For the 29th year, thousands of artists, industry types, music bloggers, drunk kids, and corporations who would love to profit from all of them descended on Austin for the annual South By Southwest festival. And for at least the 10th year, give or take two we can’t really remember, The A.V. Club was among them, reporting from our tiny purview on this overstuffed—though strangely modest this year—world of entertainment and marketing. Here’s what we saw.
Sean O’Neal: On Friday, I stood in a line with around 50 other people, outside the tiny Red Room Lounge, watching as a group of scantily clad girls in harem gear lounged across a lowrider emblazoned with the Game Of Thrones logo. I passed more of these girls once we made our way inside, where they stood in a line to welcome me, letting me know they were there for my “pleasure.” In the corner one of them was laid out naked on a table, her intimate bits concealed by slices of fruit. No one took any.
Nearby was a vending machine loaded with copies of what we were ostensibly all there to celebrate: Catch The Throne II, the HBO-licensed mixtape featuring songs ostensibly about the show from artists like our ostensible host, Snoop Dogg. No one took any of those either.
“We need to get everyone into the other room so that Snoop will come,” someone said eventually. And so we were all herded into another, smaller room to sip syrupy peach cocktails and provide the show of faith required to make Snoop Dogg appear. We believed.
After another 30 minutes of devotion and quiet reflection on our rapidly diminishing time on Earth and how we were spending it, wafts of pot smoke began drifting from under the curtain. Miraculously, it parted. And there Snoop was at last, sitting atop the Iron Throne, indifferently puffing a blunt. And that’s where he stayed—smoking, sometimes shimmying a bit to the music, smoking, staring off into the middle distance, smoking, never saying a word—all while we crowded around the scrum of his bouncers, snapping our much-anticipated photos of a man sitting in a chair.
Could there have been a more symbolic image of the modern SXSW experience? Its often-bizarre collisions of music and branding? The vague anticipation that something amazing is going to happen, and then the inevitable letdown? The dehumanizing effect it has on everyone—the artists, the promoters and the street teams and the human billboards, the bloggers who dutifully file in to get their photo and a quote and collect their gift bag? (It had rolling papers and a T-shirt that said “Respect The Westeros,” in case you’re curious.)
Earlier in the day, Snoop had appeared as the festival’s keynote speaker in a conversation that went deep on his rough upbringing and long music career, reminding everyone that there’s still an artist somewhere inside rap’s licensed crap-peddling Krusty The Clown. But it’s probably the pictures of Snoop sitting silently on a TV show prop, surrounded by publicist slave girls, that spoke the loudest.
After all, this was the year that SXSW was supposedly going to be leaner and “less corporate,” after years of being overtaken by giant Doritos stages, only for it to start its diet by binging on McDonald’s. The fast-food behemoth cast both a metaphorical and a literal shadow over everything at SXSW 2015, first by dominating talk of the festival in the days leading up to it, then by setting up its enormous McLounge directly across from the convention center, where visibly tired workers doled out free McNuggets and McGriddles, in front of a stage where visibly chagrinned bands doled out music before a mural emblazoned with McDonald’s cartoons.
Meanwhile, statues of a peacocking, popped-collar-rocking Ronald McDonald begged you to take your “selfie” with him, as everyone just sort of shuffled around him, embarrassed. Still, while the combined stench of desperation and Zesty Ranch made it a little uncomfortable in the McLounge, it was a pretty comfy place to get out of the rain for a bit, and quietly reflect on who was struggling more to define itself these days—McDonald’s or SXSW. Plus, hey, free McGriddles.
Besides, McDonald’s certainly wasn’t alone. In the year 2015, the corporations outnumber the record labels at SXSW by an unbelievably exponential factor. You’ll overhear people making plans for the night, like, “First I’m headed to YouTube, then maybe gonna check out Samsung.” Those brands’ “presences” aren’t just logos on a banner anymore. They’re “activations.” And sometimes they’re entire buildings, like the exact, working replica of the Bates Motel that A&E constructed in a parking lot, giving guests the chance to stay overnight in a living commercial—complete with blood-spattered showers hooked up to working water pipes—before just tearing the whole thing down at the end of the week.
