW?
They absolutely have. And I wouldn’t say it is entirely in a good way.
We’re lucky in that what we do is focused around live performances and the demand for live performances has been consistent.
But how the industry has changed can make it hard (for us). It wasn’t nice to have major labels with significant artists that they wanted to come here and promote? It was one-stop shopping (for us). Go to Warner Bros. Records and they would bring this act and bring in this media presence and bring in people (attending). And they spent time and money doing that. That was nice in a lot of ways. It truly was.
On the other hand, because of our own roots, because we are Austenites, we are the kind of people who think that Townes Van Zandt is a great artist. Hit-making is a small part of what we are about. We are do-it-yourself kind of folks. That’s how we do things. We have always been more focused on the artists that were in (music) for the long haul and were unlikely to have hits. The fact that we could have major corporations come in and work our event to try to create hits was nice but it was always an anomaly.
With 11,000 applicants to perform this year, SXSW might be considered a stepping stone to success in the music industry like “American Idol.”
I would like to think that most of our (acts) are more practically minded than that. I know if they do get here they will be quickly disabused of that (stepping stone) notion. However, they may encounter some good influences that will include new friends, mentors, creative partners and a different part of the music world (than the mainstream).
The phenomenon of “American Idol” isn’t new. There was the era of Dick Clark TV idols like Fabian and Frankie Avalon in the ‘50s.
“American Idol” is considered as one of the most creative ways to do artist development today. With “American Idol” type artists, however, the true artists are the producers and songwriters. The vocalists are the “front people” for the producer and writers. There’s frequently art in that but there’s a perception, and it’s a relatively new perception, that the person onstage is the auteur. That’s a new phenomenon.
But almost all music genres since the ‘60s have encouraged people to try to be professional musicians or “hit artists” too.
The thing is that (success) tends to be self-selecting. The people that think (success) is going to happen overnight, they quit. The hundreds of thousands of people who function as artists and have careers are not all “hit artists.” The reason that they are able to do this (have careers) is because they have played for hundreds of thousands of hours. The 10,000 hour theory (of mastery). They have logged that and some.
In 1997, you were quoted as saying SXSW "is not a consumer event." Was that an accurate quote?
It was an accurate quote but I should have elaborated. Frankly, that was one of my first lessons in the power of the Internet, and the fact that a huge number of people now claim SXSW personally. The event has always been tailored to serve the needs of the music industry. But, of course, there’s also strong support from-- consumers my ass, let’s call them music fans. Let’s face it, the line between a music fan and a music professional now is pretty damn hard to draw. Where’s the line now? If I say I’m in the music business then I am. Fans are obviously the most critical element within the music business.
With power brokers from labels leaving in recent years how do you stay as relevant to the music industry? At the same time, we’ve also seen significant cut backs in the arts in many countries. A lot of artists are suffering.
Everybody is. Let’s fact it, (the future) is the huge question that nobody has a solid answer for. You better be willing to change and, perhaps, change really quickly. But change how and change what? We talk about (change) constantly and, maybe, that is the best thing we can do for now. I’m not going to pretend that we have answers.
Has the percentage of major and indie bands stayed the same at SXSW over the years?
It really has remained consistent. What has changed is the sheer number of acts. What has changed the most dramatically is that we can now do a lot wider selection of music styles. Part of that is because there are so many more genres of music available today.
There is a sizable classical and world beat component at SXSW this year.
Right. We have more acts from outside the U.S. coming than ever before. The number has steadily grown. About one-quarter of the bands this year are from outside of the U.S. and they are doing all types of different music. That’s obviously makes (the event) a different thing. In fact, that’s the part I take the most enjoyment in (booking). That’s what exciting me.
With 9/11, did it become more difficult in getting foreign acts into the U.S. to perform at SXSW?
The truth is that 9/11 changed the process and the awareness of the need to dot your I-s and cross your T-s. We now have three companies helping to facilitate people to get their visas. People who take the time and the cost—which can be really expensive—will get their visas. But if people take the time and can’t afford the expense (of applying for the proper visa on time) they can be turned away. It happens. But if people do what they are supposed to do, they do get in.
What are you happy about this year.
I am mostly happy that the schedule is nearly complete (with two weeks left). That in itself makes me very happy. You are always going to have bands drop out or other acts applying that you’d like to find a spot for. For instance, when Tom Waits played South By Southwest (in 1999), I didn’t get a call about that until 12 days before we started. Then we said, “We find to find a place for Tom Waits to play. We’ve got nearly two weeks. No problem.”
When you arrived in Austin to attend the University of Texas what did you find?
I came for the music. I knew Austin had an active music scene. I found what I expected and then some. I had visited before and I knew that Austin was the home of Willie Nelson. You don’t need to know much more than that.
You came to Austin in 1979. Was that after the “Cosmic Cowboy” era?
It was just after the “Cosmic Cowboy” era. It was still very much here. Obviously, there was also a blues scene too with Stevie Ray Vaughan and the (Fabulous) Thunderbirds. There was a confluence of different musical styles.
The “Cosmic Cowboy” era was chronicled in Jan Reid’s wonderful 1974 book, “The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock.” It is practically a tourist pamphlet to come to Austin.
It’s funny that you mention that because that book absolutely was critical to me. I read it in high school and thought, “I am going to Austin.”
You also grew up reading Creem, Crawdaddy, Circus and Rolling Stone music magazines?
Sure, absolutely. And some of the guys I grew up idolizing (by reading) were living in Austin then. (Rock music historian/writer) Ed Ward was here writing for the daily (the Austin American-Statesman and later the Austin Chronicle). Lester Bangs was working here with his band. John Morthland has been here forever.
