Brent Grulke, SXSW Creative Director, dead at 52

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Grulke at the London Olympics last week

The unexpected Monday passing of Brent Grulke, Creative Director of South by Southwest (due to a heart attack after oral surgery), is a heavy blow for Austin’s music scene. But thanks to his work (and that of the many people who worked with and for him), the city — and the festival — will survive. “The first year I didn’t envision it as something I would be doing 25 years later,” Grulke told the Current in March 2011. “I was the stage manager, making my living as tour manager and sound engineer for bands, and my perspective was different than [co-founder and current managing director] Roland Swenson’s. He had a better sense of what an event like this could be but, for me, it was just another gig, but on steroids.” The festival grew to transcend music and become the biggest music, film, and tech festival in the world. “In the past we had separate film, music, and interactive shows, and [in 2011] we combined all of them because they kept intersecting and we were having more requests to have all those business people closely work with each other.” Yet, the festival’s mammoth size had its detractors. Some (included, at times, this writer) questioned the way in which bands were selected to perform, accusing SXSW of having an air of exclusivity that betrayed its early purpose. But those who know the way in which those bands were selected understand that the main standard used by SXSW in selecting bands is that those bands better had anything to offer. That’s why the festival has shown a continuous growth and, even if intimidating, earned the respect of the music industry worldwide. “What Grulke and his partners did with SXSW over 25 years cannot be dismissed as a glad-handing popularity contest,” wrote Audra Schroeder (a former Austin Chronicle music editor) in the Dallas Observer. “They set the bar for festivals, and people are still trying to catch up to their model.” Grulke was also a key element that allowed for all branches of Latin rock to steadily increase its presence in the festival. “OH BG my heart hurts, my friend, mentor,” tweeted Alicia Zertuche, SXSW’s main link between the festival and the Latin rock world in the Americas and Europe. “Thank you for believing in all of this, in us in me!!” A native of Nebraska, Grulke moved to Austin in the early ’80s inspired by the 1974 book The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock, by Jan Reid. He was a music enthusiast who wore many hats and was able to succeed through passion, hard work, and patience when — in his own words — Austin “sucked” and he had difficulty finding work. “Someone said, ‘Oh, will there be a benefit for him?’” Margaret Moser, a long-time Austin Chronicle music writer, told the Current via email. “‘God no,’ I said. He's one of the few people in Austin music who made a decent living doing what he loved. That's important because we believed in music, it led us to dangerous places and some of us lived to tell those tales and get paid for it. For Brent, his life in music was as all-encompassing as you get — writer, critic, manager, agent, publicist, musician, songwriter, festival booker. Damn. He died with all his toys.” In 1992, Austin’s Geek Weekly published a series of fun, revealing interviews with the staff of the Austin Chronicle. “I think Brent's was spot-on,” said Moser. “Even his assessment of my opinion as basically worthless is great because of what he says to get out of saying it.” You can find those interviews at austinfanzineproject.org, but I’m sharing the whole portion Moser is referring to here because it has no waste. Grulke hit the nail in the head when he basically said (and this applies to any area, not just music), than when all is written and done it’s all about the writing — whatever opinion a music writer has on anything is ultimately irrelevant. “[Margaret Moser has] always kind of been big sister to me,” Grulke said in the Geek Weekly interview. “When I really was even dumber than I am now, Margaret clued me in to a lot of things that I didn’t know about and has always treated me just terrifically. Margaret does memoirs, personal experience, very, very well and has become increasingly good at it. In terms of her opinion and being able to use that opinion to gauge whether you’ll like something or not, I don’t know how reliable I’ve ever found Margaret in terms of that. Instead it [all comes down to whether] Margaret loves something — and in fact, that’s the thing I’ve always looked for in rock writers. First and foremost, you’re a writer. If you can’t write, who cares? If you can write, who cares what your opinion is? I mean, hell, I’ve agreed with about three of [Michael] Corcoran’s opinions musically in my life, but when Michael writes really well, he’s a terrifically entertaining writer. I don’t care what his opinion is, and the fact is that he’s oh so frequently just wrong, wrong, wrong in his opinions.” Besides his work with SXSW, Grulke was a key element for the continuing success of the Austin Music Awards, which is directed by Moser. “To the Music Awards, Brent was a guiding light, a source of advice and support, and occasionally frustration,” Moser told the Current. “But Brent was nothing if not blunt and truthful. I will miss him for the rest of my life. I am completely devastated and not sure what else to say. The worst thing about being in this business is that when your friends die, you don't get to mourn — you have to go to work.” — Enrique Lopetegui  

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