Or sometimes they’re entire tracts of land—like the IFC Fairgrounds, which turned a local park into a carnival of ads for Portlandia, then made Marc Maron warn pregnant women about the risks of riding a mechanical bull.
In all that branding, the music starts to seem a little secondary, which could explain why this year’s SXSW felt somewhat dampened—and not just by the constant rain that turned everything into a mud pit by Friday. For once, there were no surprise performances from huge stadium acts (I guess Iggy Azalea sort of counts?), and no legacy performers making surprise returns (You don’t count, Plain White T’s). D’Angelo, Mary J. Blige, and The Flaming Lips all had their pop-ins during Interactive; by the time the Music portion rolled around, the only “surprise” was the now-obligatory rumored appearance from Kanye West at a way-too-small venue—this time the always-uncomfortable Fader Fort—and the inevitable hundreds of people sacrificing their day to stand in line to be disappointed. Or perhaps the “surprise” this year was that Kanye never showed up at all. Nor did Prince, after a last-minute rumor said he was to cameo at Liv Warfield’s set. But, uh, Miley Cyrus popped up on Thursday for a couple of songs. So, that’s something?
Still, the relative quiet made it much easier for smaller acts to make a bigger noise—like Courtney Barnett, the Australian indie-pop singer who belied the slack mundanity of her lyrics by working her ass off this week, playing seemingly on the hour, and enjoying what was the festival’s most obvious star-making turn. “No one told me there was going to be so many people here. There’s a fuckload of you,” Barnett said to the Stubb’s crowd at Wednesday’s NPR showcase, and with her performance—highlighted by her grunged-up rendition of new single “Pedestrian At Best”—already eliciting Kurt Cobain comparisons, it’s clear there’s going to be a fuckload more.
Later, after Belgian singer Stromae answered the question, “Who Is Stromae?” posed by posters plastered all around downtown (answer: a dapper dude whose Eurodance R&B will sound great in the dressing room at United Colors Of Benetton), TV On The Radio also took the Stubb’s stage, well over a decade since the group saw its own modest SXSW beginnings. The band, newly reenergized after a recent hiatus, tore through a set that was evenly balanced between its apocalypse doo-wop of old, like opener “Young Liars,” the electro soul of Dear Science’s “Golden Age” and “DLZ,” and Seeds’ more lovey-dovey pop numbers. It all blared with confidence, with the lighter-weight new songs like “Happy Idiot” and “Could You” getting some much-needed extra ballast of scabrous noise.
Also being talked about before the festival even began (but not for the reason it hoped) was Viet Cong, who was surely already tired of fielding questions about the recent controversy over its name. But by the time they were playing their first round of shows, they had another talking point and an even bigger setback—drummer Mike Wallace’s broken hand—which they gamely plowed through anyway. After making the requisite Def Leppard jokes during its Red 7 day show, the group got on with its clanging, Mission Of Burma-descended post-punk and admirably never missed a beat, turning in just one of many SXSW performances that are already part of its legend.
While I’m glad to have caught everyone on my list, my number one priority this year was to see Rival Consoles, an electronic artist whose music dwells somewhere in the artfully composed, airy space of Jon Hopkins. Unfortunately that meant going to Plush, a tiny, graffiti-smeared shithole that’s currently entering its second decade of being the most disgusting club in Austin. We made the best of it, though—Rival Consoles, a.k.a. Ryan Lee West, using his minimalist Prophet and Moog setup to create warm, surprisingly complex dance music on the fly, me trying to ignore the people pissing directly to his left, thanks to the stage-adjacent bathroom doors that don’t close. And then I got the hell out of there.
Of course, by Friday pretty much everywhere you went was disgusting thanks to the rain, which hit the outdoor IFC Fairgrounds particularly hard. That didn’t stop a huge crowd of excited college kids from slopping through the mud and the desperately strewn thatches of straw to see Odesza, another group that arrived pre-ordained as one of this year’s hottest acts. The Seattle duo makes electronic dance pop that marries hip-hop beats, pitch-shifted R&B vocal samples, and house music euphoria, augmented by live drums and the choreography of their perfectly matched knob-twiddling. Their IFC set was the final run of a week of similarly packed sets, and it was obvious they’d accrued a pack of young acolytes that was following them around—and will follow them well beyond.
