SXSW Music 2013: A Preview of Coming Attractions

Under clear skies and temps cracking into the ’80s (thanks to the little music festival that could, Denton 35 for serving once again as the bad weather sponge last weekend), Austin prepares for the annual onslaught of artists, industry trade folk, media, and music fans in town for the 27th edition of the South by Southwest Music Conference. With the SXSW Film and Interactive conferences already underway, the metro area is beginning to swell with fresh arrivals from LA, Brooklyn, and all points global. While industry consolidation and fiscal autonomy mean many will be following proceedings from afar, taking advantage of the industry’s newest toy, streaming mobile apps. SXSW still draws scores of aspiring musicians who following in the footsteps of artists of yore, do it old school, harnessing the analog 1.0 version of Kickstarter, soliciting gas money through gigs along Route 66, and contributions from mom, sis and roommates. In our first post, we offer an overview of what to expect this week at SXSW.

The State of the Industry: Break It Yourself

Despite claiming the same spot on the calendar, St. Patty’s week when the University of Texas empties out for Spring Break to be replaced by the gathering of the industry tribes, much has changed about the event, reflecting the fundamental reshaping of a music industry marked by progressive disintermediation, consolidation and narrowcasting that in its disruptive fury manages to simultaneously delight, confound and terrify artists and insiders alike. The direct artist-to-fan experience, through DIY sales and marketing, often a product of necessity, have given way to unprecedented levels of fan-artist participation, from private living room tours, to the much bandied about Kickstarter craze, to the ubiquitous presence of streaming applications in which anyone has a frontrow seat, and anyone in the audience can be a part of the experience. A Passion Pit concert at the Hype Hotel last night featured an example of this convergence, with audience members encouraged to be part of the experience by contributing their individual feeds into a mash-up compilation (an idea the Beastie Boys launched with much success with their “I Shot This” music video piecing together fan clips.

The Significance of SXSW Redux

The annual hand-wringing over the state of the music industry has given way to fresh levels of genuflection, including a research project by one authority over whether SXSW is even worth it, taking the meta self-absorption of the industry to a new high. As far as the extent to which the SXSW Confab is the harbinger of big ideas, the critics may have a point.

At a transition interactive/music industry panel promising to unleash some of the secrets to coping in a disruptive universe, the panelists spent as much time typecasting sectors (advertising is rooted in Mad Men) and muddling along reflecting on a great conference as they went to engaging in the sort of “we are planning to plan” navel gazing that sees an industry adrift. Ironically, the industry is pulling out the steps to fete Amanda Palmer, the multi-talented, cross-genre artist who utilized Kickstarter to raise close to $2 million from fan contributions and who drew rapturous praise at the recent TED talks. Her success runs contrary to, and is in many ways a by-product of the dysfunction of the traditional indentured servitude model that the industry was built on.

In much the way that the industry’s woes will not find much resolution in five days, SXSW as an artist discovery platform is diminished by the practical reality that artists, both established and emerging, are in the business of DIY promotion 24-7, through digital releases of tracks and incessant social media chatter with their fans. Gone are the days when a band comes to SXSW to be discovered by A&R folks, to garner that elusive record deal. And yet, SXSW gets bigger, growing by exponential leaps by an entertainment-industrial state that sees the favorable demographics of a mass gathering of music fans. Many drawn to Austin by the never-ending supply of free day parties, as a prime opportunity to pitch product. In much the way that Orlando becomes the staging ground for an outpost by every restaurant and retail outlet seeking to push products to families, SXSW has become the marketers equivalent to a self-aware hipster audience.

What to Expect at SXSW 2013: End of Days Edition

One’s jaundiced take of the way things were back in 2005, likely pales in comparison to visitors from the ’90s. Did SXSW jump the shark when the day parties moved across I-35 into East Austin? Or did it jump the shark when a camera boom fell on the audience at the OMD show at Stubbs and overcrowding at a number of events lead to tighter capacity constraints and security measures? Locals tend to be surprisingly even tempered and accepting of SXSW’s enormous footprint. Phillip McCarthy, a long-time Austin native and member of local band d.i.g., fondly remembers the intimacy of the first SXSW, “It was just a handful of local artists.” And yet, Phillip and his friends continue to pop in on events, taking a somewhat whimsical view of the festival’s sprawl. On the flip side, Vanessa, a relatively recent Austin transplant from Michigan, drawn by the burgeoning professional opportunities expresses amusement, and a bit of exasperation, at waiting in line for close to two hours to meet Grumpy Cat, only to be turned away eight places from the front of the line.

The sheer number of headlining artists, many of who are making their first appearance at SXSW is confounding. It seems as if artists are in a hurry to make their long-awaited appearance before the End of Days. 2013 will see the traditional this-is-your life keynote, in the past feting the likes of hall of fame level industry titans such as Robert Plant, Quincy Jones, Neil Young and the Boss, to this year’s honoree, David Grohl, revealing the new found mortality of aging Gen-Xers. In what’s certain to go down in the annals of everyone take the stage for that “Grande Finale Scene from the Last Waltz”, David Grohl will be speaking about the Sound City documentary and taking the stage with his all star collection of friends dating back to the Old and Fogerty and cultural touchstones Stevie Nicks and Rick Nielsen.

