|Toro y Moi at Carpark Records’ showcase at The North Door. The band played three official showcases at SXSW over four days, and three more unofficial gigs. Photo by Patrick Wall|
Wednesday, March 13
Rahim’s taxi glides down Interstate 35 toward a hotel on the north side of Austin, Texas. I haven’t been in his cab more than 10 seconds, but he has me pegged already.
“You are here for South by Southwest, yes?” he asks, with a wide grin on his face.
Rahim is from Guinea, and speaks with a thick, singsong West African accent. He knows all about South by Southwest, he says.
“The people,” he intones, “they are all over the place. There are so many people.”
Nadine echoes that sentiment. She’s driving a shuttle that runs from downtown Austin’s outlying hotels into the heart of the festival. She’s wearing a Led Zeppelin baseball jersey, her long, stringy gray hair touching the tips of her shoulders; she’s listening to hometown boy Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Texas Flood.
“I warn you,” she says, her voice deep and gravelled. “It’s crazy down there.”
They’re not kidding: It’s just the middle of the afternoon by the time Nadine’s shuttle reaches the Austin Convention Center, and already downtown Austin is awash in a sea of people. Most of the more than 300,000-plus music lovers, industry bigwigs, corporate sponsors and musicians have traveled from all corners of the globe for one purpose: the 27th annual South By Southwest, the 10-day festival that includes interactive media, film and music.
It’s no longer Austin. It’s South by Southwest, a monstrous entity that offers heady rewards and hellish experiences in equal measure for fans and bands alike.
Free Times followed eight Columbia acts — Cancellieri, Dear Blanca, Discourse, Brent Lundy, Pan, People Person, Toro Y Moi and Say Brother — that made the trip from the Capital City to the Music Capital of the World during SXSW. We also asked: What does it mean for them? And what, if anything, does it mean for Columbia’s music scene?
Wednesday, March 13
Started by a small group of alt-weekly Austin Chronicle staffers in 1986, SXSW has mushroomed from an insider gathering for unsigned bands into a weeklong, multi-faceted conference headlined by A-list acts. This year, more than 1,500 artists performed on the festival’s official stages in more than 100 venues.
As the festival’s grown, it’s gotten away from its intended mission of bringing unsigned bands and music industry professionals together, more and more mainstream acts flooding the festival stages. Among this year’s marquee headliners: Green Day, Prince and Justin Timberlake. Big names like Iggy Pop, A Tribe Called Quest and Flaming Lips also played.
As more mainstream shows take place, it makes it harder for the majority of emerging acts to get noticed. Promotional firms and booking agencies, as a result, have taken a larger role in programming the festival’s official stages, aggressively pushing their clients to increasingly larger audiences.
“Fifteen years ago, agents weren’t involved in the booking at all,” Tom Windish, founder and president of booking agency The Windish Agency, tells online music magazine Consequence of Sound. “Back then, I didn’t even go to SXSW.”
Windish represents more than 80 of the festival’s thousands of acts. Among them is expatriate Columbia band Toro Y Moi.
Toro Y Moi is one of only two artists from Columbia listed in the official festival guide, hundreds of pages long; the other is rapper Danny! Neither currently call Columbia home. Rapper Danny Swain operates out of Atlanta; Toro Y Moi moved to California two years ago — singer Chaz Bundick, bassist Patrick Jeffords and drummer Andy Woodard to San Francisco, and guitarist Jordan Blackmon to Los Angeles.
But “I’d feel weird claiming anywhere else,” Bundick says. “I don’t like saying we’re from California. Everyone’s from California. But it’s not where we’re from.”
Toro Y Moi’s playing six shows in four days; three are official nighttime showcases, and the others are prestigious day parties sponsored by Pitchfork and Dickies.
Bands playing South By Southwest operate at a breakneck pace, often playing only 30-minute sets with little time for load-in or load-out. And bands are often pressured to play multiple shows during the week to maximize their exposure.
Archer Avenue Studios’ Kenny McWilliams, whose band Baumer played SXSW in 2008, admits to being overwhelmed during his time in Austin — and Baumer only played one show, something he regrets now.
“[SXSW] was exhausting,” McWilliams says, but “with so much going on, [playing multiple shows] gives people more then one shot to see you play. I mean, what happens if Spoon or any other big band is playing during your only show at the festival?”
His first year at SXSW, when he performed solo, Toro Y Moi played 12 festival shows; his second, eight.
This year, Toro Y Moi’s six-show workload is spread out evenly over four days, but it begins with an extracurricular gig, a DJ set from Bundick; he mostly spins house music, and it’s well received but not really danced to. After the set, girls flock to get their picture taken with him.
