The Anti- SXSW: A Festival for the Disheveled at Couch By Couchwest

A no-cost counterpoint to SXSW one can enjoy at their leisure, Couch By Couchwest is a festival where the beer is cheaper and the only hipster is you.

After last year’s takeover of South By Southwest (SXSW) by Justin Timberlake and Prince you could hear the collective groan across the social media when Apple announced its plan to bring its iTunes Festival to SXSW this year.

Now entering its 28th year, SXSW is without a doubt the premiere festival for the music industry. Once a regional outpost for in-state acts and musical hopefuls, SXSW is now listed amongst the “50 Most Innovative Companies” by Fast Company. Looked to by corporate marketers aiming to build brand cachet with tastemakers, the festival hosted 2,278 bands across five nights in 2013, most paying to play what the company deems “one of the biggest global music market places in the world”.

With more than 76,000 people attending SXSW, one would think an audience for new musicals acts would be easy to find. Yet the math dictates otherwise. With hundreds of bands performing each night – most of which are relegated to playing upstart showcases – the audience wanes when badge holders clamor for the chance to see big name acts – often after standing in line for hours – thus negating chances for bands in their early stages to be seen and discovered. With the world’s largest brand touting the chance to see radio-friendly acts like Coldplay, Pitbull and Imagine Dragons through a lottery system this year, the naysayers have every right to scream “sell out”.

SXSW is still credited as a launching pad for upcoming acts: the critical reception of Waxahatchee’s Cerulean Salt was no doubt impacted by the band’s attendance last year. Savages signed a deal with Matador during or shortly after the festival. But what about the thousands of other acts who’ve made the trek on their own dime to Austin for a shot at recognition? How can they compete with the likes of Cee-Lo Green and Blondie, who are scheduled to play Rachel Ray’s annual party? It’s not like the brands that pay to sponsor stages and provide free samples to attendees are there to support struggling musical artists when throngs of people angle to say they were lucky enough to see these mainstream artists.

Sure, performances by iTunes Festival acts can be streamed live or on-demand, viewed with the iTunes Festival app or via Apple TV by those who can’t afford the hundreds of dollars required to obtain a festival badge. But does an Internet connection provide the same experience as being there? For musicians and fans alike, there is a no-cost counterpoint to SXSW one can enjoy at their leisure.

Entering its fourth year, the social media-based festival dubbed Couch By Couchwest (CXCW) runs concurrently with SXSW. Billing itself as a festival “where the beer is cheaper and the only hipster is you”, the idea of CXCW was hatched and promoted by four music bloggers in 2011. Like SXSW, the nascent festival does not lack for star power: CXCW has hosted performers including Neko Case and Rhett Miller. Add to that roster a number of critically acclaimed artists such as Wooden Wand, Glossary, Austin Lucas, Doc Feldman and John Moreland, and you have the opportunity to see independent acts who travel sparingly or on regional paths. The hook: Couch By Couchwest is a YouTube festival where artists who either eschew the corporate nature of SXSW, can’t afford to go to Austin or those who have never ventured out beyond their homes to perform in front of an audience of their peers are invited to record themselves performing a song exclusive to the festival. Performances have been done in living rooms, kitchens, thrift shops, the New York City subway, you name it, as long as it’s not a stage. The videos are then aired during the week’s festivities and promoted via Twitter and Facebook.

As with SXSW, there are sponsors of the festival, ranging from an artisanal mustard company to independent music labels whose artists perform at the festival. Prizes are given for contests that include best poster, haikus about the festival and recipes for Taco Tuesdays and Doritoballs.

To learn more about the origins, history and potential legacy of CXCW, I interviewed one of the festival’s founders, Amy Holdorf, who ran the music blog, My Aimz Is True.

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Why did you start CXCW? Was it out of abject disdain for SXSW?

We have nothing but love for SXSW! It started in 2011 when a bunch of our friends were bragging on Twitter about how they were going to SXSW, and we were insanely jealous. We couldn’t go to Austin due to lack of funds, family obligations, career commitments, etc. We thought, “Where’s the SXSW for those of us stuck at home on the couch?” Thus, Couch by Couchwest was born. We made a Twitter account, a crappy Tumblr blog, a G-mail account, talked to a few musicians that we knew, chatted ourselves up on Twitter, and the rest is history.

How many submissions did you receive the first year?

The first year we had 75 unique artists and posted 212 different entries. Several artists made more than one video. Some PR person in Boston picked us up too, so we got a ton of submissions from the Boston area. We also posted photos of people “enjoying” CXCW. We want the festival to be interactive, so we encourage non-musicians to send us photos of them with their laptops or tablets, watching videos. People also send us photos of their cats and dogs sacked out on the couch. Unlike SXSW, animals and children are welcome at CXCW!

How many did you expect the first year?

I don’t think we expected anything the first year. Sweet-talking artists like Neko Case and Cory Branan into doing it was dumb luck.

How has CXCW grown year over year?

2011 (Tumblr blog) – 75 artists/bands, 99 videos, 92 other posts. 2012 (moved to couchbycouchwest.com) – 228 artists/bands, 242 videos, 64 other posts (we got overwhelmed and started combining multiple photos or videos into one blog post). 2013 – 348 artists/bands, 371 videos, 45 other posts

Can you highlight any acts that have benefitted from CXCW?

