The sound and sight of pounding rain in Austin, Texas, has been rare since I moved to Austin in late 2010. Most Austinites I know welcome gray skies with open arms — relishing in the greener landscape that the rain brings. But a sizable chunk of Austin’s economy revolves around SXSW, an annual interactive, film, and music event that seems to grow exponentially each year. With the growth of the festival comes the expansion of festival events. Film screenings, tech panels, concerts, and other related activities spill onto the streets, overtake parking lots, and set up shop in other, seemingly unlikely, outdoor areas. A few days ago, event planners began rushing to prepare for SXSW 2012 rain. All over Austin, SXSW producers are currently racing to adequately care for expensive gear crucial to upcoming events related to each of the three industries represented at the festival. Meanwhile, attendees are already pinching through the streets with umbrellas in hand and galoshes on foot. This will be the scenery for the hundreds of thousands of people traveling from across the globe to Austin for SXSW. If I may offer a silver lining to travelers: while in Austin, feel free to refill your water glass at bars, coffee shops, and restaurants — the “every ounce counts” signs will invariably bare less meaning by the end of the festival.
A record exec’s guide to South by Southwest (SXSW)
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?
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.
What 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.
Where 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.
Have 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.]
How to find a last-minute room in Austin for SXSW
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 email@example.com.
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]
3 places to work in Austin
Whether you’re heading to Austin for SXSW soon or you’re already in town for the Interactive portion of the festival, you are probably going to have to do some work while in Austin. After all, not everyone gets to party hard and only party hard for the entire week of SXSW. In fact, lots of folks come to Austin for SXSW because of work and, by virtue of that fact, must find a way to work, no matter the noise, no matter the tempting distractions. If you’re trying to figure out where in the world of Austin you’ll be able to get some wifi and a seat, here are 3 suggestions of Where to Work in Austin that I think will, well, work for you.
1. Zhi Tea.
Want to have a table to yourself in a quiet, peaceful space? Go to Zhi Tea. Zhi Tea is an oasis of a workspace on Austin’s East Side. It’s not actually that far from the SXSW action, but you can bet it will be significantly untouched by the madness compared to workspace options downtown. Not even 3 miles east of downtown (follow East 7th straight east until Springdale, turn left and go up to Bolm), Zhi Tea is the place to go if you really need a break from SXSW–a break that will actually do the trick and successfully refresh you enough to continue enjoying the festivities. Jeff, the owner, is not only cool, but he’s incredibly knowledgeable about tea. As he should be. Their tea is organic and much of it is handcrafted. They have a large selection of oolong teas and I recommend you try them. You’ll find their gallery to be your zen-source amid the fiery chaos and well worth the little bitty trek.2. Bennu.
Bennu Coffee is a 24 hour coffee shop on MLK on Austin’s East Side. In fact, it’s where I’m sitting and working right now as I write this. The music is usually good. The same goes for the art. And the coffee? It’s always good. The space is large with couch, table, bar, and patio seating. They have food, free wifi, and incredibly friendly employees. You’ll find that Bennu is always populated with college students, but hey, they’re just trying to work, just like you. Hop in late at night or early morning for an especially peaceful place to work.
3. Summer Moon.
Summer Moon is located on South 1st. And it’s far south enough on 1st that you should be able to focus a little better than you will closer to downtown. Granted, the space is limited inside Summer Moon, but they have outdoor seating, as well. Make sure to try their special ‘moon milk’ in one of your drinks. No one really knows what it is, not even the employees (it’s pre-made by the owner), but one thing it definitely is is delicious.
Have suggestions of other places good for focused work in Austin during SXSW? Let us know in the comments.
5 places to eat in Austin
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.