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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

2012 SXSW Recap: A Very Crowded Party

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It's not entirely clear what the annual South By Southwest music festival accomplishes anymore. Once an industry shindig where buzz bands played in hopes of landing a record deal, the four-day event (10 days, counting the film and interactive portions) now offers those with privilege a chance to catch arena-performing acts on tiny stages and hear lectures from rock legends. There are still smaller showcases, but most of the attention at last weekend's 26th annual SXSW seemed to go toward the biggest events. Take Friday night, for example: The neo-hardcore act Cloud Nothings ripped through a fresh, anthemic set drawing from January's Attack on Memory with no line outside while scores of all-access badge wearers waited hours to gain entry into Jack White's bar gig.

It's hard to blame organizers for cashing in on the opportunity, but parties like these are obvious public-relations strategies aimed at showing a good time to select tastemakers—who are the ones that make or break bands these days, aren't they?—to get them behind a major act's album or tour. This year bloggers even beamed about a set from the persistently ridiculed Skrillex. The former screamo terror who popularized the bass-heavy electronic genre that music writers groaningly refer to as "bro step" received acclaim for his Friday night set from Pitchfork, of all places. It now seems that SXSW is no longer about signing bands, but rather about displaying "what's up-and-coming" this year. Has the event reached a tipping point where it's more about party than discovery?

Perhaps the festival has just gotten too big. In a couple square miles of downtown Austin, apparently every bar (and there are enough bars to make Wisconsinites blush) features a daytime and nighttime showcase. Almost all afternoon shows are free and open to the public, and nearly all later ones are not. With that much music and so many people circulating, it's no wonder the weekend feels like a Texas Mardi Gras. From noon to 6 p.m., it's possible to catch eight different bands and bump into eight different people you recognize. At night, it's best to find one showcase to pay for (usually $10-$25) and hunker down there.

Music badges, which are handed out to journalists, bloggers and industry types and start around $600 for everyone else, allow for quicker access by skipping lines and free admission into venues. It's still possible to enjoy the festival without a badge. However, those without one need to stay active during the earlier hours in order to catch the most bands. That seems easy, but the logistics can be cumbersome. Waste 15 minutes walking across town only to see a line for the showcase wrapped around the block or take a chance on a lesser-known act off the beaten path? The outcomes from these choices can have you either praising the festival's magnificence or cursing its crowdedness.

That same polarizing effect happens to bands, too. After watching the Minneapolis new-wavers Poliça as 100 people waited outside Wednesday, I stumbled randomly into a tent with fewer than 100 people standing with their arms folded to a Titus Andronicus set. A couple days later Titus Andronicus raucously played to a few thousand sweaty listeners inside a giant barn. The hit-or-miss makeup of SXSW might be the reason Milwaukee's bands have been a diminishing presence at the festival recently. This year there was a small Milwaukee-themed showcase highlighting a couple of the city's bands, including I'm Not a Pilot and Fresh Cut Collective, and a half-dozen or so other local bands played scattered gigs (including Field Report, The Cranberry Show and Worrier). The modest Milwaukee showing shouldn't be taken as a sign that our scene is dwindling, however. More musicians are realizing that the trip is more of a fun divergence than an opportunity to break through.

But does that mean SXSW is broken? It's still a remarkable opportunity to see a wide range of music. As long as an attendee remains active and aware of the different lineups each day, the festival offers countless chances to see promising up-and-comers. Let the others wait for Jack White; it just makes the line shorter for Cloud Nothings.
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