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Growth posing safety challenges for festivals like SXSW

Greg Kot
A cross and flowers are outside The Mohawk in Austin, Texas, Saturday, March 15, 2014, as a memorial to the people who died in the hit-and-run tragedy at SXSW. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman/MCT)
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

AUSTIN, Texas — South by Southwest is one of the best music conferences in the world, and also one of the biggest. And now it’s also notable for another unwanted reason: the deaths of two people on a crowded street at the height of the musical festivities.

The death of two people and the injury of 23 more in a horrific car crash early Thursday morning outside two busy music venues cast a pall over this normally festive event, which annually brings tens of thousands of people to the Texas capital. In addition, rapper Tyler the Creator was arrested Saturday at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in connection with an incident at a performance Thursday when he allegedly incited a riot, encouraging dozens of onlookers to crash through a fence to see his South by Southwest set at the Scoot In. He could face a fine and year in jail.

The driver in the fatal car crash — Rashad Owens, 21 — was arrested early Thursday morning, charged with two counts of murder and held on $3 million bond. Witnesses said he smashed through a barrier while trying to escape police and plowed into a crowd at the northern edge of one of the conference’s busiest streets, Red River. Though South by Southwest went on, the victims, Jamie West, 27, and Steven Craenmehr, 35, were mourned in moments of silence at panels and musical showcases. Their deaths brought an outpouring of empathy from the city and the music community that has been gathering here since 1987 to celebrate itself. Within the first day of the creation of a charity fund (sxswcares.com) for the victims’ families, more than $33,000 was raised.

“In horror there was greatness ... in the way people responded,” said South by Southwest founder Roland Swenson. He and his team decided to keep the conference on schedule, including a full slate of shows at the clubs outside which the bloody crash occurred, the Mohawk and Cheer Up Charlie’s.

“If we were to turn away potentially thousands of people who will arrive to see the shows, it would create a serious safety issue,” Swenson said. “To avoid confusion we plan to carry on in order to serve our tens of thousands of participants during this tragic time.”

Safety first has been the mantra of reputable conference and festival promoters as they try to negotiate the hurdles posed by popularity. In an interview last week at the offices of Austin-based C3 Presents, which annually runs Lollapalooza in Chicago’s Grant Park and the Austin City Limits Festival in its hometown, co-owner Charlie Jones emphasized that each festival is re-evaluated after every year to be determined if “it can be done safer and better to provide a better experience for everyone.”

Lollapalooza reached its 100,000 daily capacity last year, and is grappling with potentially dangerous crowd bottlenecks and fence-jumping issues as it tries to manage its success. But the festival has been relatively crisis-free, even weathering a major evacuation because of a storm in 2012.

South by Southwest has turned from a relatively modest, regional conference in 1987 that attracted 700 people, to one that draws an estimated 70,000 registrants for the music, technology and film conferences spread across the last three weeks. Together they infuse the local economy with more than $200 million. With it have come infrastructure and safety concerns. Austin traffic frequently comes to a standstill downtown and the clubs and sidewalks clog with revelers, spilling over into the streets. A South by Southwest showcase for Chicago music was shut down last week after patrons lined up for five hours to see rising hip-hop star Chance the Rapper. His set was cut short after only 18 minutes because the Austin fire marshal determined that the club was 50 over its 300-patron capacity.

Everywhere one looked in downtown Austin there were lines of people waiting to enter clubs. One reason is the coat-tail effect: huge corporate sponsors setting up expensive stages and inviting superstar artists to perform. If South by Southwest was originally about providing a platform for relatively new and undiscovered artists, it is now also about mega-stars such as Lady Gaga, Jay Z and Coldplay performing concerts for big corporate paydays. For the past few years, a corn-chip manufacturer has set up a stage in the shape of a skyscraper-sized vending machine across from the convention center to host major artists.

Lady Gaga was reportedly paid $2.5 million by the snack-food corporation to perform at the conference, and the singer addressed the deal at her keynote address Friday.

“Without sponsorships, without those companies coming together to help us, we don’t have any more artists in Austin,” she said. “We won’t have any festivals because record labels don’t have any ... money.”