But if you’re looking for more recent entrants and the wave of cutting edge acts riding the nostalgia wave, 2013 will mark the first appearances by Depeche Mode and Green Day, who are both lecturing, then playing. The projected overflow demand to see these artists is such that SXSW is using a rarely used lottery of music badge holders, deployed last year for Bruce Springsteen and the E Steeet Band’s blowout show at Austin City Limits, for not one, but four shows. To its credit, SXSW wisely resists the temptation to book in demands artists at arenas (unlike CMJ’s use of Madison Square Garden). A select number of badge-holders will get to see the likes of Green Day, Depeche Mode, and David Grohl (and friends) play smaller venues. A fourth lottery is also being held for the much anticipated return of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, joined by British buzz band Alt-J and the indie legend Nick Cave.

SXSW also serves as a launching for artists which use SXSW as a launching point for their spring tour, and to support a new release. Among the notable returnees to SXSW supporting fresh product are the Joy Formidable, Tegan and Sara, Surfer Blood, and Caveman.

For years, SXSW has been the time of the year for Austin to honor its own, through the Austin Music Awards. Last year, one of Austin’s breakout indie artists, Quiet Company, swept major awards, while local hero Alejandro Escovedo brought his good friend Bruce Springsteen on for an impromptu jam, a preview of Alejandro opening for Bruce at a rare small venue show for the E Street Band at the cozy ACL Live. This year, Alejandro and a range of locals including Susan Cowsill, Robin Hitchcock and Grupo Fantasma horns will be playing a tribute to the late Brent Grulke, one of the driving forces behind SXSW.

Taking a page from the awards concept is a new addition to the SXSW lineup, the Woodies Festival, a showcase accompanying an MTV award show honoring artists catering to MTV’s college affiliate, mtvU. The MTV Woodies showcase will feature sets by a number of artists that meet the sweet spot of mtvU’s “music college students love” demographic, including Tegan and Sara, Alt-J, Haim, Joey Bada$$, and the where are they now, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. In the running for the crown jewel award, the Woodie, is a who’s who of 2012 breakout artists: MGK, A$AP Rocky, Kendrick Lamar, Fun, Grimes, Walk the Moon and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes.

SXSW’s continued growth into other creative realms is reflected in a number of innovative events bridging music, film, comedy, performance art and spoken word including a Cirque du Soleil showcase and a People of Letters Salon event featuring Amanda Palmer and friends, including filmmaker John Sayles and husband Neil Gaiman.

More Day (and evening) Parties. Please.

The flood of day parties reached a seeming critical mass several years ago with the massive parallel undertaking of a Pitchfork series of day parties, along with a separate “Mess With Texas” event, and events on the storied grounds of the French Legation Museum, all within a few blocks of one another in East Austin. The non-stop bustle of sideshow events continues apace in 2013. The mass media mogul-music mashup that is SXSW has seen a number of successful day parties put on by pop culture brands.

Rachael Ray shared her passion for music and food life (her hubby John Cusimano is a musician) by putting on a series of fun, quirky events at the Beauty Bar with the likes of then under the radar acts like Mates of State and Holy Fuck, but now throws a much larger event at Stubbs (801 Red River), an event that last year grew unwieldy with long lines and short fuses. This year, her event takes place on Saturday with guests to include an eclectic lineup ranging from Kenny Loggins to ubiquitous hip-hoppers Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Frightened Rabbit, Delta Rae and Eagles of Death Metal. No word yet on whether the Chew crew, or the lies of Paula Deen / Guy Fieri are set to follow suit.

Perez Hilton has taken his annual “One Night Out” evenings to Austin in the opposite direction, opening up events that were once very exclusive and underground to the public and offering revelers who the opportunity to guarantee entry by donating to Perez’s pet causes. In years past, his events have featured eclectic fare ranging from Courtney Love to Snoop Dogg to Liz Phair. This year’s event, at the Austin Music Hall on Saturday night (208 Nueces) benefits VH1’s Save the Music Foundation and GLSEN is scheduled as well for Saturday night and will include the readily available Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Lissie, Paloma Faith, and buzz artist Charli XCX.

While there’s still room for guerrilla marketing parties and events, judging by the scores of costumed mascots and pitchmen dotting the public soapbox that is 6th Street Austin, or the intrepid artists currently double-parked in front of the convention hall, hatchback open, blaring their latest release, SXSW has reached the point where even once out-of-the-box pop up events have become old hat. One of the annual highlights is the Fader Fort, which once again will be setting up shop in at a made to order campus/soundstage/playground just east of I-35. The Fader Fort remains the destination for both a music fan seeking an eclectic playlist which for years has featured the emerging mix-tape artists that have taken the industry by storm, the prospect of surprise artists (drops in by Kanye and P. Diddy in recent years). The party also takes pride in offering attendees creature comforts of an open bar, a carnival like environment, and to partake in the lifestyle aesthetic of Fader’s demographically friendly co-sponsors, which in years past have included Levis and Fiat, and this year will be Converse. This year’s lineup includes the rah rah riotous Ra Ra Riot, CHVRCHES, Solange, DIIV, Sky Ferreira, Delorean and hall of cool, the Afghan Whigs. Expect to see a sea of flash-partygoers taking part in the Harlem Shake, here, and whenever/wherever in Austin that Baauer decides to makes an appearance.

