Louis Black

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Louis Black speaks and we listen. He is an inspriation. He reminds us to fight for what we want to create, leave the excuses at the door, shed the fear and be prepared for just how many people are going to be pissed at you for doing that. Here he weighs in on the ups and downs of living the dream.

How he feels about unofficial SXSW events and day parties…

I will be perfectly honest, there are some events that I don’t like because either they bring in bands that aren’t playing SXSW or in some cases they cherry pick. We announce that a band is going to be playing at SXSW, everybody gets excited, they go and offer their management a ton of money and we lose them. It’s almost pointless to explain this again and again because the people negatively react because they don’t really want to hear our point of view. Most of the day parties don’t bother us at all—that’s great; I love the day parties; I love to watch the day parties. People act like we are out to close all the day parties. We do nothing to 90% of the day parties and if anything, we actually help them. We stage a ton of events but we also help other events all the time. What bothers us is when multi-national corporations and national corporations fly in name bands for private parties–that I don’t like. When a national corporation rents space close to the Convention Center and puts up their logo so that the sponsors that are helping to pay for all this get pissed, I don’t like that either. This could really screw us in the long run. Those are the two things I don’t like.

As for SXSW bloggers…

At one point half the submissions I would get would be Hunter S. Thompson-esque. You know, shitty Hunter S. Thompson, but they were really excited. Now I think it’s the Rush Limbaughs and the radio talk show guys. They are condescending haters and they tell you how smart they are and are really nasty. You know I’ve been a film reviewer on and off for years and I can tell you, writing negative reviews are the easiest thing to do. Writing positive reviews can be difficult, and writing mixed reviews can be the most difficult. I expect the feedback; I expect the negativity. I’m a little disappointed in how overwhelming it is. A lot of these people don’t know how hard people are working for them to have a good time.

And the comments they recently made about Roland Swenson…

One of the blogs said, “SXSW was great until Roland took over.” Roland started it. There were four of us that started it but Roland and Lewis Meyers were the creative ones and Nick and I were the logistic facilitators. Roland, the Carl Rove look alike comment, I mean come on. He grew up in Texas and spent a lot of his high school years living here. Well look what this guy has done. He’s the visionary. To have to get that kind of crap…

Accepting the explosion of Interactive media…

It freaked me out a little bit because a lot of us met as film graduates so theoretically, I thought that was the revolution. Interactive was the little stepchild of SXSW. It was first about CD ROMs and then it went away and then it was something else and that went away. What it is now is the bloggers and the visionaries—the hardware and software people who are going to be names in the news next year. It used to be they would go to those huge trade shows but that’s not who they are. In the early days, my line was, “The reason why SXSW works so well in Austin is because it’s so easy to get laid.” I don’t only mean that, I mean it’s easy to meet people. People meet and become friends for life. The first year we did film, a guy named Dewey Winburn who is dear to all of us came to us and said, “You should also do new media.” So the first year we did film, half was for film and half was for interactive. The second year they were two separate events and it had good years and bad years but about 4 or 5 years ago it really began to come into its own. Dewey killed himself, unfortunately. I think it was the people who really wanted to think, and talk, and listen and didn’t care about the money began to come. This year is way ahead of last year and last year was way ahead of the year before and I really believe it’s Austin. They go to parties in Austin they have a great time. Panels and workshops do very well for film and music but for interactive they do insane. That’s why they are here.

That he’s an asshole…

I used to be much more of an asshole than I am now—a statement I shouldn’t make as much as I do, but I used to be a lot crazier than I am. And to some extent, fine, I’ll be the asshole. Say what you want about me. I’ve gotten to do more cool stuff than almost anybody I know and just totally great stuff. I produced the Townes Van Zandt film which was just a privilege and I’ve worked with Margaret (Moser) on her new film, The Order of Mist which I love. We just showed at Sundance. I don’t like being the villain but I’m used to it. I’ve been the villain forever. I don’t know how we became these bad guys but I can live with it.

