Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Reflection: SXSW 2011

I went down to SXSW for the first time this year. I've heard just about every angle and opinion on the sprawling Austin, TX music festival from friends and musicians, but this year I went and saw for myself. I attended the event as a music fan, blogger, record label co-owner, promoter, and even had a band proclaim me as their tour manager. I've heard folks boast of endless free beer and shows, tacos, and great weather, while others have scorned me on taxing schedules, greedy industry heads, and total chaos.

I did my best to experience and learn about SXSW from as many views as possible, but mostly just attempted to pack as much live music into a one week span that fit.

Secret Mountains played a house show for their first set in Austin, an intimate affair that featured some of the most amazing living room sound I've ever experienced. This party showed off some of Austin's admirable hospitality, including a team of local beer enthusiasts that offered up free kegs of awesome home-brewed IPA and stout.

Lands and Peoples and Secret Mountains toured to Austin from Baltimore. I spent most of my time hanging out with both bands, attending gatherings of all varieties. Some were showcases for other bloggers that I've come to know and love, like the one both bands played on Friday. Put together by our friends at IGIF with help from Lefse and Big Ugly Yellow Couch, Lands and Peoples are pictured above playing their daytime set. Gobble Gobble performed that night, unleashing the only live antics all week that had me feeling like I was home in Baltimore. Dudes had the whole room dancing and getting in on it.

Another aurally stimulating affair played by both bands was the Head Underwater and Kassette Klub showcase. Amongst many others, it featured a stripped-down set from Tooth Ache. Hailing from Vermont, Tooth Ache's blend of warped synths and heavy beats paired cosmically with her chamber-esque vocals that had me totally entranced.

The rest of the week was chock full of amazing sounds, including catching once-Baltimore resident Cass McCombs at the Gorilla Vs. Bear / Mexican Summer showcase.

Our friends at Impose hosted a killer party every night. The show that we attended included back-to-back sets from Woodsman, Sun Araw, and Moon Duo who all killed it.

Another one of my favorite sets came from a solo project dubbed Porcelain Raft at the Forest Family / Transparent showcase, who reminded me a bit of a more jaded version of Winks. Later on that night we went back for a bar-exploding set from the garage royalty known as King Tuff, who blazed through gem after gem of their catalog.

The biggest spectacle of the week was Odd Future, seen above jumping from the speakers into the crowd. Their leader, Tyler the Creator, jumped from ones twice as high earlier in the set at this show. No one was injured (that I know of), unlike at the Thrasher party earlier that day where someone in the crowd got their nose broken.


SXSW was every bit as draining as one can imagine, where taking a break to catch your breath could mean missing a once-in-a-lifetime performance. But, is it worth all the effort, dedication, and money? From a music fan's perspective, it was worth it. With a non-stop slew of free concerts at your immediate disposal, no other festival compares.

From a musician's standpoint, the pay-off seems a bit more unclear. Artists can spend lots of money and/or time touring or traveling to the festival, then bolt around like workhorses from one showcase to the next only to display all their hard work while banner ads for soda and beer hang behind their instruments on stage. It is extremely rare that musicians get paid for any of their performances, all while millions of dollars in sponsorships and advertisements gets tossed around from one big wig to another. Even the smaller showcases put together by folks who actually care (including most of the ones mentioned above) are forced to put all of their budget towards PA's and space rental, as sound guys and rooms seemingly become a lot more pricier during SXSW.

Bands are willing to play SXSW for free because they are promised great exposure and a chance to play in front of music industry execs. However, when was the last time you heard about a band getting "discovered" or "breaking out" just from SXSW? Seems to me, the bands that get the most press from the festival are the ones that are already the blogger and media darlings of that current moment (e.g., Odd Future, James Blake, etc).

This is not meant to be an attack on SXSW, but in a time where the music industry is scrambling to figure out "what's next" or "what works", this massive fest appears to just reinforce the industry's old indulgent and greedy ways instead of trying to progress.


Anonymous said...


you JUST found out about OF on your trip down there

shut up

Brett said...

I was well aware of OFWGKTA before I went down there, having almost helped book them here in Baltimore about a month ago... I've been obsessed with Bastard & Radical for the past few months...

The Baltimore Chop said...

Thanks for putting up an honest and well-considered post on the festival.

Too often all that reaches the internet is name drops and maybe-sort-of-true stories about how crazy this party was or how epic that band was.

It's interesting how the economics of the whole thing work out. It would probably make a decent book in the hands of the right author.

Anonymous said...

I tried to help them come here so I don't have any idea as to what you're talking about.

#trending topic

Brett said...

@ Chop - thanks!!

@ anon - don't follow your point?