South By Southwest cashes in on cool

SXSW — one of the hottest music industry events of the year — leverages its cool factor Photo: Brian Birzer

AUSTIN, March 30, 2012 — Whether you are a young musician with grandiose dreams, a music industry executive searching for the next sensation or a music fanatic with an appetite for the cutting edge, the South By Southwest (SXSW) music festival in Austin, Texas, is the single most important event of the year.

This year’s festival, which took place from March 13-18, drew more than 17,000 attendees and close to 2,000 musical acts from around the globe. An extra night of music showcases was added to the front end of the festival, and the holders of $750 badges had more than 190 panels and presentations from which to choose.

Each edition of SXSW seems to get larger and broader, but bigger might not always be better.

“Most of the events I wanted to attend were open to the public, and having a badge didn’t seem to give you any special priority,” said Natalie Cervelli, director of film and television music at Sony/ATV Music and Publishing. “There were several bands I missed because the venues were at capacity, which wasn’t the case in years past.”

Historic Sixth Street in Austin/Image: S. Mayring

The 26th edition of SXSW attracted massive crowds partly because the official lineup included significantly more hip hop and electronic acts than ever before, as well as a staggering representation of mainstream talent.

St. Patrick’s Day and spring break celebrations added to the congestion on 6th Street, but it was the performances from big names, such as Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Lil’ Wayne, Jimmy Cliff, Jack White and Fiona Apple, that enticed and motivated music fans. A lineup chock-full of world-famous performers is a testament to the festival’s growing popularity — but could big names be stealing the spotlight?

“I think it’s fantastic to see established band members checking out new, emerging acts at the festival and vice versa — as long as not too many well-known acts take attention from the new artists,” said Natalie Baartz, music director of marketing company Ignition Creative. “Newer bands pay a lot of money to get to Austin in order to be noticed by industry professionals.”

Mindy Jones of indie folk duo Daniel Ahearn & The Jones said, “Everyone wants to see Jack White and Jay-Z, but they have already won Grammys. They don’t need this festival. We are the ones that SXSW benefits and the reason it was created in the first place.”

Buzz Bands

Despite this year’s open-arms approach to established musical acts — including Kanye West, Norah Jones, and Eminem — SXSW continued to deliver on the buzz-worthy bands that will make top-ten lists in the future.

“My favorite discovery at this year’s festival was Trust,” said Cervelli of Sony. “They reminded me of an early Depeche Mode but darker. Their sound was really pulsing live, which was exactly what I needed at 12:30 a.m.”

The “it-band” of the moment, Alabama Shakes, came out of their three official SXSW showcases with even more hype than they had going in. Jamie Oliver and Russell Crowe are fans of the band’s soulful southern rock, but apparently the music industry is anything but uncertain about Alabama Shakes’ debut album due out April 9.

A relatively unknown electro band from Omaha, Icky Blossoms, gave industry insiders something to talk about.

“They had no press and only had two songs streaming on their Bandcamp page. They played one official SXSW showcase and blew me away,” said Season Kent, music supervisor for Clearsongs, Inc and a four-time SXSW panelist. “Reptar, a psych-pop band from Athens, Georgia, were also fun, and the venue, 508 House, was great.”

Dubstep music seemed to be everywhere at this year’s festival, and lesser-known dubstep producers and DJs were riding the wave of popularity.

“There was a photo of our artist, 12th Planet, performing with [Grammy-winner] Skrillex on the cover of The Austin Chronicle during the week of SXSW. You can’t ask for better press than that,” said Drew Best, founder of dubstep record label and promotion company, Smog. “Noah D played about seven events which covered a lot of ground for us, and we had a U.K. label express interest in DLX, Kelly Dean and Pawn.”

Branding the Band

Advertising was omnipresent during the festival. Snoop Dogg, for example, performed on a nearly six-story-tall Doritos-branded “vending machine”.  The event, co-sponsored by Maxim, was a launch party for Doritos Jacked tortilla chips. Concert-goers sampled the new product and were given the chance to win prizes by making a reference to the mammoth Doritos stage on Twitter, Facebook, FourSquare or Instagram.

Meanwhile, Lil’ Wayne was anything but bashful when it came to promoting his partnership with Mountain Dew. “DEWeezy” posters scattered around downtown helped garner buzz for his concert at Austin Music Hall, and to the surprise of the audience, Lil’ Wayne actually managed to sneak in filming a commercial for Mountain Dew during the show.

Corporate sponsors also attempted to capitalize on SXSW’s cool factor by handing out targeted swag, such as Time Warner-branded sunglasses and Rhapsody-branded beer cozies, to festival-goers.

Because almost every SXSW showcase was sponsored by a major corporation (Chevrolet, Monster Energy, Pepsi, Miller Light), participating bands were, to a degree, aligning themselves with a product. 

“Ever since the music industry took a dive with the popularity of MP3s, major labels have not had as much money to invest in new talent…musicians have sourced sponsors to support their vision when the major record labels have backed away,” said Best of Smog. “Corporate sponsorships are a good thing for independent artists, and it’s great to see the brands willing to participate in SXSW and support new music.”

Skye Mayring is the Associate Editor of TravelAge West and Family Getaways magazines. Specializing in travel, culture and music, she has written for Robb Report, The Hollywood Reporter, Robb Report Collection and URB, among other publications. Mayring is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association and serves on the board of the ASTA Young Professionals Society. Follow her journeys around the globe via Twitter.com/JoanJetsetter.


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Skye Mayring

Skye Mayring is the Associate Editor of TravelAge West and Family Getaways magazines. Specializing in travel, culture and music, she has written for Robb Report, The Hollywood Reporter, Robb Report Collection and URB, among other publications, and serves on the board of the ASTA Young Professionals Society. 

When she’s not traveling the globe on assignment, you can find her in Los Angeles, cooking dinners that are almost too spicy to eat, attending concerts with friends, hiking coastal canyons or reading post-modern literature on Venice Beach. 

Contact Skye Mayring

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