Several times during my first trip to Austin, I was reminded in serious tones that South By Southwest is not a music festival. It is not Coachella or Bonnaroo or All Tomorrow’s Parties, and shouldn’t be compared to those other popular music meccas. No, SXSW is special. It’s an industry conference. The main event is a series of panels, symposia, and keynotes by industry leaders, who assess the state of the music industry and share ideas for the future. The sideshow is a series of showcases where labels and talent agencies (and an increasing contingency of corporate sponsors) demonstrate their strength and relevance via lineups populated by their artist roster and/or recent signees.
The sideshow to the sideshow is a veritable smörgåsbord of unofficial showcases and mini-festivals, which over the years have proliferated to the point where the unofficial events now dwarf the official ones, and in addition to including nearly every officially booked artist and band among their lineups, also include scads of exclusive bookings that you can’t see at the “real” SXSW. This was my first SXSW, and yes, it is a bit different from Coachella and ATP, but actually not that different. It’s like a more fragmented, clusterfuck-ier version of Coachella with less rainbow children. Rather than weekend ravers, the audience at a typical SXSW show is made up almost entirely of other bands playing at SXSW. The panels almost seem like bad conscience at this point, an attempt to hold onto the special status of SXSW, a status which is largely undeserved. Having spoken to some invited speakers, it seems that the turnout was rather weak for most of the panels; I, for instance, failed to attend a single one. I am obligated to attend enough boring conferences in my workaday academic life, and I was eager to avoid the potentially lethal mix of keynote speaker quaaludes with the Shiner Bock and taco trucks of live music in Austin.
It’s become a hoary cliché at this point, but what does an “industry conference” mean anymore when the music industry has become so radically fragmented, stratified, and, some would argue, obsolete? For better or for worse, the traditional models are all but gone. Many of the artists I have talked to over the years spoke of playing SXSW as a sort of hateful obligation: “We don’t enjoy playing it, but you must play in order to get noticed/signed/etc.” I wonder if this attitude is down to pure momentum at this point. It would seem to me that running into an actual, honest-to-god A&R guy walking around SXSW signing bands is about as likely as running into a full-blooded Lipan Apache Indian walking around in Austin. They’ve all either been put out to pasture, killed, or seriously compromised. No, there is something else afoot in Austin. Objects in motion want to stay in motion: SXSW trucks on because of its necessity to the economy of Austin and the fact that it provides seemingly infinite opportunities for corporations to blow their advertising budgets on viral and not-so-viral marketing strategies aimed at large blocs of plugged-in youths with discretionary income.
Much has been made of the 60-foot-high Doritos Jacked vending machine stage, for good reason. It was hard to miss. Bands played in the area where one might retrieve their bag of Doritos, had it been an actual, operating vending machine. I’m not sure exactly how your average, hard-working indie rock band feels about being equated visually to a bag of Doritos. Especially since the main innovation of the new product line is larger chips. Yes, that’s it. The chips are bigger. And thicker. And “tangier,” which probably means more torula yeast or hydrolized vegetable protein, or whatever creative euphemism for MSG they’ve decided to use on the ingredients list. Why am I writing so extensively about Doritos for a website whose primary focus is music and film? Because the corporate sponsorship at SXSW seemed at least as important as the music. In fact, music was treated like an afterthought, an obligation to be offed in an assembly-line manner. It was doled out in 30-45-minute micro-sets, with artists rushed onto and off stage with very little time for soundchecks or stage banter or any of the niceties that you might experience had you seen one of these acts at your local music venue.
Performers dealt with the absurdity and indignity of corporate sponsorship in various ways, many attempting halfheartedly to distance themselves from it or ironically embrace it. The latter strategy was used by post-human dance-pop thug Travis Egedy a.k.a. Pictureplane, who made several ironic gestures in tribute to his corporate overlords throughout his set. The incongruity of his appearance on a stage featuring a prominent, well-lit Chevrolet logo was apparently too much to bear, and Egedy repeatedly intimated (hopefully? desperately?) that he would receive a free Chevy in exchange for his performance. Corporate sponsorship also led to some strange moments of cognitive dissonance. For instance, the Mexican Summer showcase was sponsored by Sony, but apparently no one could think of a way to effectively combine the brands, so they filled the Red 7 club with giant Sony flat-screen TVs tuned to a static, unchanging Mexican Summer logo. It was a poor advertisement for both brands and was ultimately a waste of perfectly good plasma screens, which will now most likely have the Mexican Summer logo burned into them for the duration. Other brands, such as Converse, attempted to trump up interest in their party tents by adhering to esoteric rules of pre-registration that were engineered to make their showcase seem exclusive and desirable, but succeeded only in assuring a tiny audience.