“We’re trying not to wear ourselves out,” he says back in the green room of Red 7, host to the DJ set. “Since the band is getting bigger, we want to have fewer shows, but have those shows be better.”
Though the band is seasoned at navigating SXSW by now, those six shows will still be a grind for Toro Y Moi. Later, Blackmon is walking down Colorado Street toward the band’s first official festival slot, a showcase sponsored by Los Angeles Radio station KCRW-FM at Austin’s Haven, a 1,200-capacity venue. It’s filled to the brim, with a line that stretches down the block and around the corner, spilling into the street.
“Austin is a great town,” he says of SXSW’s breakneck pace, “but this is a terrible way to experience it.”
|Discourse at Austin Java during an unofficial showcase. Discourse booked a 10-day tour around their two SXSW shows. Photo by Patrick Wall|
Wednesday, March 13
According to data collected by Mashable, 64 percent of SXSW attendees travel to Austin for new business opportunities; 37 percent to connect with existing clients.
While those numbers seem to fly in the face of anecdotal data of watching festivalgoers sprinting to catch shows, it’s why local musician Brent Lundy is in Austin for SXSW.
Lundy, a Columbia musician with a strong voice who plays dive wing joints and classy listening rooms throughout the Southeast, is here with Brian Smith, a friend and record-industry veteran with whom he’s started Gnarly Records. It’s a two-man operation — Lundy is the worker, and Smith the business mind, Smith says — and the two are in Austin to link up with contacts at Clear Channel and iheartradio, which have placed Lundy’s original music, from a forthcoming album recorded with some top-flight session players, onto adult-alterative radio stations across the country to the tune of more than 100,000 spins on 94 stations.
“There’s really not a better place to come and meet with multiple groups of folks,” Smith says. “You gotta have a presence here.”
Neither Smith nor Lundy are starving musicians anymore, Smith says, “so it’s not about getting discovered in a side alley as much as it is working on partnerships that can benefit us.”
“These are people that we talk to all the time, and we could go hang out with them in Los Angeles or New York or whatever,” Lundy says. “Or we could all come down to Austin and party. And at that point, it’s not about business emails any more.”
Unlike many of his fellow musicians, he’s not playing a single showcase. Instead, he spent much of his downtime between networking sessions sightseeing, touring the University of Texas campus and seeing President Lyndon Johnson’s limousine.
By not playing showcases and eschewing the grind of SXSW’s music schedule, Lundy’s also in a position where he doesn’t have to compete with the glut of music around him. Thus, he and Smith are more able to concentrate on their goal of marketing Lundy to radio outlets.
“Every year, there seems to be more and more emphasis on [corporate] sponsorship,” says Smith, who’s been coming to the festival for the past five years, when SXSW has arguably undergone its most radical changes. “Five, six years ago, you had a really good chance of getting on a showcase.”
Now? Forget it.
“We get spoon-fed what they want us to hear,” Smith argues. “That’s the game. That’s the hustle.”
Thursday, March 14
The line for the day party sponsored and curated by indie-music tastemaker Pitchfork stretches for what feels like a quarter mile, the plain white warehouse it’s housed in dollhouse-small in the distance. Many are in line explicitly to see Toro Y Moi, scheduled to play in a few hours. (Even though two college-freshman girls in line continually mispronounce the band’s name as TOH-ree EE MOY. It’s TOH-roh EE MWAH.)
On the other side of the street, the line for the Fader Fort, another popular free party during SXSW, stretches just as long. Its stages feature Internet-hyped artists like Earl Sweatshirt, Disclosure and Mac DeMarco; emerging stars like Solange Knowles and Kendrick Lamar; and ’90s rock legend Afghan Whigs. A-list superstars like P. Diddy and Usher make surprise guest appearances announced hours, if not minutes, before their appearances on social media. It is sponsored by Converse shoes.
The scene invokes two criticisms of SXSW: It’s grown too big and too unwieldy, and it places a higher value on product placement than on music.
To grasp the sheer volume of SXSW, picture the overcrowded stretch of Harden Street between Greene and Blossom during St. Pat’s in Five Points. Now multiply that by about 10 city blocks. That’s Sixth Street, the Austin music scene’s main artery, and the teeming masses clog streets in all directions. It’s difficult to get in and out of bars and venues, let alone to walk down the street, and more popular showcases have Disneyland-like wait lines.
