SXSW In Review

Music — By on April 6, 2009 at 10:05 am

From beginning to end, I had a great time at SXSW 2009, as in, it more than met with my expectations as a event designed to showcase some of the brightest new acts and hardy, tried-and-true touring bands.
All of the bands I was excited to see provided me with an excellent set (The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, The Antlers, Ume, Loney Dear, and more). Titus Andronicus was the only band of whom I had no knowledge that served up music I will chase them down upon my return home. There’s a lot happening in the contemporary music scene that has me full of both anticipation and anxiety, and much of it on display at SXSW.
I went, once again, as a completely badge-less, wristband-less, and pass-less poor freelance journalist who had to RSVP for any of the key shows he had any hope of entering, while hoping that his few (but strong) PR contacts could get him into other shows. Thus, I passed over (amongst others) the well-attended Hot Freaks and Pitchfork day shows for other day shows where I knew I wouldn’t have to combat the hordes of annoying people there just to chat and not actually watch music. Thus, I managed to partake of a decent portion of the same acts that played the big showcases, but without having to wait in long lines or deal with too many irritating hipster clones (with their Kanye-styled wardrobes). Also, without having to be embarrassed about my lack of a cool, access-granting badge.
From my vantage point as an un-embedded reporter, I would surmise that SXSW 2009 was representative of the economy as a whole: the quality was not diminished, but the size, enormity, and scope of the event certainly were. I took several strolls up and down 6th Street (and requisite adjoining streets), making my way from show to show, and the crowds looked less imposing than last year. Moreover, when you can see more than a few empty/quiet venues in the heart of the event, you know that the general populace’s pocketbooks are a bit thin.
On the whole, there looked to be fewer day shows and nighttime showcases, which only served to reinforce one’s need to either have a badge/wristband, RSVP far in advance, or be willing to stand in line for the big-name shows. Also of note was less free stuff – food, alcohol, swag, etc. – to go around at the mid-to-lower-level events, and what was present was in diminished quantities. For folks like me, this definitely drove up expenditures compared to years past. Granted, there were still events – the vaunted Fader Fort (put on by Levi’s) or the Red Bull Moon Tower Party, for example – where you could go for all manner of hip bands, free stuff, and proof that some aspects of the current economy are doing just fine (clothing and energy drinks are obviously impervious to sundry banking crises).
The flip side to this is that the bands that were in attendance (also fewer than last year) had a greater number of chances to play more shows, thus increasing the average attendee’s chances to see a favored band at least once. Groups like The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, Chairlift, and Vivian Girls played multiple shows across the course of SXSW 2009, earning them an even greater opportunity to increase the buzz surrounding them. Whether you buy into any given band’s buzz or not, it was great to not have to worry what show you were going to as there were plenty of prospects to see any number of trendy bands and form your own opinion.
Musically, it seems that samplers, keyboards, and synthesizers are firmly entrenched in the contemporary music scene, as bands as diverse as Akron Family, Telepathe, and The Antlers incorporated those instruments into their live setups. Granted, many of these bands used them in the more traditional format – Princeton had one guy whom seemed to actually know how to play the keyboard – but many others are employing the technology to create quirky, arty sampled sounds to round out the band’s sound, while others are just trying to look and sound as weird and cool as possible. I’m not dissing the use of such an instrument/tool in any given band’s repertoire, but I challenge bands (like I challenged Anamanaguchi) to either learn how to play the piano or learn how to create beats organically in a live context. I want more from my 3rd-wave post-punk than some energetic teens and twenty-somethings playing retread rock that sounds danceable and hip just because they’re playing over pre-recorded beats.
The other sparkling piece of analysis (while not entirely original) regarding the event I might could provide would be this: with Rolling Stone now a physically smaller magazine, Paste having moved to a bi-monthly status, and so many other print magazines going out of business or totally online, the power of the blogosphere to make or break bands is at a peak. My contention is that maybe it has peaked, in that, though the advertising dollars are out there, they can only be spread in so many directions. Thus, with the internet being as diverse as it already is (much less being theoretically endless), even the high-profile websites and blogs that curated the big-time events at SXSW 2009 aren’t the all-powerful tastemakers that magazines like Rolling Stone and Creem once were. There are simply too many of us out there for only a mere handful to hold all of the power – oligarchies and plutocracies might exist in contemporary politics, but the internet is much too democratic for that.
All of that aside, SXSW 2009 was enjoyable for me. I was pleased to find a number of quality rock bands out there that seem blissfully unaware of any buzz or hype, while others are hoping to ride their newfound notoriety as long as the current flavor of the month still has a hint of taste left in it. It’s no different than any other festival of its kind – several days of loud music, greasy food, copious alcohol, and a lack of quality sleep make for quite a heady brew.


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  • Wow, there’s a lot of good stuff crammed into this article.
    First off, I hear ya on the press-pass issue. I used to be on staff at a paper out in LA and got spoiled with press passes and easy access to cool interviews with Hollywood stars. Now, having gone freelance, the press passes are few and far between.
    Relatedly, the point you make about blogs oversaturating the market is important. Please, please write an article specifically on this topic.
    Last but not least, thank you for speaking out honestly against these musicians that don’t know how to play their instruments. It seriously drives me crazy the way everyone latches on to these buzz bands who are just poorly copying what has already been done before.

  • Jen says:

    Glad you didn’t have to deal with too many irritating hipster clones. :-) Cool to see your name on here. I’m a regular BWC reader but typically don’t read the music or sports articles/reviews so haven’t noticed your name before.

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