SXSW 2013 has come to a close. Everyone who attended the music, film and interactive festival is no doubt spending this week recuperating. After having spent the last two consecutive years at SXSW, I’ll admit that it felt weird to skip out on the festivities this year (however, Gadling’s Robin Whitney was on the ground). I went searching for a good video from the event and found this one by Giovanni Gallucci. Pairing images of live events with the streets and everything in between, Gallucci captured the essence of SXSW well with these shots. Enjoy.
When I initially began weighing my options for relocation, I was still living in New York. Austin, a purported ‘oasis’ in Texas, had only entered my mind during this process because of clamoring friends eager to direct me as I prepared for and soon voyaged away from New York. It was not easy to leave the city that had shaped me. Immediately following high school graduation, I had set off for New York with the kind of bravado only a teenager can possess — that asinine invincibility. Years flew by before I grew antsy and curious about life in other cities.
To live in L.A.: to drive with the windows down through glamorously warm-breeze-blowing nights. To live in Seattle: to meander through continuous gray days months at a time, answering the question of what to do with cozy, dedicated, indoor creation. To live in Austin: to surrender to sunny surrealism marked by hammocks and the time to lie in them, to melt into a dimension wherein the rhythm of the music is the heartbeat of the city. I needed to detox from New York; I needed a long time to pass before I heard the word “networking” again. I longed for sunshine. My music, I thought, deserved to and would best grow in a place where people harvest music. To live in Austin, to pack a 1996 Honda Accord so full with instruments that my stomach is positioned dangerously close to the steering wheel, to drive for three days without air conditioning through increasingly hotter air, to wonder if I’m making a big mistake.
New York had been my mold that cast me into adult form and I knew this. I knew it less while living in the city than I did upon trying to live in non-New York. Anyone can blend into a city like New York. People say the same thing about Austin, but I don’t think it’s true. Austin moves at a slower pace and exudes a distinct feel. But everything in Austin changes in March for SXSW.
%Gallery-151126%One thing I liked about living in New York was the feeling that everything was happening in the town where I lived and that everyone was either there or wishing they were there. Since uprooting and replanting myself in Austin, I don’t often feel this way. With the exception of SXSW, I never feel this way. Austin is a vacuum for creative professionals during SXSW. Throughout this chunk of time every March, Austin attracts entertainment industry movers and shakers from around the world. SXSW 2012 was my second “South By.” Undeniable nostalgia washed over me as the hordes of talented city-dwellers infiltrated Austin. Uneasy as it may still feel to address Austin as “my town,” it is my town for now. Living in Austin during SXSW allows me to feel as though my town is the only town on the radar for other creatives for a short period of time. It’s a chin-up, pleasing sort of feeling, but feelings toward SXSW are, like so many things, layered and complex.
Austin during SXSW reminds me of New York in that city-centric way. But as with any popular city or festival there are parallels that remind me of why I left New York in the first place. When SXSW hits Austin, residents are bombarded with inconvenience from multiple angles. Lattes cost more, beers cost more and food from restaurants or food trucks costs more, too. Traffic is already a problem in a town growing as quickly as Austin, but traffic during SXSW has become a major hindrance. Although anticipated, the expectation doesn’t make the traffic any less inconvenient. I spent nearly double what I normally spend on gas during SXSW and I didn’t travel more miles — I just spent more time sitting in traffic. Taxis, even when called in advance, may require over an hour wait. Parking is a nightmare. The buses and metro may be filled. Your bike, if it happens upon the fate of my husband’s bike, will be stolen. Drunk people scream through the streets no matter the time. Other drunk people pass out on the streets, hoping you’ll see them sprawled out on the sidewalk before tripping over their tattered skinny-jean legs. They vomit, fight, grope one another and, generally speaking, behave in ways many people would behave had they been drinking for free since 11 a.m. It seems as though no matter how much Austin prepares for SXSW, the festival continues to reel in more people than expected each year and the combined resources of the city can only go so far. Visitors should come to Austin during the festival expecting the sort of inconveniences that appear alongside an attraction this large. Residents have been taught to expect these inconveniences.
There is a silver lining among the inconveniences, though. Some of these inconveniences affect visitors only and create moneymaking opportunities for enterprising locals. Take hotels, for instance. Not only do hotels raise their rates for SXSW, but also the rooms sell out quickly and there aren’t enough rooms in town to accommodate all of the visitors. Renting a room or a house through a website like Airbnb, Homeaway or Craigslist can yield quick and easy income for an Austinite with a flexible living space. In most thinkable circumstances, SXSW provides outstanding demand for that of which there is not enough supply. Just about any local can explore myriad business opportunities during SXSW. This is a good thing. It boosts the economy of the city of Austin as a whole while simultaneously fluffing the personal bank accounts of entrepreneurial Austin residents. SXSW 2012 fluffed my income enough to afford my purchases of a PA system, 3 microphones and stands, a nice delay pedal and a new guitar amp.
The perspective I have of SXSW as a musician is one I presume is not unique. It is an incomparable festival. Life as we know it in Austin comes to a standstill for the sake of music and there is something innately rewarding about that. Music can be heard on every corner and reverb through microphones across the city tucks me into bed when I finally resign to sleep. I played two shows during SXSW and opened for two headlining acts from other cities, both of whom I like, respect and otherwise might not ever share a stage. Opportunities like these arise beneath the wings of a festival like SXSW. Music is on every mind in town during the music portion of the festival. To play with passion during SXSW should come secondhand. People are listening with passion and to be given a chance to reflect that back to an audience so easily is a gift.
