The normally press-shy David "Boche" Viecelli, president of powerhouse indie touring agency Billions, made a rare speaking appearance at Boston's Rethink Music Conference on Tuesday to talk the perils of an over-branded South by Southwest and the dangers of diluting acts' touring power at this year's Coachella.
As a booker for acts like Arcade Fire, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, St. Vincent and others (Billions also represents Bon Iver, Neko Case and Death Cab For Cutie), Viecelli had many choice words for the state of the 2012 festival circuit -- "Let's admit that South by Southwest had nothing to do with music" -- and the brands that pervade it -- "Can you imagine Arcade Fire playing in the giant Doritos stage? I can't." Below are excerpts from his conversation with Billboard.biz following his 20-minute presentation.
Billboard.biz: What was your take on this year's South By Southwest? Was the presence of major acts like Bruce Springsteen, Eminem, Lil Wayne and Fiona Apple ultimately too distracting for developing acts to break through?
David Viecelli: I think the acts we had there did fine, but it's true this giant engine runs supposedly on the idea that it's about music and people. Bands bust their ass to get down there, then they have their big break because of everyone that's there -- the music industry "found" a bunch of musical heroes. I can't recall the last time where two weeks after South by Southwest, everybody was raving to me about the same band. The way [SXSW Film Festival] has blown up and with all the money pouring in with [SXSW] Interactive, bands are kind of an afterthought. I'm wondering if we get to a point where SXSW is a bunch of lasers and logos everywhere and you just get in there and get drunk for awhile.
One could argue that already happened this year. Is South By still good for bands?
Viecelli: It is when you have a quality environment. The reason we've held onto [the annual Billions] Antone's showcase is because it's a proper venue. But otherwise, bands get presented there in such horrible environments - slammed up onstage with no line checks and lousy PAs in many cases - a lot of substandard production people. I've seen ones that just didn't happen because things were so screwed up. That obviously is a huge, huge problem … St. Vincent a couple years ago -- when we had her down there she played two shows. Two, not eight. Two good ones: a label showcase at the Presbyterian Church and the Billions show at Antone's. Those things, people knew they needed to see. When a band plays 10 times, people look at schedule, realize they have conflicts and think, "Oh, I can see them later" -- and then they never go. You just need to have two really good shows so that people schedule around that one.
What about Coachella this past week - was the new two-weekend approach good for bands?
Viecelli: Annie [Clark, of St. Vincent] really ruled it, Bon Iver really arrived as a festival act. I was watching online -- I wasn't out there but many people at my company were. I'm trying to convince myself I've gone to my last Coachella. If we had a headliner I would be there but it seemed like a good year to take a year off…I don't love the double weekend. I love Paul [Tollett of Goldenvoice], and in general there's no festival I respect more than Coachella.
I understand why they did [two weekends]. They're paying acts 150 to 180% of what one weekend would be, not 200% [Note: Tollett had not responded to Billboard.biz's request for comment at press time, but he recently told Billboard that the festival ended up paying acts double the single-weekend rate], and the production costs were probably divided by 15% that second weekend, so it's huge money. It's not like they're making twice as much, they're making 2,3, 4 times as much, so it's huge. The way I don't think it works from their perspective is you're trying to make your festival stand alone as a singular event and experience. Now you're just doing the same thing twice - it was weird.
Some of our artists were able to play shows in between, but a lot of things underperformed. St. Vincent and Tune-Yards teamed up for four shows around Coachella, [Tuesday was] the last of them at the Fox in Oakland. We sold that out at 2,900 but we struggled to get to 900 at House of Blues in San Diego. We sold out the 800-capacity Glass House in Pomona only two days before the show…But even in Tucson we had a bill of Bon Iver and Feist that was only at 1,800 tickets a week out.
You're also not a big fan of sponsored pre-sales for shows and tours, though you did make an exception for "American Express: Unstaged" with Arcade Fire in 2010. What's the issue with those programs?
Viecelli: A lot of the bank stuff gets done by rote -- the AmEx pre-sale, Citibank, those things are a bad look and we talk about it a lot. When a manager or an artist really wants to do it, I won't argue hard against it. If my opinion is asked, I'll say I do think there are some people that will feel its somehow distancing for you to be aligned with something like that. The more you continue to offer preferential treatment to people who are better off financially, at what point to do we arrive at something like where professional sports are? The working dude who can't take his family to the ballgame at some point is pushing people out of the building. I worry if you're not the right person with the right place with the right money, you get access and if not you don't. It's hard to find ways to access that sometimes, the money those people bring to the table can be useful. Usually with things like the AmEx stuff, those are often no net for the artist - if they spent all this money marketing the show and we're willing to do what they're doing, there's otherwise nothing that goes directly to the artist. In a of cases it's not even that, the promoters are getting all the money from the financial company.
So what festival, if any, are you personally looking forward to this year?
Viecelli: Sasquatch. You usually see far less industry people there, it's basically eight people from Billions and two agents. It's a great place to just enjoy the music.