I have no idea if any acts have benefitted from CXCW. One cool thing that we did notice that would not have happened if not for CXCW: in 2012 both The Dead Exs of New York City and the venerable Ray Wiley Hubbard of Texas submitted videos and saw each other’s videos. Hubbard invited them to Texas to tour with him. How cool is that?

A band called Mandolin Orange got a lot of press a few months after their CXCW 2012 video. They were featured on NPR and a few other national media outlets. I like to think that we had something to do with their success, but probably not.

I know that we and others have made a lot of great friends and met a lot of amazing people though this little festival. That alone is worth all of the work we put into it.

How much work is involved in curating CXCW?

It’s a stupid amount of work. We all have day jobs, families, and other life commitments on top of trying to pull this festival off. We don’t get a lot of sleep during CXCW week. We were completely overwhelmed by the number of videos sent to us in 2013, so we brought in two more people to help us curate this year.

We also tried to streamline the submission process a bit. If we had money, we would hire a programmer to help us automate some of the curating. In fact, in true slacker form, we put all of the work for CXCW 2014 off until the last minute and we will be scrambling to get everything together this year. I’m not proud of this, but such is life. That’s why I’m answering questions for PopMatters at 12:34AM on a Friday night a week before CXCW.

Are labels involved and supportive?

The indie labels we have approached or that we know people at have been awesome. They give us albums to give away, and encourage their artists to make videos. Yer Bird, an indie label in Calgary, Canada, has been with us from the start. This Is American Music tells all of their bands to make videos for us. Plus, they have given us CDs to give away. Last Chance Records has also given us stuff to give away and told their artists about it. We have approached other labels, but they have said they are too busy with SXSW.

How long do you see CXCW continuing?

CXCW will continue for as long as we remain interested in running the festival. I think we will always be interested in the music side of the event. Discovering new artists and bands is the best part of CXCW! I can see a point where we get tired of running the website and curating the videos. Then we will become corporate whores like SXSW, and sell CXCW out to iTunes and Doritos and Foursquare for millions and millions of dollars.

Do you feel bands rely on CXCW?

I seriously doubt bands rely on CXCW. If they do, they need a better PR plan. I would love it if we found someone new and made them famous, but I really don’t see that happening with our little festival. Does that even happen at SXSW anymore? This is really just for fun, and to give the artists a little more exposure.

What do you feel the legacy, if any, of CXCW will be?

Sofa sales skyrocket. Ikea becomes a major sponsor. Our fans successfully groove perfect butt spots into their couch cushions. All of the couch time plus the awesome tunes drives our festival goers to the Internet to buy tons and tons of music, which eventually not only saves the music industry, but also USPS (someone needs to deliver all of that vinyl).

People around the world realize the benefit of chilling on the couch with a beer and some music. Dogs and cats start living together. World peace is achieved.

Which social media outlet has the greatest impact on CXCW?

Twitter, without question. We didn’t even have a Facebook page the first year. People who like the same things tend to find each other pretty easily on Twitter, and word of mouth (or tweet of mouth, or something) is a powerful way to publically spread the word about the festival. We do all of our announcements on Twitter and only cross post to Facebook maybe five percent of what we post on Twitter.

This year our goal is to get CXCW trending. SXSW and their attendees are nauseatingly vocal on Twitter. We hope to carve out a slice of Twitter for ourselves this year.

Do you have any CXCW personal highlights?

Oh jeez, where to begin? Scoring Neko Case our first year was so killer. She was promoting a charity that she works with and we were happy to help her. Her video was so cute. Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires also did an amazing video in 2011. They were recently signed to Sub Pop, and about a month ago I saw them put on a blistering show here in Boston. They are one of my favorite bands right now.

In 2012 Tyler Stetson from Oregon did a brilliant parody of James Taylor’s “Carolina in My Mind”, changing it to “SXSW in My Mind”. I laughed about it for weeks. And The Famous did an amazing cover of The Misfits’ “Hybrid Moments”. So, so good!

In 2013 we started off the festival with a band from rural Utah called Two Mules Blues. They put on a good rock set, and then blew up a couch. One of the band members has a pyro license or something. When I first saw the video, I stood up and applauded.

We had a bunch of extremely talented kids perform in 2013, too. Can’t do that at the bars in Austin! Eight-year-old Emi Sunshine (and her rooster Tom Cruise) blew us away. Burgeoning juvenile delinquents, three brothers known as The Foresters, also kicked some bum. A few artists play with their little kids in the videos, which is so sweet. Larry Hooper and his daughter Finley have been at every CXCW, including 2011 when Finley was four months old! I’m skipping so many good artists, but you can still see most of the videos on our YouTube playlists. I can’t wait to see what 2014 brings!

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As an active participant in CXCW I can attest the festival does not rival SXSW in scope or influence, but the shared DIY attitude of its curators, fans and artists has made CXCW a genuine musical event with a sense of communal belonging and true discovery long since lost at SXSW. While some may view this grass-roots festival as a bit of a lark, were it not for CXCW I would not be familiar with or have traveled to see artists like Miss Shevaughn and Yuma Wray who debuted songs from their latest release, Lean Into the Wind at CXCW 2013.

If you can’t make it to Austin this year, pull up a couch cushion and enjoy CXCW 2014. They’ve saved a space for you. You may just enjoy yourself and discover your new favorite band you would otherwise not have been introduced to through any other musical festival. Best of all, no badge is required.

Couch By Couchwest runs March 9-15, 2014.