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A colossal vending machine stocked with bags of Doritos towers over the Austin cityscape; a stage the size of a small high-rise. The streets are flooded with the traffic of cars, crowds, street musicians, and press.
Amidst new discoveries, missed performances, and surprising headliners like Tenacious D, the biggest lesson learned from SXSW 2012 is that it isn’t just about being in a band anymore.
Branding, technology, and high prices dominate the event. Based on personal observation and conversations with musicians, promoters, and event organizers, South By Southwest is a major expense of time, energy, and money, with little return.
The annual festival presents itself as an incredible opportunity to learn, network with industry professionals from around the world, and broaden your audience. In the past, musicians wouldn’t play more than one or two gigs. Today, artists at large can be found performing at over a dozen showcases and parties throughout the week. Bands often play multiple parties in a given day, stacking interviews and networking opportunities in between.
Swag and free drinks are what it’s all about. By mid day the streets were swollen with people. By the end of the night, blank faces slouched against buildings as flashing lights broke open crowds of partiers.
In a way, SXSW has rendered other events like it useless. As the front-runner for week long music and film festivals, sponsors would rather benefit from SXSW’s reach than, say, CMJ’s Music Marathon’s in New York. As the money continues to pool in Austin each year, industry professionals and entertainment workers will migrate there as well.
The bigger SXSW gets, the more watered down the experience is for musicians and music lovers. There’s no doubt that SXSW is a valuable asset for the entertainment industry. Yet, South By’s growing party scene and shifting focus toward emerging technologies, branding, and large corporate sponsorship limits their ability to work as a tool for any level of musician or professional.
That said, there is no denying the amplitude of compelling cutting-edge music in Austin each year. It was less easy to plan your itinerary and more easy to stumble upon discoveries. One of the highlights was a Detroit hip-hop showcase at Toulouse on 6th Street. Special guests included rapper One Be Lo and producers Oddissee and Apollo Brown. Roaming around Austin was quite the adventure. On the way to find good barbecue, posters pointing toward a tiny hole in the wall off of the main drag led to a Brother Ali showcase. Ali dropped tracks off of his new album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, and preached to a packed crowd “Occupy EVERYTHING!”. Ali opened up for Minneapolis’ hip-hop collective Doomtree, who’s energetic rap roster includes popular female emcee Dessa. Doomtree was like a party on stage. They turned an Ali-packed venue into a sweat house.
You couldn’t miss Greensky Bluegrass at SXSW. A pack of free-dancing hippies followed them wherever they went. At the second showcase I caught, the upstairs bar was surging with energy and swarming with gyrating bluegrass fans. The crowd erupted as the band ended their set with a fiercely Greensky cover of Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like The Wolves”.
One of the only planned showcases I attended was Nneka’s. Nigeria’s revolutionary bilingual songstress appears exactly as she sounds. Beautiful, humble, and down to earth. Nneka’s music warbles with warmth and slow, rock steady rhythms. Her lyricism reveals that the singer is propelled toward creating art that is both spiritual and socially aware. It is the kind of voice you want to close your eyes to listen to.
My South By Southwest ended with Brooklyn’s 17-piece disco orchestra Escort. They played two showcases and headlined an unofficial party that garnered them Day 4’s performance pick at eMUSIC online. Escort is a classic disco band with a modern edge – fronted by four beautiful women, the band boasts an orchestra that includes multiple percussionists and string performers. The alluringly smooth vocals and funky-fresh attitude of leading front woman, Adeline Michele overflows onto the crowd. Adeline is a siren. She works the audience relentlessly, begging them to dance and reminding them to tell their friends about Escort.
Escort gushes hard-hitting disco that is a slave to good timing. The band’s music builds silently and slowly, housing layers upon layers of sounds and intensifying rhythms. It’s no joke. The entire crowd lost their minds, dancing like teenagers alone in their bedrooms, hairbrushes in hand. Straggling fans hyped the performance they had just seen. “They’re all really talented musicians. They just pumped out disco for an over hour!”
Leaving South By Southwest it was easy to feel both excited and deterred by the experience. Unexpected, remarkable performances also led to realizations about the music industry that were unsettling. The idea of a brand or a marketing campaign has nearly engulfed SXSW. The ball began rolling long ago. Unless change comes from within, there’s little chance of stopping it now.
Photo by Amanda Macchia