YouTube Live: New Orleans Bounce Comes To Austin
2012 might be seen in retrospect as The Year Bounce Broke. Diplo’s recent collaboration with NOLA bounce superstar Nicky Da B appears to be an omen of bounce’s increasing profile. Even though I object to its LMFAO electro-house trappings, it was heartening to find that “Express Yourself” was the unofficial party anthem of this year’s SXSW, with more than a few DJs dropping it into their sets, to mostly ecstatic response. Nicky Da B was one of the more in-demand performers at the conference, appearing on several lineups, both official and unofficial. I live in New Orleans, and I wanted my Texas friends to experience the infectious fun of a NOLA bounce show, so we made a point to attend a showcase that included sets by Nicky Da B, Katey Red, and Juvenile. Unfortunately Juvenile had to cancel at the last minute, so there was no backing up of that thang, but there was plenty of working of it, dropping it hot potato style, and fucking like one dances to take up the slack.
New Orleans culture is particularly sensitive to issues of authenticity. If you’ve lived here, you’ll know what I mean. Even though the concept of authenticity has been thoroughly deconstructed and rendered inert by the vanguard of postmodern cultural theory, New Orleans never got the memo, and that’s one of the reasons I love the place. And that’s also one of the reasons I have become a bit uneasy about the way bounce is exported to places outside New Orleans. If you’ve been to a bounce show in the city, you’ll know that it is not a spectator sport. Bounce is not something that happens in front of you; it happens all around you, above you, below you, inside you. Sure, you may want to gaze rapturously at a particularly voluminous rump wiggling in time, but chances are, with the right mix of cocktails and repeated calls-to-action, you yourself will be engaged in your own ecstatic ass-wobble. When bounce happens at SXSW, it unfortunately achieves the quality of a freak show for rubberneckers and voyeurs.
Part of the problem is the way bounce has been distributed via YouTube and the blogosphere, often ghettoized as “sissy bounce,” a term that no one in New Orleans uses. The virality of videos like this one is part of the problem; though Mr. Ghetto is undeniably part of the bounce scene, taken out of context this video can veer uncomfortably close to a 21st century form of minstrelsy. What many fail to comprehend is that the current club music iteration of bounce is merely the newest hub in a continuous evolution dating back to the regional New Orleans hip-hop of the late 1980s. Cash Money Millionaires, Mystikal, and Lil Wayne all came out of this scene. The rapid-fire call-and-response of club-based bounce is just one piece of a much larger and more eclectic puzzle. On stage at SXSW, bounce loses its regional flavor, and though the performers and on-stage dancers comported themselves with all the élan one could hope for, the whole affair seemed forced, a live-action YouTube video lacking the communal, ritualistic, sex-positive atmosphere that hometown bounce shows have in abundance.
If the massive shitshow of SXSW is useful for any one thing, it is as a proving ground for artists who have gained overnight popularity via the internet. It is very often the first place YouTube stars are able to perform in front of a substantial audience. In the case of Turquoise Jeep, a mysterious hip-hop crew that has gained a huge online following over the past two years through viral hits such as “Lemme Smang It” and “Cavities,” their presentation at SXSW was surprisingly polished and entertaining. By playing it completely straight — nimble MCing, synchronized dance moves, and audience participation — their winking repertoire of oversexed anthems achieved an unexpected transcendence.
On the complete other end of the scale in terms of sincerity and ability to perform live, husband/wife duo Peaking Lights gave a disastrous, truncated performance at the Mexican Summer showcase. The group is coming off a year in which they received a great deal of praise for their breakthrough album 936, but live they were a bundle of nerves, with an overcomplicated setup — stacks of rack modules and sub-mixes — that never quite came together. Throughout their set, they insisted on blaming the technical difficulties on the sound man, even though it appeared obvious that their elaborate jerry-rigged signal-chains were largely to blame for the hum and the mud. The funny thing was, once they finally gave up on getting the perfect sound 30 minutes into their allotted time slot, they sounded pretty damned good, meaning that if they hadn’t complained about the sound issues, no one would have known any difference. Instead, they came off as petulant, fussy, and rude.
Due to the absence of Lana Del Rey, the most unintentionally hilarious internet joke of the festival was Light Asylum, Brooklyn’s hotly-tipped synth-pop duo. I was morbidly curious about their set after being puzzled by the video for “Dark Allies,” which strikes me as a collection of tacky stylistic gestures clumsily juxtaposed with each other. After seeing their live set, the most charitable thing I can say about Light Asylum is that 50% of this band might have a future. Light Asylum is a frontwoman in search of something interesting to be in front of. Shannon Funchess is a powerful presence on stage, with a fierce, confrontational delivery that does not forsake melody. The problem? Her talents as a performer are squandered on middle-of-the-road, canned synth-pop. It’s a complete musical mismatch. It’s as if the leader of a kickass lesbian punk band was kidnapped and forced to sing over a Yamaha keyboard demo. It doesn’t work. At all.
