By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
A single highway connects Minneapolis to Austin, Texas, making the drive to South by Southwest a theoretical breeze—stay on I-35 south, wind through a couple of states, and you're there. But in reality, the road trip to Austin can be downright wretched. Drive it all at once and you run the risk of skidding into town already drained of a week's worth of energy, cramped and sore from trying to sleep sitting up on a 20-plus-hour trip. Break it up and the cost of hotel rooms and days off work start to add up, making it hard for musicians to afford getting to a festival that rarely pays bands to play.
Despite all these challenges, more and more bands from the Twin Cities decide to make the trek southward each March. This year, roughly 20 local bands, artists, and DJs were chosen out of the thousands of applicants to be featured as showcasing bands at the festival, while another 20 traveled down to play unofficial, mostly grassroots-organized day parties and shows. Once down in Austin, the locals are mixed in with thousands of other bands, from folk acts to punk bands to flavor-of-the-second indie-rock and electro-pop acts, each and every one trying to make a name for themselves amidst the chaos. The result is nothing short of cacophony, a sprawling, city-wide hootenanny featuring freaks of all stripes walking the streets at all hours and playing music until they drop, a spectacle that more than lives up to the festival and city's unoffical slogan: "Keep Austin Weird."
Some bands incorporate the festival into a larger tour to absorb costs, while others bite the bullet and write it off as a working vacation or a chance to hobnob with industry professionals.
After talking to several local bands with a wide variety of experience, levels of popularity, and outlooks on the industry, we found that there's really no right way to participate in SXSW. But there are plenty of ways for a band to extend their SXSW experience beyond the booze-guzzling and PR-pumped schmoozefest many outsiders associate with the festival—and getting away from the hype and finding the artistically rich, inspiring aspects of one of the largest musical meet-ups in the world is easier than you might think.
THE MUSIC PORTION of the SXSW festival kicks off on a Wednesday, and this year the first day of the festival coincidentally (and somewhat unfortunately) happens to fall on St. Patrick's Day. At a two-story, open-air bar called the Belmont, legions of Austinites are dressed head-to-toe in green, sporting spring-loaded four-leaf-clover headbands and "Kiss Me I'm Irish" T-shirts and working their way to the bottoms of plastic cups of green-tinted beer. The crowd is all but ignoring the live music at the bar, save for a small section of non-green-clad attendees on the main floor in front of the stage, and in a few minutes City on the Make will play their first SXSW show.
The members of the local blues-punk hybrid band seem unfazed by their decidedly un-rock 'n' roll surroundings or the distracted audience. It's sunny, they have the week off from working their day jobs, and they are taking advantage of their trip to Austin by incorporating it into a mini tour. "I think the best thing we will get out of this is just more experience being on the road," says lead singer Mike Massey. "We play in Minneapolis, and that's great, and I love that place—but it's a real good test to go out and play where there's no one that knows you, and that's all I want out of this."
Only a few days into their first tour as a band, they have already discovered a few challenges of being on the road, Massey says. "It's made me appreciate how easy it is to fucking get off work back home, and go home for a little bit, and then go to the venue, instead of driving all fucking day," he says.
"Yeah, we all just got our first shower in today," adds bassist Stephen Rowe. "It was monumentous."
The band members say they are using SXSW as a test run, playing things by ear and building up experience for future tours. "Hopefully we'll start doing this more consistently," says Massey. "If that means we play back home a lot less, that's fine. We'll go back to picking and choosing when we want to be playing."
"We have to," adds guitarist Peter Blumgren, chuckling. "We just bought a van."
When the band starts to play, Massey's voice begins to give out, straining under the pressure of playing shows three nights in a row. Despite their singer's painfully hoarse voice, the band give it their all, and Massey pushes through. It's not their tightest set ever, but the crowd eats it up anyway, a section of the St. Patrick's Day revelers breaking off from the party to get a closer look at the charismatic, genre-fusing rock band.
In between songs, a middle-aged man with gigantic, bright-green sunglasses stumbles toward the stage to yell at the band: "Hey, you guys kick ass!"