South By Southwest fest marks 20 years of buzz
By Craig Rosen
LOS ANGELES (Billboard) – During the past two decades, the
South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin, Texas,
has earned a reputation as the premier showcasing opportunity
in America for acts on the cusp of breaking into the
For artists from independent labels, SXSW has leveled the
playing field, building critical word-of-mouth that is as
valuable as any major-label marketing budget.
Last year the conference and its music festival brought
that boost to Hasidic reggae singer Matisyahu, who appeared at
SXSW just weeks before the release of his album, “Live at
Stubb’s.” His song, “King Without A Crown,” has become a
fixture on modern rock radio.
In 2004, it was hot Scots Franz Ferdinand who broke out,
also moving from an indie label to a major and onto mainstream
success, in part because of the buzz the band generated at
When the music conference, festival and trade show opens
March 15, the 20th anniversary of the event will once again
bring high expectations for key bands set to showcase. Critical
ears await, among others, Arctic Monkeys and Grand National
from the United Kingdom, rock duo Deadboy & the Elephantmen,
British rapper Lady Sovereign and Minneapolis-based rock act
Tapes ‘n Tapes.
In addition, the Welsh alt-rock act People in Planes is set
to headline a Billboard showcase March 16 at the Dirty Dog Bar.
Yet for every attention-grabbing breakthrough, there are
dozens of other stories of how appearing at SXSW at the right
time can alter a band’s career, thanks to the conference’s mix
of tastemaker attendees, comprising label executives, radio
programmers, journalists and other music professionals.
“Their opinion can truly shape what the rest of the
audience thinks of you,” says Wayne Coyne, frontman of the
Flaming Lips, who released their debut album on independent
Restless Records in 1985.
Coyne should know. The Flaming Lips’ SXSW appearances
during the past 10 years illustrate how an act can use the
festival as a development platform, running the gamut from
outrageous experimentation to career revitalization.
By 1997, the Flaming Lips had moved from Restless to Warner
Bros. Records, but was stalled at a crossroads marked by
personnel changes and personal tragedies. Then Coyne staged the
Parking Lot Experiment, in which he led SXSW attendees to an
Austin parking structure and instructed 30 people to
simultaneously play on their car stereos cassettes of music he
composed. The result was a bizarre symphony that reinvigorated
the act and thrilled attendees.
“It was an absurd thing to tell a couple thousand of people
to come to a parking lot and see this thing,” he recalls. “To
call this thing an ‘experiment’ would be kind … But people
showed up with their minds wide open. I think that enthusiasm
spread from Austin to the rest of the world.”
And that response opened the door for Warner Bros. to
release “Zaireeka,” the Lips’ four-CD concept album that
extended the experiment into the homes of fans.
The Lips returned to SXSW as a trio a few months prior to
the release of “The Soft Bulletin” in 1999. Coyne has been a
featured speaker at SXSW and last year a documentary about the
band, “The Fearless Freaks,” was screened there.
The promise of musical discoveries and the heady
environment of downtown Austin have led industry professionals
to keep returning to SXSW. Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan
Poneman’s first visit to SXSW was in 1992, and the indie-label
veteran has been back seven or eight times through the years.
“I love Austin, and I like the feeling of the event,” he
says. “There’s more merriment and chance for good-old fashion
hijinx and something spontaneous to happen, instead of more
calculated industry-driven events you’d find in other places.”
“There’s been so many that it’s hard to remember them all,”
he says. “But it’s done us right.” This year, the Brunettes,
Flight of the Conchords, Kelley Stolz, Band of Horses, the
Elected and Rogue Wave will perform March 17 at Sub Pop’s
showcase at Red Eyed Fly.
Poneman admits to grousing about the expense of putting on
the seemingly required showcase. “But at the end of the day, I
guess we don’t really have to be there,” he reasons. “We really
come back of our own volition and love for the event.”
Astralwerks general manager Errol Kolosine concurs that
SXSW’s location plays a tremendous part in its longevity. “The
success of the event and the geographical location of the event
are not mutually exclusive at all,” says the executive who
first attended SXSW in the late ’80s when he was working in
college radio. “Austin is very much a music town. There is a
wide array of music venues that operate year-round. It’s a
thriving and very real music community, and that’s a big part
As such, the venues usually have good sound and top-notch
crews. “Those things are crucial,” Kolosine adds. “You can
spend a ton of money and put your heart and soul into bringing
a whole slew of artists down, but if the people who are
facilitating the audience’s experience, if those people aren’t
professional and don’t have their act together, it can all be
for naught. There’s nothing worse than going through all that
trouble and then you’re at the gig and it sounds like crap.”
Another plus, Kolosine adds, is that SXSW tends to draw
music lovers with open minds. “Once it was more of a rootsy
event, more indicative of the Austin vibe than it is today,” he
says. “They’ve expanded what they do. Now we can do a gig with
bands like Hot Chip and the Juan McClean, who are a bit more
rhythmic, and people are more up for it. We had Fatboy Slim
close out our big party last year, and it was rammed.” (This
year, singer/songwriter Beth Orton will headline one of two
It was Austin’s open-minded environment that led Or Music
co-founder Michael Caplan to suggest that Matisyahu record his
debut for the label at legendary hot spot Stubb’s and later
appear at SXSW prior to its release.
While SXSW’s growth has opened the doors to more
international acts through the years, some veterans complain
that it has left some early supporters feeling squeezed out.
“I hate to say it, but it was sure fun when it was
smaller,” Frontier Records founder Lisa Fancher says. “It’s
Fancher remembers the days in the early ’90s of seeing
great bands in small venues and meeting the rock critics who
gave positive reviews to the albums on her label, but now finds
the crowds unbearable and the price of a flight, hotel room and
registration prohibitive to her small indie budget.
But just as some indie veterans have decided to forgo SXSW,
others will be returning to the festival for the first time in
years. Jay Faires, who once regularly attended the conference
as the founder of Mammoth Records, will return to SXSW after a
hiatus in his new role as president of Lions Gate Music and
“I always used to call it ‘spring break for the music
industry,’ ” he says. “There are still great bands and healthy
deal-making. And it’ll be a really good opportunity to let
people know what you’re up to.”