According to the official history on its website, Austin’s South by Southwest music festival launched in 1987 “to reach out to the rest of the world, and bring them here to do business.” For most of the quarter century since, that’s remained the fest’s primary purpose: When I first attended in the late 90s, as an industry hopeful with a wristband I’d bought myself, SXSW was still the place where pretty much every unsigned band worth knowing and every music-biz rep with a contract to offer swarmed together in a bacchanal of deal making. It was the music-industry equivalent of salmons’ spawning grounds, but with more open bars.
Since then the “getting discovered” aspect of the festival has been made largely irrelevant by the Internet. These days connecting the right label rep with your demo isn’t much harder than figuring out who to e-mail with a Soundcloud link. A&R people find out about new acts through blogs, not live showcases. And given that an act’s period of commercial viability can often now be measured in weeks, organizing a production cycle around an annual festival seems quaintly archaic.
But even as its influence within the industry has waned, SXSW has grown exponentially. Unofficial showcases, which once merely augmented the festival proper, now far outnumber official ones—this year there were an estimated 1,000 unsanctioned events—and often overshadow them as well, especially in fast-moving segments of the market such as hip-hop and dance music.
A wristband or a badge was once essential to get into enough concerts to justify a trip to Austin, but because unofficial events (which don’t require either) have grown so numerous and diverse, you can book a week’s worth of round-the-clock entertainment after spending an afternoon tracking down e-mail addresses for RSVPs. And as of this year, you can even hire someone to RSVP to all the right parties on your behalf.
Civilian music obsessives have unsurprisingly responded to the presence of free, nonstop live entertainment in quantities that make the lineups of megafests such as Lollapalooza seem dinky: they descend upon SXSW in droves, especially from parts of the country where quality live music isn’t a nightly option. And then there are the college kids.
SXSW has long had a reputation as the spring break of the music industry, where networking rituals got a boost from the copious amounts of alcohol available everywhere you look, but somewhere along the line it turned into plain old spring break. Because Austin is home to the University of Texas, there’s always been a collegiate crowd at SXSW that’s just as focused on raging as on catching up-and-coming acts. But in the past few years the number of attendees in Greek system T-shirts has grown from a handful into a mass large enough to overwhelm any other single demographic, thanks in large part to the fact that the festival overlaps with many schools’ spring breaks.
I didn’t realize the extent of this phenomenon until I caught a set by viral rapper Trinidad James at the Fader magazine’s Fader Fort, which offers free entry to the several thousand people lucky enough to nab a spot on its RSVP list. (This year it filled up before many would-be attendees even got the e-mail notice they’d signed up to receive, which was supposed to let them know that registration was open.) At one point James asked the members of the several-thousand-deep crowd to applaud if they were from out of town. The response was loud, but when he asked people from Texas to make some noise it was several orders of magnitude louder.
The fact that kids from Texas colleges outnumber anyone else at SXSW isn’t an entirely bad thing, though. Several decades of Texas hip-hop have bred a generation of young listeners uniquely attuned to it—the region’s history of sonically adventurous artists means Texas fans can be impressively open-minded when it comes to rap. By all appearances the average 21-year-old white kid at UT has listening habits that in other places would signify “rap geek.”
But the question remains: Is it worth it for a musician to, say, drive the thousand miles from Chicago to Austin in order to play for a bunch of Texas spring breakers who don’t have development deals to offer them? Unofficial showcases typically don’t pay unless you’re a star at the top of the bill, and official ones can offer smaller or unsigned artists as little as $150 (no matter how many members are involved), with the option to take festival wristbands for everybody instead of any money at all. The annual rush to SXSW has made booking shows in cities in the south and midwest during the surrounding weeks intensely competitive. And between the ridiculous number of performances happening at the festival and the infrequency with which their audiences include a significant number of people wearing SXSW badges (meaning they have industry pull), the idea of going to Austin with a set’s worth of good songs and walking away with a recording contract seems fanciful.
On that front, a SXSW show by LA producer, multi-instrumentalist, and retro-aesthetic enthusiast Adrian Younge is a cautionary tale. Younge and his band opened for Ghostface Killah with a set that was mostly originals blending vintage soul and exploitation-soundtrack music, full of oddball stylistic choices but vividly funky. It earned a depressingly negative response from a crowd largely made up of drunk college dudes, as did a handful of songs from Ghostface and Younge’s extremely excellent upcoming collaborative album, Twelve Reasons to Die. When Ghostface switched to rapping over studio tracks, one of the best bands I saw all week left the stage to jeers.
That’s not to say that old-fashioned music-biz wheeling and dealing doesn’t still happen at SXSW. Young Chicago garage-pop outfit Twin Peaks rolled into Austin on a cloud of hype generated in part by their signing with Autumn Tone, the label run by respected indie blog Aquarium Drunkard, and they spent the week being courted by lawyers, publicists, and major labels.
“It was busy,” says Twin Peaks singer-guitarist Cadien Lake James. “The dinners with people, all of that stuff. There are all of these lawyers and booking agents who want to get together with you. For us it was definitely a little overwhelming and confusing.”
“I read some shit that South By is like 60 percent hype, 5 percent music, and 35 percent getting wasted,” he continues. “Five percent music is somewhat accurate. I’d give getting wasted and high probably 50 or 60 percent, and hype around 40. It’s a fucking blast, you know? We’re still underage dudes, but we’re buying cases and getting drunk and having fun in Austin. Can’t complain.”