A completely different, much older cadre of loyalists crowded into Red 7 on Friday night to see Swervedriver, a group whose layers of fuzz guitar made it one of the least shoegazing shoegaze bands of the ’90s. It’s taken intermittent hiatuses since then, but rest and age have no effect on guitar pedals, so the songs from new album I Wasn’t Born To Lose You that frontloaded the set didn’t sound noticeably different from familiar favorites like “Blowin’ Cool.” Actually, everything just sounded kind of muddled, with the club’s unfortunately damp acoustics robbing the band of the surge that is its hallmark.
Much more aptly placed was Julianna Barwick, whose ambient ghost choir music sounded every bit as heavenly on the always-reliable sound system of the Parish as it does on last year’s Nepenthe. I couldn’t tell you what specific songs she played; I honestly have no idea how she tells them apart. But they blended into a hypnagogic bliss, and Barwick cut a mesmerizing figure beneath a slowly spiraling array of laser lights, her face in rapturous contortion while she created looping layers upon layers of distant, echoing piano and her own wordless, angelic voice.
Also providing a respite from the chaos outside was Holodeck Records, which staged a showcase at The Madison for the burgeoning Austin-based electronic label. One of its co-founders, Silent Land Time Machine’s Jonathan Slade, laid out the collective’s artistic tenets with a set of slowly cresting drones from guitar, violin, and synths that he played all by himself, like a one-man Stars Of The Lid. He then gave a passionate speech thanking the packed room profusely for supporting what is becoming a surprisingly vibrant ambient and electronic scene for the city. That extended family also includes Marie Davidson, a Montreal-based artist who followed with cool, speak-sing vocals in French over burbling minimal wave, all while she danced along—looking and sounding like every chic European nightclub you’ve ever imagined.
A similar shared aesthetic unites WeDidIt, a crew of producers and DJs who traffic in hazy instrumental hip-hop nightmares full of fried synths and syrupy beats. They’re most famously represented by Shlohmo, whose new Dark Red is already one of my favorite albums this year, and who presided over the WeDidIt showcase with a headlining set that added live drums, bass, and guitar to that album’s spooky, cinematic comedown music. But already close behind is the collective’s newest member Purple, a London-by-way-of-Portugal producer who has a similarly shadowy vibe—and kept up his practiced, photo-eschewing mystique by playing in literal shadows, so dark you had to peer closely to even discern that there was a person on stage.
Not that it would have particularly mattered: The biggest crowd reaction of the night—and one of the biggest reactions I saw all weekend—came when a DJ just started playing some Drake songs in between the sets. Judging by the way the club came alive and all the kids suddenly started dancing like it was the best thing they’d ever heard, maybe next year’s SXSW breakout act could just be a laptop loaded with an iTunes playlist. They can probably get Apple to sponsor.
Josh Modell: While I agree with almost everything Sean wrote, I do think it’s possible to ignore some of the corporate branding, or at least let it play in the background while you actually see some music at SXSW.
Though I will say that it’s an absolutely true and fair argument that at some point in the last few years, the conversation went from “I’m going to Merge” or “I’m going to Sub Pop” or even “I’m going to Pitchfork” to “I’m heading over to the Tumblr thing, then maybe the Spotify house,” with the tastemakers and bands taking second place to the artists, at least in the conversations about location.
But there’s still no other place in the world (that I know of, anyway) to have a dozen worthwhile lineups programmed simultaneously, and another hundred not-so-worthwhile lineups available as backup. I’ll take some measure of brand-beating in order to have those options.
This year I went earlier than I ever had before, straddling the line between the Interactive and Music portions, and I think I’ll do it that way again. (It didn’t hurt that my schedule had me back in Chicago by the time the rain started in Austin.) I got to see a bunch of comedy and other non-music stuff, including a gaggle of solid stand-up sets at the Funny Or Die party, which doubled as a coming-out soiree for the crappy-looking Will Ferrell/Kevin Hart movie Get Hard.
