South By Southwest, the annual music conference held here each year to showcase hot new bands and trends, began poignantly Thursday with a wry keynote address from the legendary Ray Davies of the Kinks.
With signature wit, an acoustic guitar and dead-on imitations of Mick Jagger and Johnny Rotten, Davies played the role of pop music's elder statesman. Davies discussed issues ranging from the Internet's role in the industry to where in the heck an old rocker like Davies fits, if anywhere, in the world of Eminem and Britney Spears.
In sport coat and eyeglasses, Davies looked more like a college professor than the guy who wrote the frantic 1960s hit You Really Got Me. But Davies proved he's still filled with a passion for pop. Speaking through music several times, he delighted Kinks fans in the crowd, who bopped their heads and sang along.
Davies said he agreed to be SXSW's keynote speaker last year when he was hard at work recording his first solo album. Surely, Davies figured, he'd be done with the project and could use the opportunity to promote the album.
But art, and the music business, have ways of changing plans. Davies used his personal experience to illustrate the issues he and other musicians are facing.
In making the solo record, Davies said he realized his biggest hurdle was history. A back catalog _ in Davies' case, decades of Kinks hits _ in today's pop world can be a setback.
"It's almost like having a police record," Davies cracked. He explained: today's demographic-driven music executives want artists who can keep doing the same thing over and over. Don't evolve. Don't grow. Just churn out more Kinks hits so you're easy to market.
That's not exactly conducive to artistic development. But, Davies asked, does anyone even care about artistic development these days? Or is it all dollar signs and next big things? And, is any label looking to make big bucks going to encourage a guy like Davies to change his formula?
Davies said he fantasized about using his solo project to explore new musical terrain. He speculated: should he put aside his love of lyrics and singing, and try an instrumental project?
"Maybe that was the great Kinks album," Davies said. "An instrumental one. That would certainly appeal to my brother." The audience laughed. (Ray and his brother, Dave Davies, the non-singing Kink, have a long history of feuding.)
"Music is under assault from all sorts of change," Davies said, citing the Internet's effect on the business, as well as the consequences of label mergers, where only a few labels control the entire industry. Davies wondered if pop music has lost its vitality and appeal to such slick and stringent marketing.
Why, Davies wondered, do folks at home in England seem to listen to the radio for music less and less these days? "They're more interested in talk radio and gardening programs." And in the U.S., why is it that "there are more game shows than music now on MTV?"
Davies knows he doesn't fit in today's teen pop and hip-hop dominated scene. He joked about changing his name to MC Ray and trying to rap. Or perhaps donning a Britney-style headset and giving choreographed dance steps a go. Or, Davies mused, he could go the route of other veteran artists and sing about the rain forest. Even if he were successful, selling tons of albums, Davies said, the award the industry would bestow on him would be a Granny, not a Grammy.
Davies sympathized with record labels. Back in the 1970s, when he was trying to run his own woefully unsuccessful Konk label, Davies realized the power of trends and marketing. His bright idea was signing horror movie actor Vincent Price to Konk, thinking it would be fun to have Price record spooky novelty tunes, to read Edgar Allen Poe over music by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. A maverick idea, Davies recalled, laughing, and ultimately doomed in the age of Elton John and ABBA.
Still, Davies joked, if he owned a label today the first artist he'd sign would be somebody like Ralph Kramden of The Honeymooners. Why?
"He's working-class, white, and slightly bigoted," Davies said, alluding to rapper Eminem and other contemporary artists who make big bucks off hate lyrics.
Davies strummed his guitar, playing a few bars of the Kinks hit Come Dancing, the nostalgic tune about nights at the local dance hall, to illustrate the ever-changing pace of pop. He sang the chorus about "how they did it when I was just a kid," and wondered if, as a Kink, he had a hand in eliminating dance halls. Funny, he said, now he too has been rendered obsolete.
But, Davies said, it pays to have your finger on society's pulse.
The most successful record label talent scouts have the shortest attention spans, he joked. Davies advised the musicians in the audience who want to represent themselves that today they must "have the patience of a 3- or 4-year-old."
And for those who trust their fate and artistic careers to the suits at the record labels? "Beware the record executive who doesn't know how to tap his feet."
Ultimately, Davis spoke for all musicians who love the craft more than tracking how many units they've sold.
"So where do I fit in? Well, I don't think I ever have, so why start now?"
If he's unfashionably old-fashioned, so be it.
"I want to make music for an audience," Davies concluded, "not a demographic." That's, after all, how they did it when he was just a kid.