SXSW attendance has shot up with in concord with the festival’s bigger musical offerings, shooting up from 750 in 1986 to more than 302,000 in 2012. It’s also become a huge moneymaker, too: The 2012 festival generated some $190 million in economic impact for Austin. (In comparison: This year’s Famously Hot New Year event had a $1.2 million economic impact on Columbia.) And as SXSW has grown bigger and made more money, it becomes more controlled by corporate interests, sponsoring numerous showcases and stages. Corporate sponsors hand out free shirts, energy drinks, clothing and more. Brand emblems cover every stage. Biggest of all: A 62-foot obelisk fashioned after a Doritos vending machine looms over the intersection of Fifth and Red River; over the weekend, Public Enemy will perform at the foot of it, as will LL Cool J and Ice Cube.
“As the music industry continues to place more and more power in the hands of independent artists,” writes NPR’s Andrea Swansson in an essay called “Why I’m Not Going to SXSW,” “SXSW seems to be driving in the opposite direction; the festival feels like the industry’s last-gasp attempt to prove that cash can, in fact, still be king.”
But while the festival is raking in money for itself the city of Austin, SXSW is a losing venture for many bands.
“For every act that has told me SXSW provided them with a chance encounter with an agent or promoter that positively changed their trajectory,” Swansson writes, “there are dozens who tally up the pros and cons and find themselves in the red.”
|People Person at Wardenclyffe Gallery during Stereofly and Post-Echo’s day party. Four Columbia bands played the unofficial showcase of Southeastern bands. Photo by Patrick Wall|
Thursday, March 14
Opportunity and financial backing rarely go hand in hand. For many artists, SXSW requires out-of-pocket expenses. Some artists get paid for select showcases, but many bands don’t see a dime, getting paid instead in free stuff and the chance of increased draws a week’s worth of free shows can generate. Bands playing unofficial stages likely don’t get paid in anything more than free Lone Star tallboys.
To try and offset those expenses, most bands tour in and out of the festival.
Discourse has just pulled into the back parking lot of Austin Java, where it’s playing an unofficial showcase. It was supposed to have played an hour ago, but was waylaid on its way from Denver, where the sinewy hardcore band played last night for the sixth of its 10 tour dates surrounding the festival.
Post-rock band Pan, playing an unofficial showcase put together by Columbia zine Stereofly, local record label Post-Echo and Atlanta booking agency Vulcan Army, put together a run on 11 dates in and out of Austin. Dear Blanca and People Person played a handful of shows on their way to Austin, too. Only Say Brother, playing two non-SXSW anti-festival shows, doesn’t play any shows to or from the festival, but singer-guitarist Tripp LaFrance says the band pooled money together for weeks to make the trip. He’s also unemployed when he gets back to Columbia; he was fired right before leaving for Austin.
Near the corner of 12th and Lamar, Austin Java is a good 25-minute walk from the central part of the festival. They’re playing an unofficial showcase tomorrow, too; they were supposed to play a third, but one fell through, due to price hikes with venues, which rent out their spaces to organizers wanting to throw unofficial SXSW shows. Austin Java, one of the baristas says, isn’t even a venue; it only hosts shows during SXSW.
“I had no idea how [setting up a SXSW showcase] worked until recently,” says Kyle Jackson of Discourse. “I heard it’s up to $1,000 to rent a venue.”
The average figure might even be further north. Greg Slattery says Stereofly, Post-Echo and Vulcan Army paid nearly that for their venue — and it’s three miles outside SXSW’s central downtown Austin hub.
Every year, SXSW lures doe-eyed rookies who travel on their own coin to Austin despite the slim odds of being discovered. But Brian Cullinan, Shuffle magazine’s publisher and a former longtime major-label A&R representative, puts it bluntly: “If you’re traveling to SXSW to get ‘discovered’, you’re delusional.”
Jackson, for sure, isn’t delusional.
“My expectations aren’t too high, as far as getting any real recognition,” he says.
“But we’re playing a crazy show tomorrow with … a bunch of cool bands, a bunch of bigger hardcore bands.”
That, he says, could lead to more shows in bigger cities with bigger bands on bigger tours.
“So,” he shrugs, “I guess it’s possible.”
Most of the other Columbia musicians share similarly tempered expectations.
“I’ve had enough shows and trips go wrong that I have really fucking low expectations,” People Person’s Jessica Oliver says. “If we play for five people, that’s OK.”
So if these in-the-trenches Columbia bands aren’t going to SXSW with the expectation of getting signed, and they’re not getting paid, why are they going at all?
Friday, March 15
In a panel called “Who Cares If You Have An Audience,” Austin musician Kevin Gant fields a question about playing to indifferent crowds, relating a story of a gig in an Austin bar where he was mercilessly and actively ignored.
“It’s better to play when people don’t like you,” he says. “It makes you tough.”