Clarence the 4G Hotspot
The biggest news story to come out of SXSW (other than the Doritos monolith) was the “Homeless Hotspots” project by BBH Labs, which was immediately seized upon by the press as exploitative and tasteless. Personally, I can’t figure out why this well-intentioned social experiment received such an overwhelmingly negative response, but I can tell you that BBH were indeed responding to a real need. Austin during SXSW becomes a smart phone Bermuda Triangle. The sheer volume of concertgoers frantically uploading Instagrams of Skrillex to Facebook assured that the AT&T 3G network was all but useless for the majority of the conference. This forced a lot of people into the novel position of actually having to experience what was going on in front of them in real time, rather than meticulously constructing future memories of the event through a constellation of tweets, Facebook check-ins, Yelp reviews, and grainy megapixels. So I had no choice. I had to venture forth into alien lands without the aid of my tricorder.
Being forced to actually stand passively and watch a number of performances without once checking Facebook or playing Draw Something, I noticed a few things. First, I think many of the performances I saw seriously challenged the proverbial wisdom that the more “live” a performance is, the better it is. A lot of critics and message board opinioneers seem to agree that performing on stage with little more than a laptop or a sampler is poor practice, as it offers no visual engagement for the audience. Many go further, questioning the talent or musicianship of the laptop-based artist, suggesting the performances are lazy or canned, that the artist is merely hitting spacebar and tweaking a few levels. I understand this criticism, but with few exceptions, I haven’t found that the amount of “live playing” going on during a performance has any statistical relationship to my enjoyment of said performance. Case in point: my favorite performance of the conference was Oneohtrix Point Never, who closed out the Mexican Summer showcase sitting on a chair in complete darkness, in front of a PC laptop adorned with a sticker advertising the 2001 sci-fi comedy Evolution. There was absolutely nothing in the way of visual engagement with the audience, and for all I know, Lopatin just hit play on WinAmp and Tumblr’d for the next hour. I don’t know and don’t care. The music that 0PN has been making since the paradigm-shifting Replica is so visceral and compelling that it requires no on-stage “business” to put it across. The only thing I can compare it to is a stunning laptop-only set by Jim O’Rourke that I witnessed in 2003. The ear-opening inventiveness of Lopatin’s jarring, surrealistic musique concrète memoryscapes seemed to create a temporary energy in which past, present, and future collided in wholly unexpected ways.
Other entertaining performances that were minimal by design included an outdoor appearance by Dirty Beaches, who had a guitar that he used largely as a prop, instead singing along to pre-recorded tape loops. He had enough natural swagger and style to carry the performance. I saw Prince Rama years ago when they were a big presence in the Florida indie scene, and they were always charming, if a bit of a mess. Now scaled back to a duo, with a fair amount of automation, their performance at the unofficial Levitation Psych Fest was a pleasant surprise; tight, well-rehearsed, a lot of fun. (Despite its unofficial nature and slightly remote location, the Levitation Fest might have been the single best showcase of the festival, featuring memorable sets by Amen Dunes, Psychic Ills, and Sun Araw, all in a comfortable, air-conditioned venue featuring appropriately lysergic projections.) The one act that completely bucked the whole “less is more” thesis that I’ve developed is Matthew Dear, who premiered a radically expanded five-piece live band for his appearances at SXSW, transforming his moody, minimal techno-pop into an urbane, Morrissey-esque arena rock spectacle. In this instance, the extra effort paid off.
A Few Random Musings That Won’t Fit Anywhere Else
On another day, at another venue, Javelin closed out their fun, festival-sized set with a cover of “A Milli.” I am wondering if it might be advisable to institute a moratorium on white indie bands performing “funny” covers of mainstream hip-hop songs. It’s become a bit prosaic at this point, hasn’t it?
One of the potentially interesting features of an event like SXSW is that, in spite of your best-laid plans, due to delays and full venues, you will probably end up seeing a band or two that wasn’t even on your radar and being pleasantly surprised. My two SXSW discoveries are Royal Baths and White Arrows, the former a pleasantly gloomy psych-pop band from San Francisco, the latter a bunch of chill bros from Los Angeles. They were both fun. I’ve completely given up on indie rock, but apparently it hasn’t given up on me.
Honorable mention must go to Lee Fields & The Expressions as the best “ringer” performance of the conference. Lee Fields is a veteran funk/soul performer, with a band of professional players who don’t have a whole lot to do with the indie “up and comer” spirit of SXSW, but fuck it. They were amazing.
Not to get annoyingly foodie on you, but my other great discovery of SXSW was Takoyaki, a Japanese hot savory pancake ball featuring a chewy chunk of octopus in the center. I got them from a food truck called Love Balls. And if you think about it, Takoyaki is a perfect metaphor for SXSW: hot, potentially off-putting, and painfully trendy, but inside is a chewy chunk of octopus.
[Top image by Sol Republic; Doritos photo via RyanBritt; other photos by Jonathan Dean]