Austin, Texas — Taking witty, informed aim at a number of targets including the music business, the death penalty, landmines and oppression of the poor, Steve Earle delivered a focused, succinct keynote address to begin this year’s South by Southwest music conference.
Past speakers at the annual event have mixed music and commentary. Earle left his guitar at home, instead delivering a prepared speech from behind a podium. The 42-year-old singer, songwriter, producer and record company owner is a 25-year veteran of the music business. He drew on his experiences to make points about the challenges facing artists today.
Earle recalled that his first publishing deal paid him “the princely sum of $75 a week in exchange for 100 percent of my publishing and control of my copyrights until hell freezes over.” His most recent album, The Mountain, recorded in collaboration with bluegrass musicians the Del McCoury Band, was Earle’s ninth studio album and the first that he owns and will always own, he said. His next release, Transcendental Blues, scheduled for release June 6 on his E-Squared label, marks the first time in his career he will hold 100 percent of the publishing on his own songs.
Consolidation in the entertainment business has produced a situation in which “about four corporations” are responsible for decisions in the music world, he pointed out. Philosophically — and humorously — Earle reasoned that the development has a positive side, since it “makes it easy to figure out where those [guys] are. I like all my snakes in a basket, where I can see ’em.”
But Earle went on to say he feels grateful for the money record companies and music publishers have invested in him, his career and his record label. “What have I got to bitch about?” he asked. “I make a stupid amount of money for doing something that I would do for free.”
Turning to social issues, Earle seized the opportunity to speak out against the death penalty. “While most of us were checking into our hotels yesterday and picking up our credentials, this state, my home state, was killing a man a couple of hundred miles to the northeast, and they were doing it with our money,” he said.
Earle also railed against landmines and U.S. resistance to signing a treaty banning the weapons, and in support of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, which advocates for housing, health care and food for the poor.
“Please don’t take anything I’ve said today on my word alone,” he said in conclusion. “Go out and find out for yourself the facts about the death penalty, landmines and welfare rights, and just be aware. Then, with your eyes and your ears wide open, go out and hear some bands.”