One of the newer, and more inspired events is the Hype Hotel, put on by the Hype Machine, a website that aggregates the army of music bloggers who have revolutionized the manner in which artists, fans, and writers interact. The Hype Hotel party features showcases curated by member blogs such as Gorilla vs. Bear, Yours Truly, and My Old Kentucky Blog and will take place at a centrally located warehouse space at 3rd and San Jancinto and features shows by Ra Ra Riot, Cold War Kids, Foxygen, Austra, Metz, Youth Lagoon, MS MR, Sky Ferreira, Solange, Blue Hawaii and perhaps the crown jewel appearance of an artist at SXSW or the state of Texas, ’80s legends the Specials. Enjoy the complimentary Taco Bell (while it lasts).

Vice Magazine‘s continues with its penchant for edgy fare for a week-long set of events at its Viceland headquarters (401 E. Cesar Chavez), featuring a murderers row selection of artists including the Divine Fits, Japandroids, Waaves, the Joy Formdiable, Icona Pop, Austra, Kendrick Lamar, Black Lips, and Mr. Harlem Shake, Baauer.

One of the more influential blogs has been Brooklyn Vegan, and their focus on putting on no-fuss events that focus on emerging artists, an emerging fixture at CMJ, takes place in 2013 at the old Emo’s (603 Red River), with highlights including the buzz-worthy Metz, Savages, Caveman, Braids, Austra, Doldrums, King Tuff, Foxygen and the Palma Violets. Also vets Robyn Hitchcock, Camper Van Beethoven, and Polyphonic Spree.

A favorite each year for mixing established and emerging artists is the Spin Party at Stubbs (801 Red River St). Years past have seen exposure of veterans such as OMD and Mick Jones/Silicon to an appreciative younger audience, a return from purgatory by Courtney Love, and break out performances by the likes of the Kaiser Chiefs and Bloc Party. This year’s lineup features 2012 breakout Kendrick Lamar, CHVRCHES, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and indie buzz-buzz Parquet Courts.

Pitchfork returns with four showcases, and a couple of day parties at a variety of locations, including the House of Vans on Mohawk and its dedicated space at 1100 Warehouse (1100 E. 5th St) featuring performances by a variety of like-minded 8.1-ers. Artists appearing through the week including Icona Pop, Cloud Nothings, Marnie Stern and Blue Hawaii.

Filter magazine is returning to co-sponsor of a wide range of parties, at a variety of locations including Cedar Street Courtyard (208 W. 4th) and Lustre Pearl (97 Rainey), corresponding to various aspects of Filter’s brand as well as the breadth of artists the publication curates for its Culture Collide Festival. Artists appearing across multiple sites and four days include buzz artists such as Bastille, Charli XCX, MS MR, Foxygen, Autre Ne Veut, Ryan Hemsworth, and Savages, to more seasoned indie vets such as Local Natives, Shout Out Louds, Surfer Blood, Youth Lagoon, Toro y Moi, Delorean, and Unknown Mortal Orchestra.

Finally, for those concerned that SXSW had finally, irretrievably, jumped the shark with its Dorito’s Stage, with the stage set up to replicate a giant Doritos vending machine, be forewarned. Dorito’s is returning, with a stage that is bigger and bolder, 56-feet high, with a tool that allows visitors to control the experience remotely, down to programming curator LL Cool J on what to say or play. The flagship event is Bold School Night, an LL Cool J curated lineup of hip-hop legends that will include Public Enemy, Ice Cube, and Doug E. Fresh. Forewarned is forearmed. Live Mas!


To be perpetuated, discussed and discounted throughout the week. So far, the rumors with legs generating the most buzz are Prince, appearing Saturday night at La Zona Rosa and Eric Clapton, dropping in to a random showcase (or perhaps every showcase), a day before his Sunday night show at the University of Texas Erwin Center.

PopMatters Coverage

SXSW Music swings into full gear on Wednesday. During the course of SXSW music, our team will bring you reports from the field, hoping to offer an impressionistic look into topical issues, industry trends, and memorable moments from the 27th edition of South by Southwest. Tomorrow, we will take a closer look at some of the meatier issues confronting the music industry, as well as a recommended list of emerging artists. In addition, we will bring you a range of snapshot perspectives: from emerging artist, from first timers to seasoned journeyman, industry executive to freelance entrepreneurs, grizzled industry observer to blogger. We encourage our readers, who are in town as performing artists, members of the trade, or fans (aren’t we all fans) to weigh in with thoughts on their experience. For those of you who just want to be entertained (Make Me a Bicycle, Clown!), sit back and follow us online or on Twitter at @PopMatters.