The shows can be more complicated than non-SXSW shows, though. Loading gear in and out of clubs quickly to and from cars illegally parked with their hazards on in the rain. Beginning a show without much of a chance to sound check because there are simply too many bands playing for most shows to be anything other than behind schedule. Wading through some of the unavoidable slime that drips off of a certain percentage of people employed by the music industry. All of these things are par for the course, but they are sometimes illuminated during SXSW. It is mostly inspiring and fun; it is only marginally a drag. The good far outweighs the bad on the topic of playing shows during a music festival so big you can feel the current of electricity throbbing through the air.
And then SXSW ends and Austin goes eerily quiet during the gloriously peaceful week that follows.
Tens 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Over the past several years, the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) Music, Film and Interactive Conference & Festival in Austin, Texas, has topped the event calendar for industry insiders, along with anyone eager to discover the Next Big Thing. This year’s festival, which runs from March 9 to 18, promises to be the most intense yet, with hundreds of panels, workshops, concerts and events on the official schedule.
But Austin, it appears, isn’t ready for the visitor boom brought on by the two-week spectacle. In December, organizers announced that SXSW rooms had sold out in local hotels for the Interactive and Film portions of the festival, with three months left before the start of the event. Last minute attendees, in particular, have been scrambling for places to crash.
SXSW organizers have stepped in with an option. In true “interactive” spirit, the SXSW Housing Desk is encouraging individuals who booked a hotel room with two beds to offer their additional bed to a friend or colleague, or swap for a room with a single bed. They’re maintaining a waiting list for people who wish to be informed when a room opens up this way; you can get on it by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
And then, of course, there are the online options. Thousands of enterprising Austin residents are making significant chunks of change by offering their homes, spare rooms, couches, and even air mattresses to desperate attendees. Airbnb reports a 44% increase in Austin host sign-ups since January, and more than 3,000 nights have already been booked. But Airbnb’s Austin listings don’t come cheap; inflation has led to nightly rates of $200 to $2000 per night. A more lo-fi option is Craigslist’s Austin vacation rentals listings, which offer up new places seemingly by the minute and have lower average rates than those found on Airbnb. Or, try issuing a desperate plea on Facebook or Twitter. You’ll certainly have lots of company.
[image by Merrick Ales via SXSW.com]
With Austin officially now hosting A LOT more people in town thanks to SXSW, the city’s restaurants are banking on the increase in business. With SXSW beginning today, everyone is buzzing with festival plans. The parties. The shows. The drinking. But what about the eating? Austin is a city of hidden gems and among those gems are restaurants and food trucks. Make no mistake, I have barely begun to chip away at the long list of fine eateries in Austin. But I’m looking under every rock I find and a new place I love seems to pop up every few days. But since so many people will be in town over the next week and a half, and since they’ll all have to eat something, here’s a little list of my personal favorite places to eat in Austin. In no particular order, other than the order of decadent memories that come to mind:
1. East Side Showroom.
The East Side Showroom is like Moulin Rouge meets antique store meets 1920s meets great food. The cocktails are a little pricey (for Austin), but once you have one, you’ll understand why. The food is good, the art is eye-catching, the wine is savory, and the decor is romantic. And, like most places in Austin, they sometimes have live music. The food as been described as “rustic French with a soul food flair” and I second that.2. El Chilito.
El Chilito is a cute Mexican food stand up the street from me. There’s a big mustache outside that doubles as a see-saw. The food is amazing. My favorite: the fish tacos. You can’t sit inside El Chilito, there’s no space. But they have picnic tables outside in both covered and uncovered areas.
It may seem silly for me to put a ‘fast food’ joint on this list, but, I kid you not, P.Terry’s is one of my favorite discoveries since moving to Austin. It’s a burger drive-thru but here’s the difference: They’re local to Austin. They use hormone and antibiotic free meat. They only buy vegetarian-fed meat. They offer (delicious) veggie burgers. Their french fries start out as potatoes (not frozen) in their kitchen and they’re fried in 100% canola oil with no trans fat or hydrogenated oils. Their produce is organic and delivered fresh every morning. They offer wheat buns. What does this mean? Well, it means you can really taste the difference (like REALLY), and also that you can finally eat some fast food and not feel so crappy about it.
4. Home Slice.
I’ve only been outta NYC and in Austin for 5 months, so when it comes down to pizza, I’m still a New Yorker. And where the hell do I get a slice? At home slice. The stuff is good. I’m not sure if I can safely say “as good” or “the same”, but, put it this way: I’m satisfied upon that last bite. And, for what it’s worth, East Side Pies is also very good.
There’s nothing healthy about a food truck blasting music filled with people ready to make you your dream donut on demand, but there is something glorious about it. Gourdough’s is just that: a truck where you can order whatever kind of donut you want, included customized donuts. Hang tight while they make your sweet treat and remember this: one is enough for two. Or three.
I’m leaving out a bunch of favorites, but these are the first five that come to mind. Have Austin dining suggestions? Leave them for us in the comments so our Austin-going readers can dive into the goodness.