SXSW: Achieving 'cult artist' status

AUSTIN, Texas -- Of the 2,000 bands and artists at the South by Southwest Music Conference, very few will become pop stars, and the vast majority will remain obscure. Most would be glad to attain "cult artist" status, the double-edged musical life explored in two panels Thursday.

Alongside fellow long-timers with estimable discographies and respectable but hardly mega sales such as Bob Mould and Spoon's Britt Daniel, Steve Wynn of the Dream Syndicate reflected on his decades-long under-the-radar musical life.

Despite the lack of commercial success, it was all worth it, he insisted: "All my favorite bands were cult artists -- the Velvets, the Modern Lovers -- and the chance to do the same thing they did and reach anyone is a great thing."

A panel devoted to the music, life and legacy of perhaps the ultimate cult artist -- Lou Reed -- gave rise to similar sentiments, a sense of a value system taking priority over commercial success. The notion of art as being intinsically mixed with the messier side of business came up only once, near the end of the discussion, when an audience member questioned Reed's decision to appear in an ad for a motor scooter in the 1980s. Reed's former wife and manager, Sylvia Reed, was matter of fact in explaining why the singer might have done it: "Money, I suppose."

But as the panelists took pains to explain, art more often than not trumped all other concerns for Reed. "He was almost like a Japanese calligrapher in his desire for perfection," Sylvia Reed said. "He believed everyone should be like that. This led to some interesting interactions with journalists."

In the '70s, Reed was briefly so broke he was even without a guitar for a while, said his longtime publicist Bill Bentley. Reed's one guiding principle, he said: "Do what pleases you, even if it costs you a career. ... And it nearly did."

The most moving revelation came from Jerry Harrison, formerly of the Talking Heads and Modern Lovers, who read an unpublished Reed poem from the early '70s, "He couldn't find the Voice to Speak With."

In it, the narrator laments his inabilty to convey his true feelings. "In my head are a thousand words for each and every love song."

The truth can be difficult to express. Those who do it consistently aren't always popular, but their work carries weight because of that unflinching honesty. If there was a lesson to be learned from Reed's life, Bentley asserted, that was it.

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