[In 1980, famed rock journalist Lester Bangs traveled to Austin and met a punk rock group named The Delinquents. During his stay in Austin he recorded an album as Lester Bangs and the Delinquents entitled “Jook Savages on the Brazos” released by Live Wire Records. He returned to New York in early 1981. John Morthland has been writing about music since 1969 when he began working as an associate editor at Rolling Stone. He has also been an associate editor at Creem and Country Music magazines. He is currently a contributing editor to Texas Monthly].
The breadth of local talent in Austin over the years has been astounding —Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Fabulous, Thunderbirds. Jerry Jeff Walker, Doug Sahm, Michael Martin Murphey, Kinky Friedman, Steve Fromholz, Billy Joe Shaver, Marcia Ball, Lucinda Williams, and Townes Van Zandt. The city has such a rich musical history.
It has. It’s the capital (of Texas) and it is home to a huge university. Being the capital, it has a transient population. People from all over the state come to Austin and want something to do. At the same time, we also have an amazing songwriter tradition here too.
You became part of an Austin rock music era that included the Wild Seeds, the Killer Bees and the True Believers. Was it an exciting scene?
It was fantastic. Austin was very cheap to live in then. There were all these clubs to play and there weren’t any real regulations. No oversight, nobody paying close attention to (regulations). Also all over town people would have bands playing in their backyards. Sunday afternoon, you’d go to someone’s house and there’d be three bands playing in the backyard. I saw so much great music.
When you worked at Spindletop Records in Los Angeles, were you able to do A&R?
A little bit. The owner Barry Wilson did most of the A&R work. Discovering acts was the part (of the record business) that Barry liked. Making sure that CDs got pressed, got to the distributor and got into stores and were paid for--that was left to people like me.
Was managing a label an eye-opening experience to you?
Oh yeah….big time. Suddenly, there was the awareness that I was part of a business. In fact, it was the first time I had ever heard anyone refer to music as product. And you become very cognizant that it is product. The (business) set-up is to move music along like any other product. You manage inventory and you try to get enough money to come in so you can pay enough out. It is just so strikingly like any other business in a lot of ways. There is an easy temptation to lose sight of the fact that it is music you are selling.
Running Spindletop allowed you to return to Austin when the label moved its operations there from Los Angeles?
Yes. It was kind of an opportunity created for me. But the label lasted maybe a year after I came back.
When I was living in LA, my girlfriend and I went to see a show at McCabe’s with Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. It was one of the most fabulous shows that I ever have seen. At that show, I thought, “I have to get back home.”
You also worked in San Francisco and New York You couldn’t live and work in Austin back then?
As I told you, Austin was really cheap place to live. Part of the reason why it was cheap was there were no jobs. There was no money. I very much wanted to work in music and I believed that New York, San Francisco and LA held great potential employment opportunities for me. And I was right. But I preferred to be around artists and my friends and be a bit poorer in Austin than in those other places.
You were doing sound production?
I was a tour manager and a sound engineer. Most of the Austin bands of that era I did. The Wild Seeds, Doctors' Mob, and the Killer Bees. I also worked with a band out of New York called Winter Hours.
After so many years as a music critic and booking bands at SXSW, can you enjoy a band on its own today as opposed to evaluating it?
Absolutely, I can’t. My favorite bands now, most of the time, are my friends having fun onstage. I can let go of any critical judgment. They are having fun, I am having fun. We’re drinking beer and listening to music. Just taking the pleasure for what it is.
Well you can always listen to world beat or classical as alternatives.
I listen to classical and I listen to a lot of jazz. Jazz, how (the music industry) markets it…ugh! Give me a break.
Labels all want another Norah Jones.
Norah Jones is a lovely artist but she’s not a jazz artist. She’s a pop artist.
Jazz, blues, and country--a lot of musical genres have been watered down in recent years.
People are trying to reach a market and, obviously, it is really hard to reach a market. I don’t fault anyone for making that attempt. But there’s no shortage of great artists today. You just have to look a bit harder. If you are looking for “real country” or “real jazz”--and that’s always an abstraction anyway--but there are people making real art based on those genres. If that is what you are interested in, like me, you will find that music. The music that people are using to support industries and support large numbers of people by necessity, (their music) becomes something else. That doesn’t trouble me. I belong to the Duke Ellington school. There’s only two kinds of music, good and bad music.
Do you missing writing?
Yes, at times I do. But I like what I do. Writing is hard work. At times, the inner part of me loves the discovery of true writing. At other times, I don’t miss the pain of getting to that place. I like having written more than writing. Writing demands a certain degree of solitude that can or can not be an enjoyable place to be. Some times it is not a good psychic place to be.
What was the first record you bought?
The first single I bought was probably “Come Together” by the Beatles (in 1969).The first album I bought with my own money was Glen Campbell’s “Try A Little Kindness” (in 1970).
Did you become a major record collector?
I was a massive record collector. Bad enough that it destroyed a couple of relationships. I was pretty bad.
Did you collect bootlegs in the vinyl era?
Not so much because I’m an audio snob. I hated the sound quality.
Do you have an iPod?
I like the concept of iPods more than the actual usage. I hate the sound of MP3s. I also don’t like headphones. I don’t like to listen to music like that. With an iPod, I can rip (the music) to high quality and I will but I am still listening with headphones. I still have vinyl but I don’t play those recordings often since I have a three year old. Turntables and three year olds don’t mix.
Larry LeBlanc was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.