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Friday, March 16, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Music

NXNW: Why did North by Northwest fail?

Seattle Times staff writer

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The live music capital of the world is experiencing a population explosion, as it does every year around this time thanks to the South by Southwest Conference.

Rockers, rappers, blues musicians and folkies crowd the streets of Austin, Texas. Record label reps, music industry executives, journalists and diehard music fans seek them out onstage, in bars, on panels. SXSW, as it is known, has made our local scene lighter by 25 bands this weekend, including 764-Hero, the Boom Bap Project, Zeke, the Murder City Devils and Death Cab for Cutie. When the last note dies out, more than 1,000 bands from around the world will have played 50 stages throughout the burg.

There are the lucky few, of course, for whom SXSW can be an enormous career boost. Hanson broke into the music business there without a showcase. Instead the brothers sought out A&R executives and scheduled private performances. Our own Presidents of the United States crashed onto the scene as unknowns years ago, former SXSW employee Louis Jay Meyers recalls. Twelve months later, "they had a gold record on the wall," he said. This is the dream of the music conference.

But here's the reveille blare: Those examples are the rare exception, rather than the rule. From an industry perspective, most conferences share a common problem: They cannot meet musicians' expectations of being "discovered." And they cannot keep up with an increasingly consolidating music industry, bent on manufacturing pop stardom instead of cultivating independent musicians. Most attempts to duplicate SXSW elsewhere have failed, including Portland's North by Northwest, which was called off this year.

"One of the things that's always hard with these music festivals is that part of what comes with them is kind of a fantasy about how the industry works. That you're going to be chosen for this showcase, that people are going to be there and voila!, you're going to be signed to a big contract," said Lisa Lepine, a music-industry consultant in Portland who assisted with North by Northwest. "That just doesn't happen."

Another slap of reality: New York's CMJ conference and SXSW are probably the only large-scale annual conferences the industry can support right now.

SXSW, like any conference for any industry, is a great opportunity for artists. They get exposure to audiences for whom they might not normally play. Artists exchange information and agreements to help one another out on tour. They learn about the major label industry and how to get into it, or how to avoid the pratfalls of a big-wig contract and still make a living.

In comparison, most regional conferences aren't turning a profit or eliciting enough interest to survive, largely because of a lack of support among their home music communities, some stemming from that failed rock-'n'-roll fantasy. Look no further than the demise of North by Northwest in Portland this year for proof.

Barely five years into its existence, NXNW's bloom has faded in the Rose City, and SXSW officials are looking elsewhere to hold the conference.

Chris Walla played NXNW two years ago with his band, Death Cab for Cutie, but chose not to return last year because "it felt like kind of a redundancy. North by Northwest has always felt to me like a shadow of other festivals."

"SXSW is amazing in comparison," he added, "because it's a lot more about the music than it is about industry."

The most concrete explanation for the 2001 conference's cancellation, according to a press release from the end of January, was a withdrawal of support by the festival's biggest local sponsor Willamette Week, an alternative weekly newspaper.

"We don't view NXNW as a failure," said SXSW director Roland Swenson in an e-mailed response. "We remain proud of the programming we put together for those events. And we plan to continue with NXNW."

But NXNW's demise in Portland is part of a wider epidemic striking local conferences nationwide.

The list of casualties is long and varied, affecting large metropolitan areas and small cities around the country. Among them: the Louisiana Music, New Orleans Pride conference (LMNOP), a festival Meyers helped found, canceled for lack of funding and local support. Chicago's Midwest Music Conference and Independent Label Festival also died unceremoniously. Miami's Midem Americas conference, a showcase for Latin and Caribbean music, fell in 1999, in spite of the Latin music explosion. The grandfather of them all, the New Music Seminar, died in 1994 - it had ceased being relevant.

Other regional conferences soldier on with little prosperity. Canada's Capital Music Conference produces less of a wide buzz with each outing. Cleveland's Undercurrents conference is barely alive.

Here, in Seattle, last fall's Rockrgrl Music Conference gives a little bit of hope. Rockrgrl magazine publisher Carla DeSantis, who founded the festival with Meyers, focused on education as well as music celebration.

"At my conference, women talked about their own experience in the industry, how they can work together and how they can do shows. And you know what? A lot of shows came out of this conference," she said.

"We didn't offer this event as a place to get signed. We wanted it to be a place for women to meet other people doing what they're doing, to make their own careers stronger."

Though DeSantis admits a little disappointment about the lack of local community support - out of the 700 bands that applied to be in the conference, few were from Seattle - the conference came out in the black. And it may serve as a blueprint for how the regional music conference as we know it has to change to be successful.

DeSantis plans to run Rockrgrl every other year as opposed to making it an annual event, partly because of all the work it entails, but also to avoid having the festival run its course before its time.

As for the likelihood that NXNW may land in Seattle, retrofitted or not, Swenson and SXSW are remaining noncommittal. "We have been approached by a number of groups in different cities," he said, "and we've told them we won't make any kind of decision (until) after we finish SXSW."

Melanie McFarland can be reached at 206-464-2256, or mmcfarland@seattletimes.com.

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