That he’s only in it for the money…

I’m just going to get really defensive: I love Austin music, I love Austin film, I work all year round to support Austin music and film and I’ve been doing it for over 30 years. And I did it when there was no money in it at all and we didn’t think there was going to be any money and we certainly didn’t think we were going to make any money doing SXSW in the beginning—we did it because we loved it. The truth of the matter is, any time I’ve ever tried to do anything for money, I’ve always screwed it up. We are just so terrible at making money. The weird thing is the thing we did for love–and it took a long time–finally made some money. There are 50 full time employees year round. By the time the event kicks in their will be hundreds of people on the payroll. The Chronicle, which is Nick and I, we give over ½ million dollars a year in advertising to nonprofits. The people, who say that we are only in it for the money, think we are the Machiavellians to the extreme. If we were in it for the money and that Machiavellian we wouldn’t be doing a music festival. We would be flipping land. There has never been a line where I say, “I’m not going to do this unless I make money from it.” I’m not kidding; I do what I love. And I’m more surprised than anybody that the Chronicle and SXSW ended up making money. And in both cases, the staff is taken care of, there is a 401 plan, there are benefits, there is vacation. If someone breaks an arm or a leg and uses up their sick time they still get paid until they come back to work. We literally do it the way that we think is right. The bottom line is when I go home tonight, I’m going to listen to music, and I’m going to watch DVDs as I do almost every night. Currently I’m very hooked up on Carbon/Silicon. Someone asked me how the CD is and I said, “When I stop just listening to the first song I’ll let you know.” I can’t tell you how excited we get about a piece of music that we all dig.

I’m a little worked up about this. There is tons of misinformation. There’s a lot of antagonism and then they keep saying, “Well since we are all in agreement we must be right.” And then people write, “I don’t give them any money I just go to the day parties.” That’s great. Our problem is the clubs are overcrowded. I’m thrilled. Don’t give us any money. Go to the free shows we do, go to the day parties, don’t go to the clubs at night. That’s fine. You’re not hurting us. If we were not making any money and it was working we would still do it. We still did it when we weren’t making any money. If what we did stopped working, in terms of the dynamics, not the money, we wouldn’t do it. Money is not our motivation.

I would gleefully say, “Mea culpa, that I’m only in this for the money”, but it’s just not true.

And that they sell a limited number of wristbands so they can make more money

Excuse me, we try and keep the wristband price down. We have enormous costs that nobody ever figures out. They say, “$160 and they sell 14,000 they must make X amount of money.” We sell 4,000 wristbands the other wristbands go to bands or elsewhere. Everybody takes the top price and multiplies it against the top number. Somebody had us making 24 million in the first year. In the course of the event, over 12, 15 years the total was 24 million. That we try and make it difficult to know when we are going to sell the wristbands: we don’t want scalpers. People think we do this because we want to torture Austinites. Hey, let’s fuck with them. Let’s make them really miserable. We only sell two per person. We want to get as many wristbands to music fans as possible. That’s our sole purpose.

And that they rip bands off to make more money…

People keep saying that we are ripping the bands off. Last year, 8,000 bands applied. This year 10,000 bands applied. If you think this event doesn’t work and we are ripping the bands off then you think musicians are pretty goddamn stupid. And I don’t. Who thinks that these bands are so stupid that in some way we are taking advantage of them? It works for them. Why is almost every British act that is trying to come to the states, one of the first and most important gigs is SXSW? Is this because we have got the Brits fooled? There is a dynamic to this thing that seems really obvious to me. 1,700 bands come here. 1,700 bands don’t come here to play for Austinites. They come to Austin because this is the one place in terms of independent music—it’s record stores, it radio stations, it’s publications, it’s the entire European music press, most of the American music press is here also. This is one place where you can play and it’s economical because of who you can reach. And I happen to think given the number of bands that apply and the number of important people in the music business year after year, who want to come to SXSW, it works.

That SXSW hurts local businesses…

Unlike every major music event in the world, pretty much, we’re in the clubs. We are going to have 78 stages this year. I go and talk to retail businesses all over town and they don’t usually know who I am, and I say, “How was business?” And everyone says that they had a great week. Most events take place in a large area, like ACL, and most of that money goes through one organization. I’m not knocking it, ACL does a brilliant job, I admire those guys enormously and I go just to admire the logistics of it. They book great. We’re in the clubs and for a lot of clubs this is the best weekend of the year for them. We used to hear how clubs stay alive for months off of SXSW and we were thrilled about that.

