A record exec’s guide to South by Southwest (SXSW)

photo paul mccartney neil youngTens of thousands of hipsters and wannabe hipsters from around the world will be converging on Austin this week for the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) music, film and technology festival, now in its 26th year. What started as a music showcase for some 172, mostly regional, bands in 1987 has gradually expanded into the global colossus that SXSW has become. Last year the festival featured more than 2,000 bands from 58 countries, nearly 20,000 interactive conference participants, and more than 13,000 film conference participants from 38 countries.

SXSW also introduced two new components last year: a fashion expo and an education conference called SXSWedu. But SXSW is still best known as the world’s largest music industry gathering and each year, unknown bands are discovered there while established stars come out of the woodwork to play unadvertised, pop-up shows in small venues. Visiting Austin during SXSW, which begins on March 9 for the film and interactive component and March 13 for the music festival, can be a tribulation, but it’s also an incredible opportunity to hear a staggering variety of emerging and established artists, often in intimate venues.

We talked to Michael Howe, vice president of A&R for the Capitol/Virgin Label Group in Los Angeles, in order to help readers understand what SXSW is all about. (He’s the guy who isn’t Neil Young or Paul McCartney in the photo above.) Howe is responsible for discovering new talent and helping to advance the careers of established groups. He has been attending SXSW every year for more than a decade.

You’ve been going to SXSW for 12 years. It’s no longer just about the music, right?

Right. Now they have a film portion and an interactive portion that precede the music event. I think the interactive element has become the most attended of the bunch.

The SXSW fact sheet from last year says that there were more than 49,000 people at the event. What’s it like to have that many creative types all in the same city at one time?

It’s overwhelming. They close 6th street down and allow only pedestrian traffic on it. The only thing I could compare it to is Mardi Gras. It’s a total, round-the-clock bacchanal, essentially. It’s music from dawn until the following dawn, a 24-hour orgy of music and drinking.

Are there beads and flashers like at Mardi Gras?

I’ve seen some of those hijinks. The whole thing can be obnoxious. I’m there for work, but for the average person who goes there to hear great music and party, it’s a great time. There are thousands of bands there every year. There are bands who play seven to eight times over a thee to four day period, there are shows in the morning, there are shows that begin at 2:30 a.m. The convention has keynote speakers too. Springsteen is giving it this year; Robert Plant did it last year.Can you recommend a few acts that will be performing at SXSW this year?

There’s a band called Wild Belle from Chicago who I think will be among the buzzier bands down there. They’re very good but not yet signed. There’s also a kid called Allen Stone who is very good and attracting a lot of attention. He’s 23 or 24. He’s like a soulful kind of a white Marvin Gaye, with a guitar. I like him a lot. I’d say the other buzz bands to see are Hospitality, FIDLAR, Chasing Kings, Policia, and Lucius to name just a few.

fleet foxes playing guitar photoWhat do you see a lot of during SXSW? Beards, tattoos, what else?

The beard has certainly made a comeback. The authentic, corduroy Laurel Canyon kind of rock vibe with Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver, and a bunch of other artists in that world are very popular. There’s been a fashion movement that has followed them. And of course, there’s still a contingent of tattooed rockers, but there’s also world music, instrumental bands, pretty much anything you want for the taking.

No one wears a suit, do they?

Very few people show up in a suit at SXSW. If you wore one, you’d be part of a very small minority. I wouldn’t want to try it.

And aside from all the musicians and filmmakers, and what not, there are plenty of corporate cool-hunters at this as well, right?

Sure. There are definitely trend spotters there, to be sure. It’s viewed as a place where the coolest of the cool emerges.

Jessica Marati recently wrote about how to score a hotel room in Austin during SXSW. It isn’t easy, is it?

The whole town is usually sold out. The locus of the festival is along the 6th Street corridor downtown and all the hotels within striking distance of that will be sold out months and months in advance, probably by July of the previous year. The festival blocks out a lot of rooms for registered participants of SXSW, so it’s hard for anyone who isn’t registered to get a prime hotel.

driskill hotelWhere have you stayed over the years?

