Photos by Joe Puglisi
Once a year, the music industry masses gather in a collective gluttonous orgy of live music, Tex-Mex, and self-aggrandizing list-making (what bands have YOU seen?). We refer to this event as South By Southwest, "Southby," or in some cases, "paid vacation." Of late, SXSW has turned from a collection of forward thinking tastemakers and young, dedicated bands into a spectacle of brand management and a non-stop oversaturation of events and performances, from noon to the wee hours of the morning, from the ever-popular Sixth Street to the far reaches of the netherworld known as East Austin, South Congress, and beyond. Sorting through the potential ear-candy is like heading into Walmart to buy a toothbrush-- prepare to leave with seventy other items you didn't think you needed, as you're constantly lured in by deals (free food, free booze, free swag) and the marketing prowess of today's biggest monsters (VEVO, Doritos, etc). But despite it's six-to-midnight trajectory and the myriad of think pieces claiming it's the most bloated and ultimately useless music industry event in America, SXSW is still a powerhouse of influence in today's music market, generating millions of words on what bands played hot during the week, and who might just be making the jump from Pitchfork punchline to Billboard chart topper (or in some cases, both).
The Doritos Snack Machine looming above the skyline served as a reminder of who the ruling class is at SXSW.
The beauty of the brave new South By is that because of the ever increasing margins, the necessity of an official badge is questionable, especially if your primary function is discovery, not immediate bragging rights. Official showcases are either easy to slip into with the right connection, or impossible with or without the proper SXSW credentials. But at a festival like SXSW, the bands worth discovering and not just seeing are always playing some dingy club at 2PM, or an outdoor stage, totally for free. The industry fat has floated to the top, coated with marquee sponsors, and it's no longer worth wasting your time seeing The Shins or even Sleigh Bells play an over-capacity room in a super exclusive BS spot hosted by your favorite advertiser, because it's so crowded, no one will want to go, and you can just see them at the Bowery Ballroom in a month with significantly less hassle, and more comfort.
Go to something completely free of pretense. The BMI showcase (which was official, but not terribly difficult to get into) didn't have any backbreaking acts, but bands like Films of Colour and especially Youngblood Hawke were pleasant surprises in the jungle of mediocrity playing other hyped-up, impossible-to-attend parties. Plus, $3 Lone-Star! A quick stop here also netted an invite to the BMI brunch, a coveted SXSW event at the Four Seasons which was well worth the early wake-up call. Oh look, it's me eating breakfast tacos behind that waiter!
Photo by Erika Goldring for Billboard
The heroes of today's SXSW are born when and where you least expect them, which is why it's imperative that you spend almost all of your time (at least during the day) running the free circuit. Invest in your bragging rights for six-nine months from now when bands like Yellow Ostrich will be playing the MTV Music Awards and slowly cornering the market on "next young rock upstart." Perhaps not all of your bets will pay off, but it's worth being the only one to see Typhoon play a solid set in front of a pizza place, rather than waiting in line for a band everyone else will already have commentary on.
Home Slice Pizza consistently hosts great young bands like Yellow Ostrich, Typhoon, and Hospitality, and of course, also offers delicious pizza and beer.
It's much harder to actively seek out the raw talent at SXSW than to just follow the herd into another big name showcase, but thanks to the sheer volume of events and the number of times the average band plays, it's easier than ever before. Alabama Shakes were the bottom-end of the over-hyped bands, but they played enough times for you to see them in at least one comfortable, free setting. We caught them at SXSJ, an annual occurrence at the Hotel San Jose on South Congress. They were also preceded by a ridiculous funk/hip-hop band comprised of some sort of School Of Rock collection of youth from Chi-town, which was awesome in its own right.
The spirit of discovery lives on in those fleeting moments, in between free swag and rediscovering big bands at some secret sponsored showcase. For those of us who bothered to spend at least a couple of hours picking an area and wandering from destination to destination with no real agenda, SXSW was about reading between the brands-- finding those little moments that felt unique, and not just like another bullet point.