That rumor about calling the Fire Marshall to shut down the parties…

I was one of the people responsible for giving the list to the Fire Department because every year I have said to the city I’m concerned about day parties. I don’t want to close them I just think, I go to some of these and they are unbelievably unsafe; I’m scared someone is going to get hurt; please check them. This notion that we deliberately want to close parties is crazy. The notion that we can tell the Fire Marshals what to do is ridiculous and the notion that we are out to get these specific parties is ridiculous. We gave them a list of 80 parties printed out because they asked for them. Some people say that if you give them any name of a party they have to investigate it which I don’t think is true because I don’t think they investigated all 80 of them. We also give them a list of every event we do. We get together with the Fire Marshals way before. People online are saying, “Well we are going to give them a list of your events.” They are already getting them. It’s in our best interest to be safe. When I say this, everyone says, “Oh yeah, right. You care about safety.” Last year the balcony at the Elks Lodge in South Austin collapsed. Thank God nobody was hurt—it was not our event. I’m scared that something is going to happen.

The other rumor, the was responsible for having the permit changed…

Conspiracy theory goes: we were responsible for this change in permit; the city didn’t tell anybody and we f**ked everybody. We gain nothing by closing those events. I didn’t know about the change in the permit. From what I understand the permit change came as a result of the fraternities. We didn’t know anything about it. My concern, honest to God, is safety.

And, that SXSW used to only be about unsigned bands…

I was at the God damn meeting before we did the first one where we said it’s not going to be just about unsigned bands. If you look at the 125 acts that play, some of them might have well been signed to major labels but some of them were signed to indie labels. It was never about unsigned acts, it was never about Austin acts, it was always supposed to be supporting regional and independent music. It started off being about regional music—we were going to cover 6 states. Within a year it was national and international and I think we benefit from it. Who suffers because 500 bands from around the world are coming?

That Austin bands get screwed by SXSW…

I think the Austin bands have a legitimate point. If I was in an Austin band and I wasn’t picked, I would say what assholes we were. I’ve done enough of judging that I know that there is a certain arbitrary nature to it. My favorite short film in the last few years was a film a friend gave to me and I said, “Why didn’t you submit that to SXSW?” He said, “I did. It got rejected.” It’s going to happen. Good music is going to slip through. When you are listening to over 10,000 bands you are going to make mistakes. Mistakes happen. But more often than not, it really works. The thing about Austin bands is that they bitch and whine. Austin music is not just SXSW. It’s also Waterloo Records; it’s Austin City Limits, the TV show; it’s Austin City Limits the music festival. Austin music goes out to the world now. When I read the British Music magazines I see Explosions in the

Sky. There are always bands that I have never heard of. I know that SXSW really works for lots of bands. One of the differences is you are on a bill with five other or four other bands. I would bet half of the most important effect is if you are a hot band and you have only played one little part of the country and these other musicians get turned onto you and they start spreading the word–that’s how the word spreads. We always give grief to the music festival staff because they always end up booking more bands because they just love so many. I truly believe that Austin acts that don’t play SXSW but play one of the day parties that’s great—that’s the whole idea. I see bands advertised from Austin all the time that I know are not from here. In England, you see ads all the time that say Austin. Obviously the talent is the most important and if all together this community has created this notion that you should check something out that comes from this town, that’s great. Sure, Seattle had it for awhile, and Portland had it for awhile, and Omaha has it—which is great–but in Austin it’s generation after generation. I just wish these people appreciated that. It’s a miracle what goes on here.

His favorite SXSW moment…

My favorite time is Saturday because by then anything that was going to go wrong has gone wrong. I’ll always go stand on the street, usually Red River sometimes Sixth Street, for about an hour and just watch the people go by. Watching the fans, they look like they have died and gone to heaven. People are grinning and they are running and it kind of counter balances all the other stuff. So what I dig is the whole jazz of the event. I love the fact that all year now I’ll read in a magazine or I’ll hear about “Well this happened at SXSW” or “I met this person at SXSW” or “They broke at SXSW”. It used to be Austin–it is still Austin–all we did was took what we loved about Austin. We are very faithful about that.

