A musician performs on 6th Street during the SXSW Music, Film Interactive… (Michael Buckner, Getty…)
AUSTIN, Texas — During Vancouver rock duo Japandroids' gig on Wednesday night at the South by Southwest music festival, singer-guitarist Brian King made a midset, cuss-laden declaration about their performance: "When we [mess] up, it's not a mistake — it's a live remix."
The distinction was a clever take on clashing worlds at the year's biggest musical gathering, which runs through Sunday. The primal grunt of the guitar and the bang of the drum were the only instruments Japandroids needed to state their case — especially during a searing version of the Gun Club's "For the Love of Ivy."
But half a block away at Elysium, the dance music website Resident Advisor was showcasing the inner musical soul of the computer through textured synthetic rhythms and noise that culminated with a powerful set of minimal electronic dub by British producer Andy Stott.
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The first few days of the event have seen artists such as electronic soul singer Sohn harnessing digital technology to transform his voice while crowds bounced along on analog legs. More voluminous and insistent, though, have been all the young punks and rockers like Brooklyn's DIIV, whose love of fingers on strings suggest little interest in pushing any button more advanced than an on/off switch.
If remix music suggests the encroaching future, the kids playing punk in Austin are reacting by throwing dirt into the motherboards, and reinventing old-school aggression as a new brand of folk music. Too, rappers like L.A.'s Earl Sweatshirt and Action Bronson have brought a rebel urgency to next-generation hip-hop lyricism, proving once again that a single voice can make a deep impression with little more than a beat and a brain.
The result is a music festival that has the sound and feel of a world in remix flux. The sense of unfinished, open-sourced chaos is everywhere, from the new ways to create music to new means to finance and distribute it. In the 15 years I've been attending, the push-pull between art and commerce, music's cutting-edge sounds and tried and true formulas, between youthful indiscretion and aged patience, has never seemed more pronounced. Nor has the center been as absent.
Country singers vie with techno producers, rappers, rock stars, has-beens, buskers and gearheads. Corporations and major labels book superstars such as Kid Cudi, Green Day and (rumor has it) Justin Timberlake to perform big rap, rock and pop in undersized clubs but also sponsor punk showcases with bands like Black Breath and Hatred Surge.
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The result is SXSW as a petri dish of tech, cash and melody, offering further fuel to the argument that the most important change in music in this decade is not any single artistic voice or stylistic movement — but in the way that sounds are
produced, disseminated and experienced — and the artistic consequences of this shift.
On an experiential level, the festival has never been better, thanks to technology. Gone are the days spent flipping through a printed schedule and jotting notes in the margins; with the new SXSW smartphone application (sponsored by Showtime) a portal to the thousands of events is instantly accessible and easily personalized. A tweet from a tastemaker can turn a nobody into a could-be in mere seconds. Not sure if you're down with Ohio metal band Skeletonwitch? Stand outside the club Mohawk, open your Spotify app and stream a listen.
This giant shift in access is, in part, what Spotify founder Daniel Ek argued on Tuesday as prompting "a new age of renaissance in creativity." "Twenty years ago, you had to learn how to play an instrument really well to learn how to play music," Ek said, adding that "the tools to actually create music have become so cheap that anyone can do it, but that doesn't mean anyone 'can' do it. The value of the true creative geniuses will increase."
Maybe. On cynical days my philosophy can be summed up as, "There are too many people in the world, and too many of them make music," and evidence of mediocrity and mimicry abounds in Texas. The problem of how to separate the dull from the rare genius will never be solved by a gadget; the only way to tell if a band is any good is to see it live.
During Iggy Pop and the Stooges' inspired bit of rock primalism, for example, my attention was torn between experiencing the moment and conveying the experience of the moment, the brain and eyes at war, working to think up witticisms to tweet while ears were occupied on the proto-punk band's jumbo version of "Raw Power." While Pop was running around shirtless, my thumb muscles, eyeballs and ear drums were juggling tasks and getting workouts. Then I focused on bassist Mike Watt chugging on his instrument, a whole other kind of portal opened and I was, thank God, once again lost in music.