Musician and record label owner John Murphy expands on the idea.
“A true artist plays to an empty room,” he posits.
The yard is mostly empty when Ryan Hutchens, who also plays in Columbia post-rock quintet Pan, steps to the stage around 2 p.m. on a devilishly hot Texas afternoon to play a solo set under his Cancellieri moniker. The three miles — which translates to a 15-minute car ride or an hour-plus walk — to the Wardenclyffe Gallery, where bands will play outdoor sets during the day and indoor sets at night, have proven prohibitive to the early-afternoon crowds.
It’s what Greg Slattery was worried about.
Slattery’s been in Austin since Tuesday, dropping copies of his Stereofly zine anywhere he can in attempts to drum up interest for the show. He’s also been tasked by Jay Matheson, who employs Slattery at his Jam Room studio, to bring back recommendations on who to book at this year’s Jam Room Music Festival. He’s listed the show on websites that list unofficial SXSW day parties, and a few of the showcase’s bands have played shows during the week at center-city venues.
He’d tried to get an official showcase lined up, and when that failed, tried to find a location closer to downtown. But it was too cost prohibitive.
“The location is not ideal,” he laughs. Still, he says, “I’m so glad I’m here instead of in Columbia for St. Patrick’s Day.”
The crowd’s still small, numbering probably in the teens, when Dear Blanca and People Person play back-to-back sets circa 4 p.m.; it might have even shrunk between Dear Blanca’s set and People Person’s.
But the low turnout doesn’t dampen anyone’s spirits. People Person’s Adam Cullum remarks that, with so many people he knows here, this could be a house party in Columbia.
Post-Echo’s Franklin Jones tells Shuffle magazine that SXSW has been a goal of the label’s “since day one,” and he acknowledges that it’s nothing more than a baby step toward a yearly presence at the festival.
And an unofficial showcase, even one so far removed from the festival, Slattery concludes, is the best first step — if only to be able to prove that setting up a showcase suring SXSW, a seemingly impossible task, could be done.
“I love Columbia and the music scene here, but playing here alone is probably not going to amount to huge success,” McWilliams says. “So the bands from Columbia that are taking the risk and getting to SXSW are doing the right thing.”
By the time Pan plays around 9 p.m., a small but substantial crowd — Slattery estimates it at around 30 to 40 — has trekked out to Wardenclyffe.
“The festival itself would probably have been too overwhelming for a band that, before this tour, had never even played in Texas,” says Pan’s Kayla Breitwiser,
“Coming in and soaking up the atmosphere was probably the best thing we could have done as a new band to SXSW.”
And that, Slattery reiterates, was the point.
“I think it’s opened up a lot of people’s eyes and minds to what they can do,” he says.
|Say Brother’s Josh Anderson (left) and Tripp LaFrance (right) at Touche. Say Brother’s SXSW trip cost LaFrance his job. Photo by Patrick Wall.|
Friday, March 15
Dickerson’s driven in to downtown Austin from Wardenclyffe; he’s filling in for Say Brother drummer Steve Sancho at the band’s two SXSW gigs. He’s parked about a mile away from Touche, the Sixth Street dive bar where Say Brother is scheduled to play at 7 p.m. As he nears the Interstate 35 overpass, Sixth Street’s massive sea of people comes into plain view — eliciting from Dickerson an “Oh s#!t.”
“Well,” he says, cracking a wry smile, “I feel like I wouldn’t be able to say I played during South By Southwest without carrying equipment down Sixth Street.”
Dickerson makes it to the venue just in time.
The band tears into its raucous boogie bar-rock with vigor, and the band’s indefatigable energy has won it some curious onlookers passing by Touche. More than a few pop in, including one official SXSW festival photographer. The crowd’s only about 30 or so at its biggest swell, but it’s enthusiastic and appreciative. And nobody leaves before the band’s finished.
Toro Y Moi’s Jordan Blackmon is there, too; he’s part of the trio that runs Fork and Spoon Records, which released Say Brother’s All I Got Is Time. He says he’s really stoked that so many bands are from Columbia are down in Austin at the moment.
“Yeah,” says Dickerson, “but I feel like [Fork and Spoon’s] Aaron [Graves] and Jessica [Bornick] should be here. A Fork and Spoon showcase would be awesome.”
Graves says he considered attempting to set up a showcase for Fork and Spoon, a local label with growing cachet in the Southeast. But there were too many prohibitive factors.
