Music still has fans. That’s the annual affirmation at the South by Southwest Music Festival, known as SXSW, a music conference and staging ground for some 1,900 acts that brings platoons of clubgoers downtown here every spring — some paying up to US$695 for an official registration badge, others freeloading at the many unofficial parties and showcases that give bands multiple chances to perform during the festival’s four most frenetic days.
While CD sales topple, and major and indie labels struggle, at this year’s 23rd annual SXSW people have been turned away from packed clubs where they are clamoring to see bands that are far from household names: Grizzly Bear, Peter Bjorn and John, St Vincent. Full houses chanted along to indie hip-hop and pondered broken hearts and God to the picking of Americana bands. Those musicians draw their audiences from people who chase down music in the news media, in blogs and on noncommercial radio stations — or maybe from a friend’s recommendation or a giveaway on a music downloading site.
Although the conference does not release attendance figures until after it’s over, its managing director, Roland Swenson, has said that there are fewer paid registrations this year.
Photo courtesy of SkyHigh Photography
One factor is the general economic downturn and, in particular, the dwindling of record-company expense accounts as labels continue to cut costs and shed jobs, although recordings are only part of a music business that also involves touring, merchandising, publishing, sponsorships and licensing.
Any dip has been imperceptible among the throngs on East Sixth Street or Red River, the two main strips of clubs in downtown Austin. At SXSW, the music business reminds itself that people do actually care enough about music to seek it out. The clubs are crowded, partly because the festival sells passes that cover all the showcases, encouraging an all-you-can-hear approach. (Labels and publishers have resisted a similar subscription model for selling recordings, although there are online subscription services for streaming playback.)
Many of the fans in the clubs have most likely heard their chosen bands via free downloads, legal or illegal; there are legal ones for many of the SXSW bands at www.sxsw.com. But as the music business is coming to understand, the ancient model of the touring troubadour may turn out to be the 21st-century model for a working musician’s livelihood.
Photo courtesy of Heather Kennedy
And there are plenty of bands still ready to jump in a van, sleep on couches, set up their own equipment and play three shows a day for a chance to be noticed. They no longer expect to be handed “the standard rich-and-famous contract,” as one musician put it, but perhaps they’ll find a booking agent, an impromptu interview or a new fan with a clever idea for a T-shirt design.
SXSW isn’t just for unknowns and lesser-knowns. It pulls older bands out of mothballs; this year the lineup includes the Sonics, Devo, Echo and the Bunnymen, Primal Scream and the Memphis soul band the Bar-Kays. Meanwhile, with just about every media organization that covers music in town, well-known current bands are eager to use SXSW as a marketing springboard. The multimillion-selling Metallica, promoting its tie-in with the video game Guitar Hero, was due to play a not-so-secret show on Friday night at Stubb’s BBQ.
On Wednesday, the music festival’s opening night, the Decemberists introduced their new album, The Hazards of Love (Capitol) — an hourlong, uninterrupted rock opera and fable about love and murder— by playing it from start to finish for a full house at Stubb’s and an NPR Web cast that can be downloaded free from npr.org.
The music segued from delicate, Celtic-folk-rooted ballads to stomping, 1970s-flavored riff-rock and back, as the Decemberists’ songwriter, Colin Meloy, portrayed both the album’s romantic hero and its sociopathic villain. Becky Stark from Lavender Diamond and Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond sang the female characters. Parts of the music were too delicate for the boisterous SXSW crowd, but the music held up as a coherent structure, with passages that grew stronger each time they recurred.
Grizzly Bear, whose album Veckatimest (Warp) is due for release on May 26, had an ideal place — the resonant Central Presbyterian Church — to perform its new songs on Thursday night. They are otherworldly meditations that dissolve from a handful of pensive, open-ended lyrics into wordless, rapturous vocal harmonies that floated through the hushed room.
Another superb New York band, Dirty Projectors, introduced songs from its next album, Bitte Orca (Domino), due in June, including the dizzying, pointillistic vocal mesh of a song called Remade Horizon that can be heard at npr.org.
