"Are you in town for South By?"
"Who's even playing South By this year?"
"I am so sick of this South By traffic."
If you were in Austin last week, chances are, you heard someone relate at least one of those sentiments to you, and the shortened moniker says more than it likely intends to. The massive 2016 conference packs the "live music capitol of the world" with music industry types: publishers, studio owners, label execs, photographers, fans and artists—maybe in that order. Founded in 1987, the festival sought to promote acts that warranted exposure, but had difficulty getting it outside of local scenes. It was a place for all in the industry to celebrate music and discuss the many facets of music production and the communities they create.
Thirty years have seen a lot of changes to the industry. Tapes, CDs, mp3s and streaming services have all had their waves and vinyl records have surged and resurged. Figuring out how to monetize art in an age where things are expected to be free is no easy task. Panels throughout the week discuss those hurdles and many others.
However, it's easy to fall into a trap at SXSW of rushing from one venue to another to get as much free or cheap swag you can possibly find. Venues lure attendees in with a sea of free drink tickets, buffets of barbecue and even a giveaway or two of Fleshlights—true story. Getting lost in a sea of corporate-sponsored grab bags and cruddy veggie burgers can mean not seeing or thinking about music very much at all.
Is that the fault of the organizers? No—well, sort of. It's not their fault people would rather wait in line for Jack Daniels than, say, Jack Ingram, but there's always a guarantee to one. As an attendee, the badge and wristband system offers only a small assurance you'll see a band that you want to see, but there's still nothing concrete. Though some wait for hours in line, other events have few in the crowd, while being closed to the public—potential eyes and ears. Getting from venue to venue in time can be tricky, so sometimes it's just easiest to pick whichever one is giving away the most free stuff and stick there. Taking the easiest (and most free) way out isn't very fulfilling though.
Of all of the live music showcases that happen during SXSW, the ones that often serve up the most for music lovers are the unofficial events. There, you're likely to see a curated list of bands carefully organized by pros focused on just one or two events. The crowds are full of people listening and dancing—not just lounging outside the venue with a free drink in hand. The people there are going to buy CDs.
This year, seven artists from Tucson played the festival—though only two acts were featured in official showcases. The number of official artists from Phoenix was about the same, with little to no other showing from any other Arizona cities.
SXSW has the attention of the world and many people fly in internationally to attend, so at this juncture, it would be nice to see more art from the Southwest featured in the festival that bears its name.
Brittany Katter of Katterwaul played an unofficial showcase at Austin's Spider House on Saturday, Mar. 19. She says the way she sees more Tucson inclusion in the future is by founding a local record label. For her, labels like Burger Records out of Fullerton, Calif. have done an excellent job in connecting to a specific scene and serving it what it wants. Fans of that lo-fi psych sound know they can go to a Burger showcase at Hotel Vegas and see some bands they already know and love, while being exposed to new bands they'd also like.
"Austin is a place, in general, where people love live music and are dedicated to going to shows," Katter says. "The hustle of South By makes the nervous energy [of performing] very different though."
As a past attendee, Katter says she was excited to take the "pilgrimage" to the festival, though with so many bands playing for free just for the exposure it can be really difficult to just get there.
"You get the hard work of it and you get the stress of it," she says, "but it's important to do if you want to further yourself out of your hometown."
Along with Katterwaul, Acorn Bcorn, b4skin, Lemon Drop Gang and Whoops played the showcase organized by Bloat Records, offering the largest showing of Tucson music the festival had seen on the last day of the weeklong event.
While the bands thanked KXCI and Rialto Theatre for a fundraising show that provided them with gas money, driving 15 hours to play one gig (with maybe an additional stop in another city, depending on the band) is no doubt taxing. The ladies from b4skin mentioned driving from 9:30 a.m. until 3:30 a.m., though seeing the fresh new shocked look" on the crowd's faces versus the initiated Tucson audiences that they typically play to all the more worth it.
Of the two acts that played official showcases, XIXA, which has label backing in the way of Barbes Records and international tours lined up, played the most times with three different events. Local rapper Cash Lansky played just one on Thursday, Mar. 17. After playing a showcase two years prior with Tucson transplant Murs, Lansky got his second show with an international set of hip-hop artists.
"It takes you from being local to being all over the world," Lansky says. "I think word of mouth works best ... it's great performing in front of people open to new things."
Whether official or unofficial, Tucson's representation at the festival seemed well met by those in attendance, be it from a crowd of about a hundred or just a handful. Running a massive event like SXSW, which incorporates so many sides of an industry that has many moving parts, is definitely a giant undertaking and, for the most part, it offers a little bit for everyone. However, it would be nice to see strides made to put the Southwest back into SXSW next year and see more Arizona (and Tucson, specifically) artists included officially in the event.