SXSW jam-packed, but jams still matter

Artists rise above the branding bonanza

There’s no denying that Austin’s SXSW Music Festival is a must-do annual industry event. Since it began in 1987, it has grown to include countless panels, invaluable networking opportunities, and thousands of perfs by burgeoning musicians alongside established artists like Bruce Springsteen, who delivered this year’s keynote address and showed the youngsters how it’s done at his hot-ticket showcase.

In the past 25 years, SXSW Music has grown from 700 registrants to more than 17,700, not counting the unregistered hangers-on or the massive Interactive and Film components. And while this may be good news for fest organizers, it makes life much more difficult for festgoers. It used to be easy to waltz into official SXSW showcases to see your bands of choice, but now a badge-holder who wants to see, say, Jack White perform may wait in line for hours, with no guarantee of getting in, as was the case Friday night when many were left out in the cold.

Not surprisingly, countless brands have been cashing in on the opportunity to market to this large, tastemaking audience and align their products with hip bands. Some brands, such as Fader Inc. and Converse, have been doing this for years to great effect, sponsoring some of the most well attended and anticipated events, such as the Fader Fort, where everyone from Kanye West to the Black Keys has performed. This year Converse created a “pop-up” version of its Brooklyn-based Rubber Tracks studio, where artists can record in a state-of-the-art studio for free.

“We feel compelled to do things in the music space that gives back to the music community,” said Converse chief marketing officer Geoff Cottrill, who pointed out that the company’s Chuck Taylor sneakers have been embraced by musicians for decades. “We decided, ‘Let’s bring our (Rubber Tracks studio) to Austin this week.’ We’ve had people in here every day recording.”

Other promos, such as those by Doritos and Mountain Dew, were more blatant, like the five-story stage Doritos constructed this year to look like a giant vending machine. The launch event Mountain Dew threw with Lil Wayne for its DEWeezy campaign, where Weezy swigged the soft drink onstage, was widely criticized for being too gimmicky, and you couldn’t turn a corner without spotting ads for energy drinks, potato chips and cars plastered on every lamppost.

“When the people are there, the brands will always follow,” said Fader prexy and publisher Andy Cohn. “(SXSW) has become a ‘must’ trip for anyone who works anywhere surrounding the music industry.” Cohn, who has overseen the expansion of the Fader Fort from a small outpost on 6th Street to an outdoor venue that spans five city blocks, said the growth has been positive for his brand.

But while brands have taken centerstage, it’s important to not forget SXSW’s raison d’etre: live music. This year was as much about major artists’ return to form, including Fiona Apple, Lionel Richie, the Shins and Santigold, as it was about up-and-comers who generated significant buzz.

Scottish quartet Django Django, who played at the Fader Fort and gave a spirited perf at Under the Radar’s day party, blended rock and electronica and some impressive harmonies that avoided being derivative and managed to feel fresh and danceable. Brooklyn band Chairlift has expanded from a duo to a fully formed five-piece to showcase their soph album, and their frontwoman’s vocal gymnastics will leave you breathless. Southern rock act Alabama Shakes generated some buzz before their KCRW showcase, but their perf proved that while they have strong musical chops and a honey-voiced singer, they need to work on their stage presence. Trinidad-born, Brooklyn-based rapper Theophilis London has the requisite rapper swagger, and flaunted it at the Thrasher and Converse-sponsored show at Hype Hotel. His rapping didn’t stand out, but his melodic tunes, which blend electronic and R&B, helped him rise above the fray. Father John Misty (aka Josh Tillman), former Fleet Foxes drummer, got people talking about his heartfelt, earnest singer-songwriter jams from his Sub Pop debut, as well as his biting wit.

The many noteworthy bands descended on Austin, and proved that despite the crowds and the ubiquitous corporate branding, the music is still what matters.