A panel on how brands have become the new industry tastemakers amid declining record industry revenue amplified some of those remarks, with advertising representatives from car, sports and beer companies describing how they try to attach their products to music and the emotional connections it can forge. “Music helps build exponentially a bigger experience for consumers,” said one beer brand manager, Raul Ruiz.

It seemed as though everyone had something to sell, even Neil Young with a new digital music player dubbed Pono. Young has long been a passionate critic of what he believes is the substandard sound of most digital media, but he somehow managed to give nearly a 90-minute sales pitch for his player without once demonstrating how it actually sounds — something that might come in handy for a fan trying to decide whether to spend several hundred dollars for it.

Size matters in this world, but the heart of the conference remains the bands who can’t command a fraction of the corporate cash that keeps Lady Gaga in glitter. The clubs were teeming with new talent:

—Bonzie, aka Chicago teen Nina Ferraro, is a diminutive singer with a big guitar and sound. Her songs inevitably started small and looked inward, before growing into something more expansive and volatile in combination with her band. Another good sign: She’s working on new music with recording maestro Steve Albini.

—Moses Sumney let his delicate, falsetto vocals float atop undulating, finger-picked guitar lines. Then he looped his voice into a backing choir, and stacked finger-snaps, hand-claps and human beat box clicks and pops into an impromptu rhythm section to create something even more compelling. The folk-soul singer with African roots doesn’t have a record out, but he’s already drawing a crowd of tastemakers that included Columbia Records talent scout Mark Williams and Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker.

—New Orleans guitarist Benjamin Booker blasted a raw brand of blues / boogie / soul in a guitar-drums duo format. He likes to leave the rough edges intact, bringing to mind the houserockin’ records that Hound Dog Taylor once did for Alligator Records in the ‘70s. His debut album is scheduled for later this year.

—Bo Ningen carried on the tradition of Japanese psychedelic rockers such as Acid Mothers Temple and Ghost. The quartet’s visual spectacle — swirling hair, Kabuki-like stage movements — synched perfectly with the industrial-rock rhythms and guitars that swung between drill-press brevity and lost-in-space tranciness.

—Until the Ribbon Breaks — essentially the creation of U.K. producer-singer-songwriter Pete Lawrie Winfield — demonstrated it’s more than just a studio project. Winfield and two accomplices delivered slow-burn electro-soul, saturated with barely suppressed turbulence and an array of instrumental colors, from bell-like keyboard tones to trumpet solos.

—Protomartyr stripped back the postpunk innovations of such minimalists as early Public Image Ltd. and the Fall even further, with seething single-note guitar lines that crescendo with bass and drums. Vocalist Joe Casey is the guy at the end of the bar, talking as much as singing while glaring over the shoulder of guitarist Greg Ahee at some unseen nemesis. Is he talking about the noise in his city, Detroit, or inside his head, or a little of both? When he pops, it’s like that friendly bar fly suddenly turning on you, lunging at your collar because you’re not paying close enough attention.

—Spires only has one single out, but the Brooklyn quintet unveiled plenty of fresh songs with sophisticated, harmony-driven arrangements over propulsive tempos and a three-guitar attack.

—Temples plunged into the same guitar-heavy sonic ocean as the British shoegaze bands of the early ‘90s, but mixed in a dollop of sexiness — bushy haired singer-guitarist James Edward Bagshaw carries some T. Rex-style cool. The songs’ hooks aren’t Oasis-sized, but they pack a sneaky punch.

For many artists, it was a matter of appearing in the right place at the right time. A venue like the Central Presbyterian Church on 8th Street served the soaring vocals of Angel Olsen and the eerie electronic arrangements of Florida co-ed band Hundred Waters. But Mutual Benefit, an orchestral-pop band assembled by Boston-via-Texas singer-songwriter Jordan Lee, made a poor match for the unfortunately named Hype Hotel. The band’s intricate, string-heavy sound was completely snuffed out by a loud, inattentive crowd. At least Lee had the one ingredient that every band needs to navigate a week’s worth of shows at sometimes inhospitable venues: A sense of humor.

“Hype is a fickle thing,” Lee said. “That’s why it lives in a hotel.”

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