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A record exec's guide to South by Southwest (SXSW)
SXSW also introduced two new components last year: a fashion expo and an education conference called SXSWedu. But SXSW is still best known as the world's largest music industry gathering and each year, unknown bands are discovered there while established stars come out of the woodwork to play unadvertised, pop-up shows in small venues. Visiting Austin during SXSW, which begins on March 9 for the film and interactive component and March 13 for the music festival, can be a tribulation, but it's also an incredible opportunity to hear a staggering variety of emerging and established artists, often in intimate venues.
We talked to Michael Howe, vice president of A&R for the Capitol/Virgin Label Group in Los Angeles, in order to help readers understand what SXSW is all about. (He's the guy who isn't Neil Young or Paul McCartney in the photo above.) Howe is responsible for discovering new talent and helping to advance the careers of established groups. He has been attending SXSW every year for more than a decade.
You've been going to SXSW for 12 years. It's no longer just about the music, right?
Right. Now they have a film portion and an interactive portion that precede the music event. I think the interactive element has become the most attended of the bunch.
The SXSW fact sheet from last year says that there were more than 49,000 people at the event. What's it like to have that many creative types all in the same city at one time?
It's overwhelming. They close 6th street down and allow only pedestrian traffic on it. The only thing I could compare it to is Mardi Gras. It's a total, round-the-clock bacchanal, essentially. It's music from dawn until the following dawn, a 24-hour orgy of music and drinking.
Are there beads and flashers like at Mardi Gras?
I've seen some of those hijinks. The whole thing can be obnoxious. I'm there for work, but for the average person who goes there to hear great music and party, it's a great time. There are thousands of bands there every year. There are bands who play seven to eight times over a thee to four day period, there are shows in the morning, there are shows that begin at 2:30 a.m. The convention has keynote speakers too. Springsteen is giving it this year; Robert Plant did it last year.
There's a band called Wild Belle from Chicago who I think will be among the buzzier bands down there. They're very good but not yet signed. There's also a kid called Allen Stone who is very good and attracting a lot of attention. He's 23 or 24. He's like a soulful kind of a white Marvin Gaye, with a guitar. I like him a lot. I'd say the other buzz bands to see are Hospitality, FIDLAR, Chasing Kings, Policia, and Lucius to name just a few.
What do you see a lot of during SXSW? Beards, tattoos, what else?
The beard has certainly made a comeback. The authentic, corduroy Laurel Canyon kind of rock vibe with Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver, and a bunch of other artists in that world are very popular. There's been a fashion movement that has followed them. And of course, there's still a contingent of tattooed rockers, but there's also world music, instrumental bands, pretty much anything you want for the taking.
No one wears a suit, do they?
Very few people show up in a suit at SXSW. If you wore one, you'd be part of a very small minority. I wouldn't want to try it.
And aside from all the musicians and filmmakers, and what not, there are plenty of corporate cool-hunters at this as well, right?
Sure. There are definitely trend spotters there, to be sure. It's viewed as a place where the coolest of the cool emerges.
Jessica Marati recently wrote about how to score a hotel room in Austin during SXSW. It isn't easy, is it?
The whole town is usually sold out. The locus of the festival is along the 6th Street corridor downtown and all the hotels within striking distance of that will be sold out months and months in advance, probably by July of the previous year. The festival blocks out a lot of rooms for registered participants of SXSW, so it's hard for anyone who isn't registered to get a prime hotel.
Where have you stayed over the years?
I like to stay at the Driskill, which is at 6th and Brazos. There's a place called the Stephen Austin Intercontinental, which is a block away and is also nice. I've stayed at the Omni. I've stayed at the Four Seasons. This year, I have to split my stay. I'm staying at the Hyatt, on the other side of the river, for one night and at the Radisson Town Lake because I couldn't get one room for my whole stay. I booked my airfare in October and all the hotels were already sold out.
Are the hotels gouging people?
They completely gouge you. The W, for instance, is $709 per night.
The walk up rate for a music pass is $750. That's pretty steep too, isn't it?
It is. It entitles you to go to the panels and get into all the official SXSW shows. Theoretically, with that badge you can get into anything you want at any time. But there are so many people that if the venue can't hold more people, they won't let you in. Sometimes spending the money on the badge, unless you are really strategic about it, doesn't really make a lot of sense. If every gig has a $10 cover, even if you see 70 gigs, that's still cheaper.