What he thinks about the future of SXSW…

I will tell you in my heart I worry about the future of SXSW. If somebody starts cherry picking bands it could be the end of SXSW. It’s been going on for awhile and we are very militant about it. This is the reason: I won’t mention the club but a couple of years ago one of the clubs that is very close to us said, “We are booking this well known band and they are going to play midnight to two all five evenings of SXSW. So you can have the club from 8 to midnight but starting at midnight we are going to have this band.” The first thing 1,000 band members are going to do the next morning is call up their manager and go, “Why the hell doI only get to play one set for this amount of money when I can be doing that?” What people really don’t get is we work all year round to recruit bands, recruit speakers, and bring people to town.

And the future of Austin…

In the 90s the Chronicle was vehemently against growth and yet all the high tech people were coming and getting bundles of the Chronicle because when they recruited people to move here they would show what was going on in this town. Then after SXSW all the real estate agents would get them. Yes, we were enablers. In 2000, it was the high tech boom year and there were so many people here that could have been anywhere they just knew that this was the event to be at. One thing I always say about celebrities or VIPs of any sort is that if they know where they are then they are cool. What’s remarkable is how many people come here to hang out. 2000 was the one year that it really was like Sundance. I hated it. It made money, but it has a totally different feel and was totally depressing. Then of course in 2001 everything fell apart so we had one of the worst years economically. I got my comeuppance for hating it but it actually came back and I would see the people on the streets who love music.

As for Austin as a whole…

I love this city. When people say, “They are just as dependent on Austin as Austin is on them”–I know that. Whenever anybody asks me, “Why does it work?” I tell them: because it’s in Austin, Texas and what goes on there goes on every day of the year here. There is always cool bands, there is always cool things going on. It’s not as intense but it’just Austin with a multiplier. I’ve worked with film and music nonprofits—I helped start the Austin Film Society. So yeah, I’m defensive because this is all just so silly. I’m defensive because this is such an extraordinary event—and it’s not just us. We couldn’t do this without Austin. Have you ever heard me say anything otherwise? What I love is, if it’s a benefit or if somebody needs something, there are clubs I can call, bands, and it’s, “What do you want? What do you need? What night do you need the club?” It isn’t“Well maybe, maybe not.” This has happened time and time again. Tthis happens, not once a year, but once a month. And there is still nothing like it. This is an amazing town and if you care about stuff you get to do it. Not everybody succeeds, not everybody makes money at it, there have been truly gifted musicians that didn’t work out, but the amount of talent in this town that has ended up becoming nationally and internationally known is magic. There is no film scene in the world that I know of that is like the film scene here.

The Chronicle is free and the Austin Daze is free. When I get the Austin Daze I take it home and I get into my bed and I read it. I’m going to find out what is going on. That’s why I have always supported it. I love that this is a town where there is so much of that activity. I really think in this community there is no excuse not to do what you want to do. If you bring some element of quality you are going to get some recognition. You may not make money, you may not be able to make a living off of it, but you’re going to get some kind of feedback because there is the

Austin Daze and there is the Austin Chronicle.

And in the end…

If there was no negative reaction, I would be shocked and concerned. I’ve worked 30 years supporting bands. I get so excited I still overwrite for page 2 sometimes because I get that excited. I buy CDs of Austin bands and send them to film people. Stuff has ended up on soundtracks because I’ve sent it. I love Austin music. It is a privilege and a blessing to do what I do. Everybody that works here feels the same way. They have had arguments where I thought they were going to hurt each other because somebody wanted to take a band that somebody else didn’t like. It’s about passion. I pulled up the other day and one of our film editors was standing in the driveway and I said, “How are you doing?” He said, “I’m basking in the glow of a great movie.” I know what that feeling is like. There’s nothing like the jazz of when you hear some new music or you read something or you see a film, it just blows you away. I still get to do that. Come to the Chronicle, we are swapping CDs and films with each other. Nobody is showing checkbooks. But we’re not going to change anybody’s mind. I was a kid once; I was a punk. I used to hate the fact that guys in blue jeans in the back of the club controlled the music. Now I’m one of those guys. I don’t wear blue jeans but I’m at the back of the club and we control the music. I’m lucky. And I still love it. The bottom line is our lives are a gas.***

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