Big Boi, half of the Atlanta hip-hop duo OutKast, was less generous with new material in his quick-rhyming, upbeat set on Thursday night. His long-delayed first solo album, Sir Luscious Left Foot, is now due for release in June or July, he announced. But he devoted most of the set to OutKast songs, only unveiling one new track, Backup Plan, and his verses of a song that also has other rappers on it, Royal Flush, which was just leaked online.
SXSW has positioned itself as a one-stop opportunity to make contacts across the American music business, and it has had a steadily increasing presence for bands from abroad. This year there were 594 international acts at official showcases.
One startling British import was Micachu and the Shapes, a trio of former music school students who love bare-bones structures. Mica Levi’s terse, choppy songs for the group use dissonant guitar chords, hardheaded lyrics, a swinging drumbeat, perky keyboard hooks and contrapuntal cowbells, among other things, for songs with the ebullience of a skiffle band and the hardheadedness of hip-hop.
Other international arrivals included Blk Jks (pronounced Black Jacks), a South African band that mingles brisk, triplet-driven, African-rooted rhythms with eruptions of neo-psychedelic guitar and echoey vocals, reminiscent of American progressive rock bands like the Mars Volta. Oh Land, a Danish trio suggesting Bjork leading the Pointer Sisters, sang about frostbite and earthquakes with synchronized moves and odd hats.
Not that American bands were scarce, whether they were playing revved-up, post-punk Minimalism, like Abe Vigoda, from Los Angeles, or Dylanesque Americana, like Elvis Perkins in Dearland (leaning toward rockabilly and gospel) and the Portland band Blitzen Trapper (applying new-wave concision to the sound of the Band). Groups like those can look forward, if they’re lucky, to careers on the road, perhaps with an occasional windfall from placing a song in a soundtrack or a commercial. But on a beery Austin night in a packed club, that can sound like enough.
With most of his village preferring to converse in Mandarin, opportunities are scant for 81-year-old Kacaw to use his mother language of Amis. But things are changing in his household — one day the family was having an animated discussion when his plucky four-year-old granddaughter Nikal bursts into the room: “You should talk in the mother tongue,” she tells them loudly in Amis. Another time, Nikal’s uncle Yosifu, a well-known artist, overheard her arguing with her grandmother over rights to the television remote — “in our mother tongue,” he tells me excitedly. “With such visible change, I can see hope
Deaths, economic meltdown and a planet on lockdown: the coronavirus pandemic has brought us waves of bad news, but squint and you might just see a few bright spots. From better hygiene that has reduced other infectious diseases to people reaching out as they self-isolate, here are some slivers of silver linings during a bleak moment. WASH YOUR HANDS! The message from health professionals has been clear from the start of the outbreak: wash your hands. Everyone from celebrities to politicians has had a go at demonstrating correct technique — including singing Happy Birthday twice through to make sure you scrub long enough, and
Within 10 minutes of the train pulling into Chaojhou (潮州) in Pingtung County, I’d retrieved my bike from a paid-parking compound and initiated the fitness tracking app on my phone. Just one thing bothered me: The color of the sky. I cycled southeast, passing the shuttered Dashun General Hospital (大順醫院). Given everything that’s going on in the world, I couldn’t help but think: If the government needs extra facilities to handle the COVID-19 epidemic, this sizable building could perhaps be brought back into service. After crossing Highway 1 (台1線), I skirted a settlement established after 2009’s Typhoon Morakot disaster, during which
While those of us stuck in self-isolation or working from home watch TikTok videos and refresh liveblogs, a meme has been going around that claims Shakespeare made use of being quarantined during the plague to write King Lear. The Bard supposedly took advantage of the Globe’s lengthy closure to get on top of his writing in-tray — coming up with Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra to boot. If you weren’t panicky enough about how little you’ve achieved recently, this is surely a way to feel worse. Why aren’t you finally dusting off that novel or screenplay you’ve been itching to