South By Southwest, the Austin, Texas art festival / showcase / general musical shit-show has gone through quite an evolution over the past decade. Founded in 1987, SXSW, or "South-by" as it often referred to, was initially a music-industry insider's event: a place for label A&Rs, managers, lawyers, and the like to gather in one place, network in a casual environment surrounded mostly by Austin locals, and actually discover the new, largely unsigned talent playing for the lives in the numerous bars that populate a few blocks in downtown Austin.
Well, no longer. For the most part anyway. While the initial South-by model certainly feels like a relic, a product of time when new music talent was actually discovered playing live in bars, one could say the festival is simply morphing and expanding along with the times. Whatever the reasoning, what could once almost be referred to as an industry secret has morphed over the past 10 years or so into full-blown, very public extravaganza. The South by Southwest of the present day is dominated mostly by large brand sponsors ("Fader Fort," "Marlboro Blacks Lounge," "Viceland," and "Doritos Stage" are just a couple examples of the venues that hosted shows this week) and signed acts, ranging from those on the rise (Willy Moon, Action Bronson) to some of the most established performers known to mankind (Justin Timberlake, Ghostface Killah, Prince, Afghan Whigs, T.I. Usher, Smashing Pumpkins, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, A Tribe Called Quest, just to name a few). Unsigned acts are certainly still present, but breaking through the noise made by the big boys seems almost impossible. And an industry secret, this certainly is not.
That said, South-by is still a pretty fun and largely singular experience. Lucky for me, I've had the pleasure of seeing the festival go through these changes first-hand, and have appreciated it in all it's forms. My dad is an industry-vet, a lawyer and a manager for 20 years, and he used to take me down to Austin when I was a teenager. We would bounce from bar to bar (I had a solid fake ID) and would stumble on all kinds of new bands. I remember during one year, 2005, one of the only established acts playing was Third Eye Blind and everyone knew about it and was planning to go, circumstances which seem pretty laughable given this year's line-up of superstars. One year, I walked into a decrepit watering hole and caught an electrifying set by Amy Winehouse, long before she exploded in the US. I didn't even have to wait on a line. Beyond that, it was all about the new guys, bands and artists who were mostly looking to score their first piece of industry attention.
This year, I got to see a number of new acts, although most of my "discoveries" already have major record deals. A couple stand-outs: Early in the week, I caught a show by Wild Belle, a reggae/ska/jazz hybrid headed by brother-sister duo Elliott and Natalie Bergman. They played a tight set at Haven bar on LaVaca street that nicely showcased Natalie's raspy, soulful voice (slightly reminiscent of Ms. Winehouse's) and Elliott's impressive skills as a multi-instrumentalist (during the 30 minute set, he played trombone, saxophone and keyboards, among others). While I hadn't heard of them prior to the fest, they had just this week released their debut on Columbia Records. Norwegian blue-eyed soul crooner Bernhoft, who appeared recently on Ellen, stood out by building an entire backing band for each of his tracks using just his guitar (beating the back of it for a drum line), his mouth and a sampler. Singer-songwriter Lianne La Havas played on Thursday afternoon at the Warner Music showcase and won the crowd over with her powerful voice and decidedly down-to-earth demeanor and sound. And Willy Moon, who performed at Filter Magazine's pop-up at Cedar Street Backyard and had perhaps the most unique sound I heard this week, sings like Elvis over swinging beats that sample "Jesus Walks" and "Wu Tang Clan Ain't Nothin' To Fuck WIth." His debut will be released by Island Records in April.
On the flip side is what I started referring to as the "Coachella alternate-universe" of the festival, where a plethora of superstars played to fanatic, sun-drenched hoards who had often waited for 3 hours or more just to get a chance to see their favorite acts. It almost feels like SXSW has become a chance for these mega-stars to prove that they are still in touch with the streets, forgoing big productions to play in little bars with terrible sound systems or on make-shift stages in the middle of barren fields. I caught a couple of these headliners, most notably at Fader Fort on Friday where Grand Hustle artist Trae tha Truth brought out no less than Yo Gotti, BOB, Pharrell and label-boss T.I. who had the crowd bursting their lungs as he launched into renditions of classics like "What You Know" and as well as the recent club-hit "Ball." Rap's most prominent emo-artist this side of Drake, Future, took the stage next for a decidedly high-energy set, especially given the subdued pace of most of his songs. In perhaps the weirdest twist of the entire festival, 90's alt-rockers Afghan Whigs then played a thirty minute set of their own material before bringing out Usher, who then proceeded to perform five of his own songs backed by the Whigs. Bizarrely, it all managed to gel and made for my absolute favorite moment of the festival, if only for it's unabashed oddness and what at least felt like genuine spontaneity.
Hip-hop in general, which has gone through somewhat of renaissance over the past couple years, was also on notably high display during the traditionally more rock-based fest. Over the week, aside form the aforementioned TI, Trae tha Truth, BOB, Yo Gotti and Future, I caught sets by Pusha-T, Macklemore, Ghostface Killah, Juelz Santana, Action Bronson and Angel Haze. Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar and A Tribe Called Quest also played, along with a myriad of other hip-hop legends as well as up-and-comers like World's Fair, Flatbush Zombies and Zebra Katz.
So while this SXSW certainly lacks the air of true discovery that defined it during my teenage years and prior, the new South-by has its perks. I still felt like I got a chance to stumble upon music that was new, at least to me, and I left feeling genuinely excited about the stuff I heard (I'm listening to Willy Moon as I write this). And I'll never get sick of watching Ghostface rap "Incarcerated Scarfaces" to a bunch of true hip hop heads. That could never be bad.
The truth, as has been hammered home a million times before, is that the time when bands were picked out of complete obscurity following their showcase in an anonymous bar is a thing of the past. An age where an artist can go from pretty much complete obscurity to a number one record in a matter of weeks, and based solely on a YouTube meme, ensures this. South-by should be commended, then, for managing to forge a path forward into the 2010s and beyond, expanding its brand while still managing to hang on to at least a piece of it's initial identity as the place to discover new music, even if those doing the discovering are no longer the industry-insiders, but fans like me. And to top it all off, where else are you going to see Afghan Whigs perform the backing music and vocals for "OMG"? Only in Austin.
Before the madness, HuffPost Entertainment tallied up its best guesses at who would dominate the festival (Timberlake and Prince excepted):