SXSWhen?: No Age’s Randy Randall reflects on a year without shows and live music’s uncertain future

Written by Andrea Domanick

It’s been one year since concert venues and music festivals have indefinitely closed their doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the music and culture sector, the cancellation of Austin’s annual South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in March would be a harbinger of the crisis to come. The event marks the start of the all-important spring-summer festival and touring season, as its music portion showcases rising young talents. With the decline of physical album sales, the festival doubles as the economic backbone for artists and behind-the-scenes workers, from managers to caterers to venue owners, who make it all run. 

SXSW’s music festival returns March 16-20 as a virtual international event. Though it signals a proverbial light at the end of a tunnel, its digital comeback also illuminates the long and uncertain road to recovery as venues await reopening and the industry reemerges into an increasingly digital landscape. 

Each day this week, KCRW will be spotlighting different artists playing SXSW 2021 alongside other workers in the live music world. They all reflect on the past year and share their predictions for the future. 

Randy Randall is no stranger to SXSW. As the guitarist for LA noise rock duo No Age, he has performed at the festival at least half a dozen times. With acts playing upwards of 10 sets a day to crowds of potential new fans and powerful industry players, it’s an opportunity rife with organic encounters that can change a band’s life. Randall knows this well, as  SXSW helped No Age meet its first booking agent and land a record deal with iconic alternative label Sub Pop. 

Five No Age albums, countless tours, and one solo record later, nothing could prepare Randall for the havoc wreaked upon the music world over the past year, during which he grappled with the cancellation of an international tour, the shutdown of a record pressing plant, and a studio break-in. 

As he returns to SXSW this week, he’ll debut as a solo artist with a live improvised set of ambient guitar and pedal music, all performed on an LA freeway overpass.  

KCRW speaks with Randall about the challenges he faced as a musician over the past year, the ongoing role of events like SXSW, and the future of touring.

KCRW: What was in store for your career last year before the pandemic hit? 

Randy Randall: “We had had a No Age album due out that June called ‘Goons Be Gone,’ and had been planning promotion, marketing, and booking summer and fall tours of the United States, Europe, and Japan. Those were all in the process of being worked on, and getting holds and building schedules that would work around the release of the record. It was going to be a big year for us.

We had already been working on a follow-up record to that, so when everything hit, we thought we’d just keep working on that and wait and see what happens. The canary in the coal mine was the record plant was closing down. The production of the vinyl record wasn't going to be out on time. That was huge in understanding how delayed everything would be, that this wasn’t just delays in touring or cancelled festivals, but that it went all the way down to the supply chain. No one was even in the factories, no one was making records.” 

For you and your peers, what does recovery look like or mean to you? 

“A lot of people are contemplating that now. Ideally, for me, recovery means the ability to play multiple shows back to back. If we were able to book, say, three, five, 20 dates in a row in America, that would be a huge step back to the life that we were living prior to quarantine and the lockdown. Maybe that's still pie in the sky. I think it could be a while. It’s not a secret that everyone from small, independent, D.I.Y. bands like us to large bands like the Rolling Stones, they make the majority of everyone's income from live shows and selling merch, and not from album sales.”

There have been a lot of unprecedented conversations about pay and labor in the music industry this past year. Going forward, do you think live music will continue to be that primary revenue stream? Or might there be artist-led safeguards put in place?  

“I have hope, but for a band our size, the streaming sources have been seen as some kind of necessary evil. It's a feeling like, whatever pennies we can get are better than nothing. I would be reticent or pessimistically optimistic to think, ‘Hey, that'd be cool. That could happen.’ But I don't know what the reality of that kind of stuff is.

However, one big thing that's come to the aid of a lot of musicians has been Bandcamp as a site, and their Bandcamp Fridays, where the first Friday of every month they've forfeited their percentage. It's been a huge rallying cry. You start seeing the community all over the globe pop up to support artists directly. We’re seeing great benefits from that, and have also been able to use it to tack on additional revenue streams like selling T-shirts. It’s also prompted us, in this time of sitting on our hands a lot, to create things like limited edition and one-off merch ideas from our archives, for example, selling old bootleg T-shirts, reprinting a zine we had, and even selling off old equipment.” 

You found success through LA’s D.I.Y. scene and small independent venues like The Smell. Will they survive this? What do you think the LA music scene will look like when it returns?

“A lot of people are using this Roaring ’20s metaphor, that the second things open up, everyone's just going to lose their minds and be out at bars all hours of the night. And I think that bodes well for live music. 

From the musician side, everyone has kind of been stewing. It was a big reset button. I think there’s probably 80 to 500,000 albums that are all going to drop as soon as we get the sense that touring is going to happen again. It’s going to be an explosion of new music. But the repercussions of this thing are going to be interesting. 

Venues that have been bought up by companies like Live Nation, like The Echo and The Regent, for good or bad, are going to be able to withstand this, because they have a larger wealth of corporate funds to draw on. But places like The Smell, even in the best of times, have always kind of been teetering month-to-month. It often feels like it’s only a matter of time for The Smell and similar spaces, if they haven’t already had to shut down. Where will they emerge next?” 

How do you think that will play out going forward?

“With a lot of independent, really small, D.I.Y. all-ages venues, it's not so much about the prospect of making money, but it's serving the need of the community. They're gonna go somewhere, there has to be something. With the necessity of communities yearning to congregate together and share ideas and their creative output, going to burst through the seams of the cracks in the sidewalk? It's going to happen, because you can't really stop that. What it looks like, I've got no idea, but I want to be there.”

With the shift to streaming and the virtual landscape, do you think big festivals and industry events like SXSW will continue to have the same influence and relevance for the industry and beyond? 

“It’s an interesting beast. I feel like every year there’s talk about how it’s ‘not like it used to be.’ The feeling I got from attending SXSW even in 2015 is that what we experienced in 2007 had become kind of rare. And I think that’s because stuff had already started to shift online and social media had exploded. 

Now, the digital footprint of an artist, and especially an emerging artist, is so much more of a factor. I feel like what happens now is that you can get a sense of how an artist is going to do just through their social media footprint, whether that's followers, or who their friends are, or what's happening and what the buzz is online. I think that what people used to be able to take away from a physical show, just being able to be there and meet them, is now acceptable to be done online. I wouldn't be surprised if there’s a very structured way that promoters, booking agents, and record labels approach emerging artists now. There may be people who put out records with labels that they've never met the owner of.”

Randy Randall performs virtually at SXSW March 16-17 as part of the Dedstrange showcase.