I like to stay at the Driskill, which is at 6th and Brazos. There’s a place called the Stephen Austin Intercontinental, which is a block away and is also nice. I’ve stayed at the Omni. I’ve stayed at the Four Seasons. This year, I have to split my stay. I’m staying at the Hyatt, on the other side of the river, for one night and at the Radisson Town Lake because I couldn’t get one room for my whole stay. I booked my airfare in October and all the hotels were already sold out.

Are the hotels gouging people?

They completely gouge you. The W, for instance, is $709 per night.

The walk up rate for a music pass is $750. That’s pretty steep too, isn’t it?

It is. It entitles you to go to the panels and get into all the official SXSW shows. Theoretically, with that badge you can get into anything you want at any time. But there are so many people that if the venue can’t hold more people, they won’t let you in. Sometimes spending the money on the badge, unless you are really strategic about it, doesn’t really make a lot of sense. If every gig has a $10 cover, even if you see 70 gigs, that’s still cheaper.

Will the bouncers deny you entrance even if you’re with a major record label?

Definitely. They don’t care who you are. It’s first come, first served.

There are dozens of venues, any that you like in particular?

La Zona Rosa is decent but off-the-beaten track. Emo’s is pretty good. I also like Antone’s. Generally, Stubb’s has worthwhile stuff. Stubb’s is a large, outdoor venue, the capacity is probably a couple thousand people outside. Emo’s has several rooms, but they probably accommodate 800-1000. Maggie Mae’s is another good one.

Back when you first started attending SXSW, record execs were handing out contracts to pretty much anyone who could carry a tune, is that right?

That still happens, artists and bands go there to be discovered, but it’s turned into more of a network, showcasey-type environment for signed bands who emerge into the public sphere from down there. Up until around 2001 or 2002, the record labels were essentially printing money. There were many, many more deals getting done and the size of the deals were a lot bigger. Companies were taking things off the marketplace to prevent competitors from getting them. It was a completely different climate than it is now.

So what chance does the average band that turns up at SXSW now have to get signed?

If they’re a run-of-the-mill band, their chances aren’t very good. Major labels are signing stuff they can turn into a hit very quickly. If you’re a competent, but unremarkable band it’s very, very unlikely you’ll get a deal at SXSW or anywhere else for that matter.

How many of the bands performing at SXSW are signed versus unsigned acts?

Hard to say because it’s become much easier for bands to release their own records. Any band can have its own label now and have something up on iTunes. When I started, that wasn’t possible. Of the higher profile showcase shows there, almost all of those acts are signed already. But there are usually three or four, at best, buzz bands that come out of SXSW every year that all of the labels, indie or major, are talking about that end up getting signed.

Every night there are also surprise performances. Springsteen is going to play an intimate gig down there this year. I don’t know where, but he will since he’s the keynote speaker. Willy Nelson usually plays a surprise show. Prince shows up every once in a while. The Foo Fighters have played. McCartney, Robert Plant. I could see The Stones showing up. Anything is possible there.

How do people find out about the secret gigs?

Through Twitter, or the SXSW website, or through fan clubs or word of mouth. Catching those kinds of gigs is usually about being in the right place at the right time.

You’ll be there for five days. How many bands will you see?

I’ll probably see between 75-100 bands.

How long do you stay if you’re not into the band? If the first song sounds bad, will you wait to hear what the second song sounds like?

Not down there I won’t. Here in L.A., I would give them a few songs, but at SXSW, you don’t have the luxury of time.

What’s the quickest you’ve ever bailed out of a show for a band you were considering for the label?

Two minutes, probably less for sure. If something has no emotional or artistic resonance or there was no star in the band, nothing drawing me to the music or the band, then I don’t stay.

cold war kids playing guitarHave you discovered or signed bands at SXSW over the years?

I have. I signed Cold War Kids when I was with Downtown Records. I signed a guy called Brett Dennen.

