Southwest Sizzler

I stood in line outside of a coffeehouse last Friday in Austin-I got used to standing in line that night. After having failed to get into two of the hottest shows in town-NYC rockers The Strokes and Austin faves ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead-I couldn't believe I was waiting to see a band I had never heard of called Explosions in the Sky.

As Austin is a friendly town and South by Southwest a friendly festival, I struck up a conversation with a dark-haired woman in a purple faux-fur coat standing next to me in line. We related some stories about the past two days and the acts we had seen.

Then she confessed that she was in a band called The Swells and would be playing a show the next night in the same coffeehouse we were waiting to enter.

As a journalist, I found South by Southwest fun and informative. But here was a person for whom the conference could provide the break that would lead to the realization of a lifetime of dreams.

I wished her the best of luck. She wouldn't need it.

Since 1987, the college town and state capital of Austin, Texas has hosted the South by Southwest conferences. Thousands converge on the city every March to attend a week that celebrates music, film and interactive media. The biggest festival by far centers around music and the more than 1,000 bands that perform between Wednesday and Sunday. Austin is famous for a music scene that boasts 48 live music venues and spans country to indie to hip-hop to dance. Speeches, panel discussions and presentations fill the mornings. Late afternoons feature stripped-down performances in record stores and free refreshments at countless record company parties. The real concerts start around 2 p.m.; nights are all about music.

Almost all shows sell tickets at the door, but the best deal is usually the $87 all-access wristband sold only in Austin. Those who can't deal with any position other than the top of the totem pole shell out up to $500 for badges that take them to the front of the line at every show. But most fans save money with their wristbands and deal with a few lines and obnoxious bouncers.

For years, South by Southwest (commonly known as SXSW) has merged business with entertainment better than any festival in the country. Bands look to generate interest among record labels and the press, record labels search for bands to add to their rosters, journalists come away with good stories and music fans have a great time.

A Band's Perspective

Alison Cabral moved from Madison, Wisc., to Austin five years ago. She answered a "musicians wanted" classified ad and soon became the bassist for a local band called The Swells. The band had been around since 1992, but they hadn't made a serious commitment to their music careers. Then they started playing more regularly, recording a couple of songs and releasing an album, Yesterday's Songs, to local critical acclaim last year.

But the highlight of The Swells' career so far was their acceptance to SXSW this year.

"We found out the first week in February via e-mail," Cabral said. "I was so elated-we were just like 'oh my god!'"

Cabral spends her days doing marketing and research for a tech company. Nobody can dispute her success in the real world, but even those in the new economy can dream of being rock stars. She knew that SXSW could be the band's big break. "I really didn't want to have expectations because it only leads to letdown," she said, but added, "All of our energy was going towards SXSW."

The night I met her outside the Ruta Maya coffeehouse, Cabral's bandmate, David Malerba, was performing a couple Swells songs on an Austin radio station. Listening to that performance was a representative of Independiente Records-home of Scottish superstars Travis. Cabral could hardly contain her excitement.

"This guy from Independiente heard us and just showed up at our show," she gushed. "I was totally stunned. He talked to Dave and gave us contact info. Our guitarist Andy's girlfriend was there and she watched him-she said he was really into the show, jamming out and sending good glances to the girl he was with."

Although she acknowledges that bands rejected by the festival like to call it "South by So What?" Cabral feels good-if still realistic-about her band's experience last week.

"It's fantastic. Right where we are, right now, we're in a good spot."

A Record Company's Perspective

Dana Sims recruits artists for Seattle's Sub Pop Records-once home to bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden-and he is always on the lookout for the next legend. SXSW is the perfect place for him to find new bands.

A seven-plus-year veteran of the festival, Sims said: "I can attribute half my signings of bands to SXSW."

My friend and I shared a cab with Sims and another Sub Pop employee from our distant motel to Sixth Street, the heart of the Austin nightlife. He was headed to see a Portugese band called The Gift and later to see the biggest unsigned band of the conference, The Strokes.

The Gift never showed up, but that hour was one rare break in Sims' week. Sub Pop puts on one of the bigger shows of the conference-a concert showcasing artists on their label. "When we're not doing our showcase, our days are filled with various activities for the bands, and at night we're looking for unsigned bands," he explained.

And the bands that generate a buzz-The Strokes, Berlin's Peaches and Bogota's Aterciopelados among them-bring label reps scurrying to the front of lines so they won't miss a note.

But how does a young band get this sort of buzz?

"Every story is different," Sims said. "It's not something you can put in the cookie cutter. Sometimes it amazes me what bands can become the topic of discussion. Basically, there are leaders and followers, and a lot of people get there and want to be told what's hot. Others go out and find for themselves."

A Writer's Perspective

I was overwhelmed by the wealth of music at SXSW. Wednesday night, I caught a disappointing set by San Francisco's I Am Spoonbender, but crossed town to a dance' party provided by West Coast turntablists like DJ Z-Trip and Mixmaster Mike. The next afternoon, I heard the lovely tones of Austin's Tahiti 80 in legendary Waterloo Records, and that night I shook my booty once again at a hip-hop show with Black Eyed Peas and Jurassic 5. Friday brought short sets from Idlewind and Death Cab for Cutie, and later I caught a guest appearance by the Kinks' Ray Davies during a set by Canada's The New Pornographers.

We spent afternoons running from in-store shows to record company barbeques and magazine parties. Saturday night's highlight was the Matador Records showcase, where the reunited Soft Boys played their brilliant "Insanely Jealous," Stephen Malkmus tore through his new record and Scotsmen Mogwai brought the crowd to its knees with their preview of their upcoming album Rock Action.

As I headed back to Durham, The Swells were waiting to hear from the record label, SubPop found some new acts, and everyone enjoyed some really great music. Overall, it seemed like a successful South by Southwest.


Share and discuss “Southwest Sizzler” on social media.