Every spring thousands of musicians and music industry professionals forgo the typical spring break vacations of beaches and relaxation for five days of non-stop networking, live performances and barbecue in Austin, Texas for the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference.
South by Southwest — more commonly referred to as SXSW — is part of a larger contingent of entertainment and business-oriented conferences that also include a film and interactive technology component. The festival brings together all facets of the music business, both independent and corporate, together for industry panels during the day and live performances at night.
While nearly all musical genres are represented at SXSW, the festival and conference are known for the large number of indie bands that descend on Austin hoping to find their big break. In years past, bands such as Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand were discovered at the festival.
As such, bloggers and indie record executives flood the streets of Downtown Austin hoping to find the next buzzworthy band of the indie world.
Quite unexpectedly, however, most of the season’s biggest buzz bands failed to impress the slew of industry professionals that rushed to catch the packed performances. Groups such as Dum Dum Girls, Best Coast and Toro Y Moi elicited more yawns than applause throughout the week.
The topic of disappointing new talent even arose in several of the morning panels; Christopher Weingarten, a music journalist most famous for his 1,000 album reviews via Twitter, commented multiple times that he found West Palm Beach-based surf rock revivalists Surfer Blood “extremely boring.”
In fact, some of SXSW’s best performances came from the most unexpected of places.
Amid the slew of much-lauded bands on the Sub Pop showcase lineup, the newly-signed Happy Birthday stole the show with an infectious set of grunge-tinged pop while Los Angeles-bred Avi Buffalo — whose members recently graduated from high school — displayed a far more refined and developed style than would be expected from a group so new to the underground music scene.
In addition to Avi Buffalo, hundreds of other Los Angeles-based groups played performances throughout the duration of SXSW; bands such as Pearl Harbor, Wounded Lion, the Entrance Band, Fool’s Gold and Pocahaunted peppered multiple party and showcase lineups while No Age surprised longtime fans by playing sets comprised almost entirely of new material from their upcoming album.
One of the most talked about performances before SXSW began was the highly-anticipated return of Courtney Love, fronting a new incarnation of her 1990s alt-rock band Hole.
Although the featured performers differed significantly from the classic Hole lineup, Love’s performance at Stubb’s BBQ for Spin Magazine’s 25th anniversary show marked the band’s first U.S. performance in 10 years.
Playing to a packed house — and to an even larger crowd of those not lucky enough to receive passes to the showcase crowded around the venue — Love blazed through several of her most well-known Hole tracks (“Miss World,” “Violet”) while focusing primarily on new material from the band’s upcoming album, Nobody’s Daughter.
Despite reading lyrics from an onstage teleprompter and being completely unable to play her guitar, Love’s stage presence was surprisingly electrifying as she directed the audience to sing along and provided unabashedly crude between-song banter.
The biggest star of SXSW, however, was not an up-and-coming group or a heritage artist, but rather a social networking site.
Throughout the course of the conference, SXSW attendees could be seen frantically updating their Twitter accounts during performances and reading other festival goers’ posts to find out secret lineup additions, what shows were most entertaining, and, of course, where the free beer was.
Even the advertisements and interactive features posted around SXSW urged those in town for the festivities to Tweet to reflect their conference experiences.
Those with badges could stop by the Registrants Lounge for free drinks and access to photo booth-style computers that posted pictures directly to each concertgoer’s Twitter account, while passes to high-profile showcases were given away via the popular site to those who arrived at secret locations in a given amount of time.
While it’s unlikely any new blogworthy discoveries will emerge from SXSW this year, the conference proved that indie music — and the live concert industry — is still very much alive despite talks that the recording industry is dying a slow death.
In fact, if SXSW did reveal anything this year, it proved that music fans are willing to do pretty much anything to show support for bands they love — even if it means traveling to Texas and standing in line for a tiny cup of cheap beer.