South By Southwest seems to get bigger and more commercial every year — the queues get longer, the volume of bands on show gets larger, the stunts get sillier. (At least there were no homeless dudes with wifi hotspots this year, though.) There’s been talk online that 2013 seemed to represent something of a tipping point as far as bands’ experiences of the whole strange affair went — the dude from DIIV went off on a spectacular rant about how “here, the music comes last,” and even peace-and-love neo-hippies Foxygen had a hissy fit at one of their fans. All of which raises the question: Is SXSW worth the trouble any more? We asked a bunch of our favorite bands to find out.
“SXSW is overwhelmingly large and I think it could be a bit more curated,” says Jessica Numsuwankijkul. “It seems as if there’s more of an emphasis on getting as many bands as humanly possible to play at this point, so it’s incredibly easy for a band to get lost in the shuffle.” Numsuwankijkul plays guitar and sings in the most excellent Heliotropes, who were one of five bands we spoke to about this year’s SXSW Music Festival. All of them spoke with a measure of ambivalence about the value of the experience in 2013 (except Australian purveyor of excellent strangeness Kirin J. Callinan, who didn’t make it to Austin at all: “Was on the official line up… didn’t board the plane,” he chuckles. “Perhaps this, in part, answers your question”).
If there’s a unifying theme from the bands we spoke to who did make it to Austin, it’s that anyone going to SXSW looking to be “discovered” is being unrealistic. In this respect, the festival’s like CMJ — perhaps bands genuinely did get discovered at some point in the past, but those days are long gone, and these days the festival is more about building on an existing presence (or “buzz,” if you must) than creating a new one. Cameron Matthews of Brookyln indie band (and Xmas parodists par excellence) Bear Ceuse offers the following cautionary example: “Although getting discovered at SXSW could potentially happen, I would advise against that type of thinking. We played two showcases for this small time company, and the head of it said he was going to bring in a bunch of industry people, etc. He gushed about us for weeks leading up to the show. [He] never even showed up.”
Still, Matthews is philosophical about the whole thing: “I knew he was full of shit from the beginning,” he says, “so it didn’t really bother me. EVERYONE in music is at SXSW. So the chances of getting discovered are greater than playing a random Friday night in Brooklyn.” The problem, of course, is that playing in Austin also costs a whole lot more than playing on a random Friday night in Brooklyn does. Matthews agrees: “To new bands, I would say this: Don’t get to SXSW unless you can afford it. It’s going to set you back a whole lot.”
All in all, this seems to be the consensus — it’s a slog, it’s expensive, but it’s probably still worth doing just because everyone else is there. Still, not everyone feels this way; Jakub Alexander, who produces beautiful ambient music under the moniker Heathered Pearls, is decidedly upbeat about the whole Austin experience. “Don’t listen to that bullshit about corporate-funded shows and too many bands,” he says. “Even though I cracked my shoulder blade in a hockey game a week before [SXSW], I loved it, because I was staying with friends and Ghostly labelmates. It’s about the experience of being at a fractured festival that splits up a town and spills into a crowd of fans hopping around and enjoy[ing] youth and new music. If you’re [a] young [band] I say go hard. Try playing six shows. It’s not about collecting Facebook fans and Twitter followers, because that’s just a waste of time — it’s about being there and having an experience to share, good or bad.”
This is a sentiment echoed by Alexander’s Ghostly label mates Beacon, who visited Austin for the first time this year. “The idea of trying to get ‘discovered’ in that chaos seems like a drag,” says Beacon’s Jacob Gossett. “[But] I think [SXSW] is worth doing because it’s unlike anything a young band has probably experienced.” The festival certainly brings its share of unique experiences: “We did this really cool thing where we played at this tiny red-lit studio at the Fader Fort while people gawked at us like we were whores in an Amsterdam window,” says Numsuwankijkul. “The show was broadcast to Amsterdam.”
The attraction of SXSW, of course, is the chance to see a bunch of other bands. Being a fan in Austin presents challenges of its own, and being in a band doesn’t change that (except for the fact that it might let you score a badge if you’re lucky). “As a fan,” says Beacon’s Thomas Mullarney, “you can’t really treat [SXSW] like a regular music festival because it’s just so chaotic. The corporate sponsorship around it is more goofball than anything so it’s hard to get legitimately bummed about it being there.” All our interviewees cited being able to see at least one band they liked and/or a happy discovery (names to note include Finnish experimentalists K-X-P, King Midas Sound alter ego The Bug, Nashville noiseniks Diarrhea Planet, LA producer Daedelus, and Oakland neo-glam types Warm Soda), which is a pretty decent return on a few days of charging around seeing things left, right, and center.
Ultimately, the best summation of the whole experience comes from Matthews: “If you can get a showcase you’re excited to play and the free wristband to see some other bands you’re excited to see, then it’s worth it. If you can afford it.”