Will the bouncers deny you entrance even if you're with a major record label?
Definitely. They don't care who you are. It's first come, first served.
There are dozens of venues, any that you like in particular?
La Zona Rosa is decent but off-the-beaten track. Emo's is pretty good. I also like Antone's. Generally, Stubb's has worthwhile stuff. Stubb's is a large, outdoor venue, the capacity is probably a couple thousand people outside. Emo's has several rooms, but they probably accommodate 800-1000. Maggie Mae's is another good one.
Back when you first started attending SXSW, record execs were handing out contracts to pretty much anyone who could carry a tune, is that right?
That still happens, artists and bands go there to be discovered, but it's turned into more of a network, showcasey-type environment for signed bands who emerge into the public sphere from down there. Up until around 2001 or 2002, the record labels were essentially printing money. There were many, many more deals getting done and the size of the deals were a lot bigger. Companies were taking things off the marketplace to prevent competitors from getting them. It was a completely different climate than it is now.
So what chance does the average band that turns up at SXSW now have to get signed?
If they're a run-of-the-mill band, their chances aren't very good. Major labels are signing stuff they can turn into a hit very quickly. If you're a competent, but unremarkable band it's very, very unlikely you'll get a deal at SXSW or anywhere else for that matter.
How many of the bands performing at SXSW are signed versus unsigned acts?
Hard to say because it's become much easier for bands to release their own records. Any band can have its own label now and have something up on iTunes. When I started, that wasn't possible. Of the higher profile showcase shows there, almost all of those acts are signed already. But there are usually three or four, at best, buzz bands that come out of SXSW every year that all of the labels, indie or major, are talking about that end up getting signed.
Every night there are also surprise performances. Springsteen is going to play an intimate gig down there this year. I don't know where, but he will since he's the keynote speaker. Willy Nelson usually plays a surprise show. Prince shows up every once in a while. The Foo Fighters have played. McCartney, Robert Plant. I could see The Stones showing up. Anything is possible there.
How do people find out about the secret gigs?
Through Twitter, or the SXSW website, or through fan clubs or word of mouth. Catching those kinds of gigs is usually about being in the right place at the right time.
You'll be there for five days. How many bands will you see?
I'll probably see between 75-100 bands.
How long do you stay if you're not into the band? If the first song sounds bad, will you wait to hear what the second song sounds like?
Not down there I won't. Here in L.A., I would give them a few songs, but at SXSW, you don't have the luxury of time.
What's the quickest you've ever bailed out of a show for a band you were considering for the label?
Two minutes, probably less for sure. If something has no emotional or artistic resonance or there was no star in the band, nothing drawing me to the music or the band, then I don't stay.
Have you discovered or signed bands at SXSW over the years?
I have. I signed Cold War Kids when I was with Downtown Records. I signed a guy called Brett Dennen.
It's always fun to take a look at the SXSW band lineup and see all the great band names. This year, I like Bipolar Gentleman, Peanut Butter Wolf, More or Les, Teenburger, Pimps of Joytime, and Reptile Youth.
Those are good ones. There are some bands that have terrible names that are pretty beholden to them. There are times when I scroll down a list, though, and decide I don't want to see something based upon their name.
How can people enjoy seeing this many bands in one week?
Bring earplugs. Try to pace yourself. Drink a lot of water. Go back to the hotel and sit in the air conditioning. Read a little bit. Just take some breaks from the music.
Would you recommend people attend the entire festival or just a day or two?
Probably not the whole thing. Go for a day or two. It's ambitious to stick it out the whole time. By Saturday, you're shredded. There's no off-day, so the whole thing is a crush. Thursday and Friday are probably the busiest days though.
Is there an equivalent to this in Europe or other parts of the world?
There's a festival in the U.K. in Brighton called the Great Escape, which isn't nearly as well attended but is starting to gain some traction. There's one in Iceland called Airwaves that tends to draw a good number of Europeans. But SXSW is the premier festival for the music industry. It's a very international festival.
But most of the international bands sing in English, I assume?
Most but not all. There are Swedish bands who sing in Swedish. And look at Sigur Ros, they sing in their own language, Hopelandic, and they're popular.
[Photo one supplied by Michael Howe. Photo two of Fleet Foxes via Martijin on Flickr. Photo three of Driskill Hotel via Rutlo on Flickr. Photo four of Cold War Kids by bahoolala on Flickr.]