The fact that most of the crowd was there for a “special appearance” by those two stars and yapped through two hours of talented comics—even Nick Kroll, who was joined by a frustrated James Adomian, Kurt Braunohler, Kyle Mizono, and more—is actually far more annoying than the fact that is was a semi-branded event. (And obviously one was a product of the other.) But a performance artist called Red Bastard, dressed in a red leotard stuffed with balloons or something, knew just how to break through the static of fabulous people craning their necks for a look at the shortest, richest comedic actor around: He screamed at them and made them participate. It wasn’t necessarily good, but it was fabulously unexpected.
After watching Ferrell and Hart riff for about five minutes, I headed to the beautiful Moody Theater to catch The Flaming Lips, who were playing a showcase for a big new media brand or app or something whose name I can’t even remember and won’t bother looking up. (It had the word “spread” in it, but I don’t believe it was edible.) Every year, the band adds more spectacle and becomes less spectacular, with time and money spent on props when those things ought to be going toward some voice coaching for Wayne Coyne. Sure, it’s great to look at, and “The Abandoned Hospital Ship” is pretty glorious, but when you’ve got technical difficulties after a few songs—some sort of helium malfunction, I can only guess—it’s probably best to make some sort of announcement. Maybe that’s part of the showmanship. But playing big corporate gigs and festivals is maybe the best place for The Flaming Lips at this point, sadly.
On Monday, The A.V. Club and The Onion added to the noise with a great big party at Red 7, at which we happened to program a bunch of the bands that the entire festival wanted to see. (We got 20,000 RSVPs for a club that holds about 800 people, so sorry if you didn’t get in…) By the end of the night, you had to decide between Elijah Wood and Zach Cowie playing great records (Happy Mondays!) on one stage, or festival favorite Courtney Barnett slack-rocking the other. Thanks much to them, and to The Inventors, Real Estate, METZ, Son Lux, East India Youth, Hippo Campus, Hamilton Leithauser, and Cymbals Eat Guitars. Even our corporate sponsor kept its branding tasteful (and provided sustenance, always a plus).
Later in the week, I visited the Hype Hotel—a giant Taco Bell compound programmed by various music blogs—to see Alvvays, the Canadian band that sounds so much like Bettie Serveert that I was briefly transported to SXSW 1995, when things were more innocent and only 600 bands played to 5,000 registrants. I also waited in line for a “Lemonade Freeze” that gave me the worst brainfreeze I have ever felt in my life. (SXSW and Taco Bell lawyers, you will be hearing from my imaginary attorney.)
At the excellent club Mohawk, I caught Torres, who’s going to come out of this year’s festival with a buzz built both on talent and resilience: I actually saw her sets three days in a row, including a Pitchfork showcase and at The A.V. Club’s almost entirely unsponsored shindig at Cheer Up Charlie’s on Thursday.
Speaking of that: Thanks to the bands at that show, who were uniformly excellent, and who kept the rain at bay. Milwaukee’s massive 15-piece Group Of The Altos (which features a member of Volcano Choir) built walls of sound then let almost every member take a turn singing along, while The Twilight Sad battled against the heat, because they’re Scottish. Mac McCaughan played solo-electric, pulling songs from Superchunk (“Detroit Has A Skyline,” “Punch Me Harder”) as well as his upcoming solo album: He roped in Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee (who were playing a showcase next door) to sing on the Yoda-inspired “Only Do.” The rest of the bill, for gratitude’s sake: Torres, Lazyeyes, Honeyblood, Deerhoof, San Fermin, Terry Malts, The Velvet Teen, J Fernandez. Thanks, one and all.
I’ve probably said this before, but it bears repeating: For all of its faults and insanity, there’s really nothing like spending part of March in Austin every year. If I lived there, I’d probably spend the month in a murderous rage. (Though I met an old local who embraced it with such sweetness that it made me rethink my entire outlook on life. That’s another story.) This year did seem like at least a little bit of a corrective to the madness: Slightly less crowded, slightly fewer must-see showcases, one less giant Doritos thing. But there were still a million worthwhile things to do at any given moment, and if the cost for that is having to stare at the golden arches from a massively overpriced hotel room, it’s probably still worth it. One more year for me, as I say every year. And I bet Sean will want to join me.