It’s always fun to take a look at the SXSW band lineup and see all the great band names. This year, I like Bipolar Gentleman, Peanut Butter Wolf, More or Les, Teenburger, Pimps of Joytime, and Reptile Youth.

Those are good ones. There are some bands that have terrible names that are pretty beholden to them. There are times when I scroll down a list, though, and decide I don’t want to see something based upon their name.

How can people enjoy seeing this many bands in one week?

Bring earplugs. Try to pace yourself. Drink a lot of water. Go back to the hotel and sit in the air conditioning. Read a little bit. Just take some breaks from the music.

Would you recommend people attend the entire festival or just a day or two?

Probably not the whole thing. Go for a day or two. It’s ambitious to stick it out the whole time. By Saturday, you’re shredded. There’s no off-day, so the whole thing is a crush. Thursday and Friday are probably the busiest days though.

Is there an equivalent to this in Europe or other parts of the world?

There’s a festival in the U.K. in Brighton called the Great Escape, which isn’t nearly as well attended but is starting to gain some traction. There’s one in Iceland called Airwaves that tends to draw a good number of Europeans. But SXSW is the premier festival for the music industry. It’s a very international festival.

But most of the international bands sing in English, I assume?

Most but not all. There are Swedish bands who sing in Swedish. And look at Sigur Ros, they sing in their own language, Hopelandic, and they’re popular.

[Photo one supplied by Michael Howe. Photo two of Fleet Foxes via Martijin on Flickr. Photo three of Driskill Hotel via Rutlo on Flickr. Photo four of Cold War Kids by bahoolala on Flickr.]

A travel guide to the 2011 Oscar movies

Travel guide to Oscar moviesThe 83rd annual Academy Awards are coming up in a few weeks and the Oscars race is on. This year’s nominations contained few surprises, with many nods for Brit period piece The King’s Speech, Facebook biopic The Social Network, and headtrip Inception. While 2010’s ultimate travel blockbuster Eat, Pray, Love failed to made the cut, there’s still plenty to inspire wanderlust among the Best Picture picks.

Read on for a travel guide to the best movies of 2010 and how to create your own Oscar-worthy trip.

127 HoursLocation: Danny Boyle’s nail-biter was shot on location in Utah’s Blue John Canyon near Moab and on a set in Salt Lake City. Go there: Should you want to explore Moab’s desert and canyons while keeping all limbs intact, check out Moab in fall for bike races and art festivals.



Black Swan
Location: Much of the ballet psychodrama was shot in New York City, though the performances were filmed upstate in Purchase, New York. Go there: To see the real “Swan Lake” on stage at Lincoln Center, you’ll have to hope tickets aren’t sold out for the New York City Ballet, performing this month February 11-26.

The FighterLocation: in the grand tradition of Oscar winners Good Will Hunting and The Departed, the Mark Wahlberg boxing flick was filmed in Massachusetts, in Micky Ward’s real hometown of Lowell, 30 miles north of Boston. Go there: For a map of locations in Lowell, check out this blog post and perhaps spot Micky Ward at the West End Gym.

InceptionLocation: The setting of this film depends on what dream level you’re in. The locations list includes Los Angeles, England, Paris, Japan, even Morocco. Go there: There are plenty of real locations to visit, including University College London and Tangier’s Grand Souk. Canada’s Fortress Mountain Resort where the snow scenes were shot is currently closed, but you can ski nearby in Banff.



The Kids Are All Right
Location: Director Lisa Cholodenko is a big fan of southern California, she also filmed the 2002 Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles. Go there: Love it or hate it, L.A. is still a top travel destination in the US and perhaps this year you can combine with a trip to Vegas, if the X Train gets moving.

The King’s SpeechLocation: A prince and a commoner in the wedding of the century. Sound familiar? This historical drama was shot in and around London, though stand-ins were used for Buckingham Palace’s interiors. Go there: It might be hard to recreate the vintage look of the film, but London is full of atmospheric and historic architecture and palaces to visit. If you’re a sucker for English period films or places Colin Firth has graced, tour company P & P Tours can show you around many historic movie locations like Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.