“The way I’ve heard it from [Fork and Spoon mates] Chris [Gardner] and Jordan [Blackmon],” he says, “it’s crazy and you get to see a lot of folks in front of and behind the scenes, but you get paid in free stuff, not in money. And then I think about how if lots of free stuff is happening, your show should probably be free so that folks that done know you will come, and then I think that you probably have to rent a place out and pay for lots of stuff to make the show happen, and then it sounds more like an advertisement or PR where you pay to get your name somewhere, and the bottom line is we don’t have money to do that as a label.”
Still, he concedes, “I’m a little bit jealous that everyone is there and that we aren’t even though it sounds really hectic and stressful to me.”
Sunday, March 17
I run into Toro Y Moi back in Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. They’re visibly exhausted. Chaz Bundick and Andy Woodard idle on their MacBooks. Patrick Jeffords is sleeping.
Jordan Blackmon, though, has something he’s excited to show me. He found, at a branch of local record-store chain Waterloo Records (related: there’s one in the airport, too), a copy of Guyana Punch Line’s Direkt Aktion on 12-inch vinyl. He bought it, he says, for $5, and it turned into a conversation starter at an artists-only gathering. People remembered, he says, seeing Guyana Punch Line and In/Humanity — both seminal ’90s Columbia hardcore bands — on tour in their hometowns.
But Bundick’s equally excited about Columbia’s future.
“It’s awesome that Columbia’s getting out there, getting more attention, getting more buzz,” Bundick says. “I think it’s going to be awesome where Columbia is in the next few years.”
Toro Y Moi is the last of the Columbia gang to leave town. Dickerson headed back with the rest of Dear Blanca on Saturday afternoon after the second Say Brother show; the rest of Say Brother left Sunday morning. Pan and Discourse have returned to their tours. Brent Lundy left even earlier; he was back in Columbia in time to play a St. Pat’s in Five Points afterparty at Utopia.
People Person left Saturday morning. I call Jessica Oliver on Saturday afternoon to check in. She says they’re at a Dairy Queen in … well, she’s not quite sure where she is.
I ask her if she think the SXSW appearances by Columbia bands reflects at all on Columbia’s music scene, if it means anything going forward.
“It was fun,” she concludes, “but it didn’t mean anything.” Discourse’s Kyle Jackson agrees.
Shuffle magazine music editor and Free Times contributor Jordan Lawrence argues that point.
“In the case of Post-Echo and others on their level, I think that the fact that there are people ambitious enough to undertake the trouble — and willing to shoulder the expense — of such an endeavor is a reflection of the effort they’re throwing into the Columbia scene,” says Shuffle music editor Jordan Lawrence, though he’s careful to add a caveat. “Playing non-official gigs in Austin this week isn’t so much a referendum on where a band is now as it is an attempt on their part to reach out to new fans and establish themselves on a national level. Whether or not they’re successful is something that’ll be impossible to gauge until at least a few months from now.”
Ultimately, that local acts trekked to SXSW in 2013 won’t mean anything to Columbia’s music scene in the short run, and the unsigned bands that played likely won’t see many concrete dividends.
But it’s not a totally empty return, not all sound and fury signifying nothing. And there are takeaways that can be applied for the future.
“With so many bands and music professionals descending on one place it’s hard not to take away something, even if that something won’t be a record deal,” says Shuffle’s Brian Cullinan. “If you define a successful SXSW trip as one that helps introduce a few new practical relationships, brings home new ideas from the sheer volume of other bands and labels present, and builds a stronger band by virtue of what it took to make it there, then yes, I think SXSW can still be meaningful for you.”
For instance, Pan and Vulcan Army are working together to plot a lengthy summer tour for the band, says Pan’s Kayla Breitweiser, and the band intends to return to SXSW next year, when it will apply to be an official festival band.
Slattery, too, is already planning an excursion to next year’s festival. And though he’s slightly disappointed with the turnout, the excursion to SXSW was not with the intention of breaking any of his chosen showcase artists.
“It’s more about saying you did it,” he says.
If nothing else, it serves as a morale boost, a reminder that sometimes things that seem impossible for Columbia bands — like playing a showcase during a massive mid-March festival in the live music capital of the world — isn’t so out of reach.
“I thought I would be way more intimidated and overwhelmed [by SXSW] that I was,” Say Brother’s Josh Anderson says. “I’m really surprised that I wasn’t.”
“We’re proving it to ourselves,” says People Person’s Adam Cullum, who says the trip has inspired him and Oliver to book a tour for their other band, Can’t Kids. “We’re proving we could make it to Texas. And we did it.”
And they — at least the ones making the pilgrimage to Austin — are doing it for the right reasons, making and performing music on their own terms.
And, really, isn’t that all that matters? Shouldn’t it be?
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