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The beating heart of SXSW

On this soundtrack: industry fears, upstart dreams and the resolve of music's middle class.

March 17, 2008|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

AUSTIN, Texas -- At times, this year's South by Southwest Music Conference felt like Rome burning. Sometimes it felt like something being born. And much of the time, it felt like pop music culture as usual -- striving artists, supportive or indifferent listeners, and plenty of talk about cash and creativity, everything blurring within the sound bleed of an unabsorbable number of performances.

More than 1,700 acts tried to get noticed over five days -- and that's just what was happening on the 80 participating stages. A whole second festival of unofficial, semiprivate parties gave several of the long weekend's most anticipated acts a chance to impress crowds several times, ultimately taking much of the buzz out of any one performance. SXSW (as the fest is known) has broken many acts since its inception in 1987, but this year it offered hot new flavors that most attendees had already sampled via the Internet, enhancing young reputations rather than cementing them.

A couple of new artists got tongues wagging. She & Him, the urbane retro-pop band featuring actress-singer Zooey Deschanel and troubadour M. Ward, endeared itself to many at its various gigs. Young Welsh soul belter Duffy made her first U.S. appearances, charming many with her bedroom-mirror moves and bold, brassy voice.

Swedish dance-pop auteur Robyn covered Prince and shone on her own new songs at Perez Hilton's fancy party. Peace Corps preppies Vampire Weekend played too, though the band's recent "Saturday Night Live" appearance had already put it past the point of Next Big Thing.

There is no one Next Big Thing in pop right now, and that's a little confusing. The dissolution of major label and corporate radio-based models is in full swing. The doomsaying at many of SXSW's business-oriented panels felt almost habitual after several years of industry unraveling.

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Distractions

More interesting was the contradictory sense of celebration, even hope, that attended the anguish. The underlying question of how anyone (musicians as well as record executives) can make money as old structures tumble became a hum beneath the 10,000 voices busily promoting new businesses or artistic projects. The presence of branded sponsors also distracted. How bad could things be if you could get a free Fuze vitamin drink in the morning and a 10 Cane Rum shot at night?

That beverage, helping set the mood at Perez's bash, wasn't the only intoxicant flowing. SXSW is not just a schmooze fest; it's a booze fest. The club strip centered on 6th Street was packed with revelers growing wobblier as the nights wore on. The bacchanalian mood seemed particularly telling given the anxieties voiced on panels and whispered in club vestibules.

It was strange to step away from a conversation about how friends' jobs were threatened or a favorite artist couldn't sell more than a few thousand albums and toward a colorful cocktail. Never underestimate the importance of letting off steam, however. The tradition of carnival, which makes everything right for an evening or two by turning it upside down, is an important one for a community afflicted by crisis.

The artists made up the one group of people not absorbed in reveling. They had a job to do: not to be miraculously discovered, but to earn some new fans and maybe cultivate a few promising partnerships -- or to discover a path, if not to stardom then to increased stability.

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Impervious to the hype

The best I saw seemed neither motivated nor unnerved by hype. Kid Sister, the rising MC from Chicago, shimmied and strutted through a joyful set, firing off rhymes in tandem with her brother, J2K from the group Flosstradamus. Santogold, a charismatic hybridizer of hip-hop and pop, projected cool as she intoned her polyglot songs. These women both have Next Big Thing stamped on their foreheads, but they pushed the label off in favor of just having fun.

Paddy Casey, an Irish singer-songwriter whose debut has some of Damien Rice's lyricism but a lighter, more musically adventurous soul, strummed away accompanied only by a keyboardist. He could have been on a street corner.

Washington, D.C.-based rapper Wale was an equally impressive if different sort of storyteller, drawing in a medium-sized crowd at a challengingly large venue.

These musicians caught my fancy, but they weren't central to the festival. Nothing was. The sheer number and diversity of acts, combined with the collapse of the hierarchies that once made one label's acts seem more important than another's (whether that label was a major or a particularly cool indie), have transformed SXSW into a fairly level playing field. Each attendee must chart his or her way across it.

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