Story and Photos by Andy ArgyrakisAustin- Unless you're a superstar like Little Richard, a buzz band like The Hives or an iconic artist turned speaker like Wayne Coyne, standing out at SxSW is as easy as finding a needle in a haystack. Any independent artist is likely to admit that without the big bucks and resources of a major label, it's not incredibly easy to throw parties, showcases and schmooze shindigs, especially ones that get the key music business suits to show up. But despite the challenges, there's still a handful of indie elite who've managed to make it on the festival's fringe, perhaps not performing at the most prestigious venues and exclusive engagements, but still reeling in supporters from both the industry and Austin community.
One such artist who's continuously expanded her niche is Chicago based singer/songwriter/guitarist Ellen Rosner, who with drummer/percussionist Chuck Harling, made this year's rounds on her own terms. The pair may have started in Chicago playing the House of Blues/Schubas/Abbey Pub/Uncommon Ground circuit, but have since gone national, sharing the stage with the likes of Joan Armatrading, Peter Himmelman, Television, Berlin, Nelly Furtado and dozens of others. Rosner's first two discs (1999's The Perfect Malcontent and 2001's Count to Three) have already racked up significant college radio airplay, along with a spot on WXRT's year end indie album list. Throughout the week, the talented two-piece performed cuts off both discs, along with previews of this summer's Ready Steady Go, proving on numerous occasions a major label deal isn't the only way to make a mark. Here's a snapshot look at how they spread the word grassroots style:
Wednesday, March 17Opening day at SxSW is the most hectic as road weary travelers are checking in for their credentials, getting schedules for the week situated and meeting up with colleagues and friends. Luckily, Rosner and Harling get a bit of that over with by arriving the night before, though there's still lots of information gathering to be done (in addition to a concert double header that night). After some mingling in the convention center and a quick concession stand meal (sit down food is hard to come by when everyone's short on time) the duo converged on local hangout ArtZ Ribhouse. The appearance was part of the SxSArtZ Showcase, an event structured to promote burgeoning talent that may not have yet hit everyone's radar screen. The intimate venue was packed between a mix of concertgoers, drinkers and diners, and although the mouthwatering aroma of smoked meats occasionally overpowered the music, the group earned a respectable reception. "My sticks smell like smoked barbeque," Harling joked following the set, though a late night show prevented the gang from savoring the scents for too long.
A ten-minute van drive across town brought Rosner and Harling to pop minded coffeehouse Ruta Maya International for a showcase of electro/acoustic artists. Due to the prior item on the schedule, they were slated for the finale spot of the evening at midnight. Of course, with several bands and lots of gear, this particular show was backed up and the pair didn't hit the stage until just before 1am. That didn't matter to the venue's faithful, who not only stayed the entire 40-minute set, but also rallied for an encore (fan favorite "The Push") that lasted an additional 10 minutes. After a hurried load out, a few CD sales, plus one last drink, the wheels rolled on to the hotel for some much needed rest.
Thursday, March 18There may not have been a show on the schedule, but that didn't mean it was a day off by any means. Today would serve as a full promotion itinerary, plus meeting and greeting that saw musicians mingling at the convention center and beyond. One way an independent artist can network is by visiting the exhibition hall where loads of vendors, fellow artists and music companies have booths set up with product. Rosner in particular seemed confident at starting up conversations, keeping her introduction succinct and allowing all she encountered to get a word in edgewise. One of the most obnoxious experiences at SxSW is solicitation by annoyance or pushiness, but this networking pro made the rounds with ease, comfort and effectiveness.
However, the main highlight of Thursday for the duo was a visit to the elegant Driskill Hotel where a reception for Filthy Mouth Music took over the grand ballroom. Rosner recently become connected with the organization, which pitches songs to television soundtracks, film scores and commercials. With business cards flying, postcards advertising upcoming shows and friendly rapport all across the board, the event was another step in the right direction for all involved.
Friday, March 19To kick off the first day of the weekend, GoGirls Music (a national female artist collective) sponsored an afternoon reception and panel titled "Making Music Full Time" at The Bayou Lounge. Rosner moderated the event, while successful indie artists like Rachael Sage and Kristin Sweetland offered their observations about all facets of professional artistry. Specific topics included touring, budgeting, recording and staying above water with profits.
Rosner and Harling also linked up with the organization later that evening for the Invasion of the GoGirls showcase at a new area venue simply called Love. Admittedly, the pair was a bit apprehensive pulling up to the tiny, outdoor patio styled stage (which oddly enough was connected to an arts and crafts store of the same name) but their fears were eased upon unloading. Turns out their pre-judgment of what seemed like a makeshift stage was actually rated amongst the best music venues of the year by the Austin Chronicle and it had a loyal fan base that filled up the grounds on a near nightly basis. By show time, the plastic chairs and lawn were loaded, and with the assistance of a beer keg, everyone partied hard until the end of the several hour event. An after celebration was in order at a neighboring bar, but with more meetings and yet another performance to come, Rosner and Harling thought it was best to check in for the night.
Saturday, March 20After sleeping in until just before noon (free of a hangover or smoke stained clothes) the pair decided on an impromptu hotel room rehearsal to practice a handful of new tracks. Come 4pm that afternoon, they had an on air concert and interview slated with 91.7 FM KOOP, one of Austin's best sources for exposing underground talent (somewhat comparable to Chicago's XRT). Rosner and Harling wanted to be especially tight since the airwaves isn't a place where any act can afford mistakes.
Upon arrival, everyone quickly set up their gear, ran through sound check and answered some of the host's pre-interview questions. In what seemed like just a few moments, the group went live on the air, sealed into a chamber of preserved sounds translating with precision to the local masses. The stripped back performance confirms these songs can stand up on their own, even if the assaulting electric feel packed into the other showcases was absent. Following some live previews from Ready Steady Go, the host and musicians engaged in a friendly rapport for about an hour. That may have marked the main event of the day for both Rosner and Harling, but again, that didn't mean the work was over. After debating about whether or not to see Patty Griffin or maybe Graham Parker, the pair turned in early once again, diving straight into their computer database to log in contacts made over the last few days. The free evening also yielded time for email checking, phone calls to significant others and packing for the evening's departure.
Sunday, March 21A 7am wake-up call welcomes the morning and it's hard for everyone to believe that SxSW is already over! Everyone comments how it flashed by in the blink of an eye, but then the conversation turns to what's next on the calendar. Rosner was certainly pleased with the progress made at the conference, but realizes the momentum must keep going on the road. That's why Dallas is slated to take place later that night, then two shows in New Orleans, followed by stops in Memphis and St. Louis. After running around like mad with the band and checking out other shows throughout the week, it's enough to make this reporter's head spin, but it's just another day in the life of these seasoned players. We all hug and wave as the van drops me off at the airport and in a matter of seconds, everyone's on their cell phones planning their next steps. The road is filled with constant activity and can be bit tough at times, but it's the only way to break a band- a fact that tenaciously drives Rosner and Harling as their quest continues...
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