The Social NetworkLocation: Another Massachusetts and California movie, this very academic film shot at many college and prep school campuses, but none of them Harvard, which hasn’t allowed film crews in decades. Go there: If you enjoyed the Winklevoss rowing scene, head to England this summer for the Henley Royal Regatta June 29 – July 3.

Toy Story 3 – Location: The latest in the Pixar animated trilogy is set at the Sunnyside Daycare. Go there: Reviews are mixed, but Disney’s Hollywood Studios has a new Pixar parade, to let fans see their favorite characters in “person.” Visit any Disney gift shop to make your own toy story.

True Grit – Location: The Coen brothers western remake may be set in 19th century Arkansas, but it was filmed in modern day Santa Fe, New Mexico and Texas, taking over much of towns like Granger. Go there: If you’re a film purist or big John Wayne fan, you can tour the locations of the original film in Ouray County, Colorado.

Winter’s Bone – Location: Many moviegoers hadn’t heard of this film when nominations were announced, set and shot in the Ozark Mountains in southern Missouri. Go there: The difficult film centers around the effects of methamphetamine on a rural family, but travel destinations don’t get much more wholesome than Branson, Missouri. Bring the family for riverboat shows and the best bathroom in the country.

[Photo by Flickr user Lisa Norman]

Five reasons to visit Monaco next year

Surrounded by France, except for a stretch along the Mediterranean, Monaco is a destination for the wealthy, as well as those with a penchant for auto racing or roulette. The only other ostensible reason to visit this tiny principality is curiosity — especially for Americans, it’s hard to believe that a plot of land that small could actually be its own country! Well, good things tend to come in small packages, and Monaco is no different. Monaco stands on its own, warranting a visit that’s more than an add-on to a vacation in France.

Need a reason? I have five for you, all at least a tad off-beat.

1. You can walk the entire country end-to-end
So, it’s not a journey worthy of a Jules Verne story, or for that matter, Michael Palin. But, it’s still pretty cool to brag that you’ve walked an entire country … in only one day. Monaco is only 0.76 square miles, so you’ll even be able to stop for lunch and a spin of the wheel at Casino de Monte-Carlo.

2. The Prince is everywhere
Every business establishment has a portrait of the country’s ruler, Prince Albert II, displayed prominently. It’s like experiencing a touch of North Korea in Europe: creepy but not scary.

3. The changing of the guard is … ummmm … unique
I had visions of Arlington National Cemetery while waiting for the changing of the guard in Monaco: proud, disciplined, military personnel flawlessly executing tightly scripted movements. Nope. Some were a tad tubby to bee soldiers. A few had trouble staying in step. Rifles were propped at varying angles, though fortunately all on right shoulders. It was comical. I offered to help, but Prince A. still hasn’t responded to my open letter.

4. You could be set for life
There’s always a shot that you could find fortune at the casinos. Win big, and you won’t have to worry about working again (hey, stretch out that vacation a bit!). Since the house always wins in the end, you’ll probably want to have a backup plan. I suggest love. Try to score a future as a mistress or boy-toy: Monaco is committed to equal opportunity. The hours are great, as is the compensation. But, the work can suck from time to time.

5. Nerds are welcomed desired
Actuaries and risk geeks should hit Monaco during the annual Rendez-Vous conference for the reinsurance industry. Even if you aren’t part of the official festivities, this event is one of the country’s biggest draws, beat only by the Grand Prix in terms of cash brought in. Everyone loves the risk crowd, so drop your slide rule, and get busy!

Oh, and you can do all the usual stuff, too. Tour the palace, hit the beach and try to sneak onto a rich guy’s yacht — it’s all in good fun. Just make sure you can outrun the local army if you try this last one. It’s not hard, though, and you’re never more than a few miles from the border.

[Photo by Salvatore.Freni via Flickr]