Austin fest starts the buzz
South by Southwest can be a band's tipping point
If you heard a low thrumming sound emanating from Texas a couple of weeks ago, it was probably the industry buzz being created by local indie sensations Menomena at this year's South by Southwest music conference and festival.
Now in its 21st year, the event brought more than 11,000 registrants, 1,500 bands from 38 countries and countless hangers-on to Austin, Texas - including Chris Myhill, an agent from one of London's top booking agencies, who came to the convention specifically to catch the Portland band.
'I'm besotted with them,' he says. 'They are truly magnificent. Everyone should welcome Menomena into their lives.'
Myhill's last SXSW catch, some six years back, was Death Cab for Cutie, a band unknown in Europe at the time. It's that chance to discover - or be discovered - that has fueled the convention's growth from a sleepy regional event to what amounts to an international musical tornado.
It's a tornado that seemed on the verge of consuming itself last year, as participants swelled to what were once unthinkable numbers and the explosion of day parties threatened to overshadow the conference itself.
The music industry - currently fueled by uncertainty and dogged by sagging record sales - should take lessons from SXSW, which took over Austin from March 9 through March 18. Rather than hang on to outdated models of what worked in the past and become irrelevant, the conference retooled and played to its strengths.
Daytime parties featuring buzz bands and free beer still abounded, but SXSW used its clout to provide official programming that gave those events a run for their money for the first time in years.
Day panels took on new relevance, with subjects like 'Greening the Music Industry,' 'China's Emerging Market' and 'Reinventing Payment Models for Digital Music.'
Sure, you could catch Canadian buzz band Tokyo Police Club at the Onion's day party - but that might mean missing SXSW's Iggy Pop interview, or a fantastically relaxed and humorous keynote address from the Who's Pete Townshend.
The beer might not have been free at the afternoon interview/ performance that singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock and veteran producer Joe Boyd shared at the convention center, but the chance to watch, listen and learn as Hitchcock followed Boyd's narratives about working with artists like Nick Drake and Syd Barrett (who had a profound influence on Hitchcock's development as an artist) provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity - the chance to see art and history come to life.
Interestingly, it was career artists like Pop, Townshend and Hitchcock rather than newcomers like Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse who generated the biggest buzz this year.
The Stooges and Public Enemy turned in two of the most inspired - and talked about - performances. And while Menomena's official showcase had a line around the block, the same could be said of Hüsker Dü's Bob Mould, who shared the same stage four hours earlier.
PDX in the house
Portland was well-represented by a variety of artists and businesspeople, each of whom had varying perspectives. Long-term veteran Mike Jones of CD Forge noted that 'the whole event had a certain amount of energy that it hasn't had in the past few years,' while first-time participant/up-and-coming singer-songwriter Laura Gibson's initial response was nervousness.
'Not so much about playing music,' she says, 'but it sounded really overwhelming. I ended up having a great time and meeting a bunch of good people - people I know I'm going to be really good friends with and good business contacts. I was really happy that I went.'
Stars of Track and Field's Dan Orvik, whose band played eight shows over the course of this year's convention, laughed that he was too tired to notice a difference between this year's SXSW and last, except for people wearing the band's T-shirts this time around.
'It feels like playing (SXSW) last year helped,' he says. 'We were a buzz band last year, so I don't know what to call us this year - a little more established?'
It's spring break for fans
But SXSW is not without its frustrations.
'Just as Sundance has become the vacation destination for film buffs, SXSW is now spring break for music fans,' notes graphic designer and poster artist Mike King, who attended his 10th conference this year.
'The popularity of the festival has made it increasingly difficult to actually see anything, and each year the lines just get longer.'
Frustrations not withstanding, SXSW still offers the occasional magical moment. At 1 a.m. Friday night, unknown Australian rockers Dallas Crane took the stage in front of fewer than 20 people at a faceless club on Sixth Street. Playing as if their lives depended on it, they stopped passers-by in their tracks.
By the end of their set, the venue was full, and the band emerged with a new batch of ecstatic converts.
The spring break revelers and trend-chasers can wait in their lines. It's moments like those - and the chance to catch enduring artists like Alejandro Escovedo and Imperial Teen, and rarely seen international acts like You Am I and the Hoodoo Gurus - that have kept me going to SXSW for 16 years now, and will keep me coming back time and time again.