The annual South by Southwest conference/festival is one of the biggest musical events of the year — for artists, both major and upstart, who scramble to Austin, Texas; for writers who refresh Twitter obsessively waiting for news items; and for bookers, publicists, and A&R reps who try to make sense of six days of chaos.
Increasingly, though, the March 15-20 music portion of SXSW — which follows the affiliated tech and film conferences — has become synonymous with another "M" word: money. In recent years, SXSW has taken shots for ditching DIY culture and saluting relentless capitalism instead.
Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported on SXSW from a lens they called "brand overload," describing the festival as "marketers marketing their marketing efforts to other marketers." Sponsors of SXSW 2016 include, but aren't limited to, Samsung, United Airlines, McDonald's, and Capital One.
If the fest has turned its back on its indie roots, that's certainly not stopping indie bands from showing up. Last year, more 2,200 acts hit more than 100 stages during SXSW, and that's only counting the official channel. So, if South by Southwest has become a corporatized clusterfuck, what motivates Minnesota musicians to keep making the annual pilgrimage to Texas?
Minnesota artists are very familiar with the 17-hour drive down I-35. Local alt-country pioneers the Jayhawks played the second installment of SXSW in 1988; Soul Asylum — who are attending again in 2016 — made their SXSW debut in 1995; Semisonic played in 1998; and Prince even made his presence felt three years ago. This year, more than a dozen locals will sweat on SXSW stages.
Ashley Gold and Garrett Neal are local synth-pop duo Holidae, who will be making their SXSW debut Friday at the Star Tribune and First Avenue's Midwest Showcase, featuring Har Mar Superstar, Bad Bad Hats, Night Moves, and more. Holidae — who scored their spot in the showcase by winning the Strib's Are You Local? contest in February — have barely solidified their footing in their home state, and now they're being thrust into the overwhelming heart of live music.
"I'm still surprised that we won Are You Local?," Gold admits. "I just want to be present and show how hard we work on our music. I'm nervous to put it out there."
Artists who didn't win their way to Austin can apply to play SXSW via Sonicbids, an event application program that gives the festival all your details — tracks, bio, press, photos/videos — in one package for a $33-$45 fee.
Peter Michael Miller of local orchestral rock group We Are the Willows put his band's best application forward the past two years, before eventually landing a spot on this year's bill. In 2015, We Are the Willows played four unofficial showcases via connections with Austin-based friends and venues. Is there a real difference between playing a SXSW-tagged show vs. one mooching off the festival spillover? Miller isn't convinced, but he's curious to see the difference.
"A show being great doesn't hinge on being official or unofficial. It's unaffected," he says. "It's helpful for our publicist to say we played [SXSW]. That holds some currency for some people."
Miller says partaking in SXSW is an intense commitment — both financially and time-wise. Two members of We Are the Willows, bassist Travis Collins and guitar/banjo-player Jeremiah Satterthwaite, work for public schools in the Twin Cities, making a spontaneous trip to Texas not-so-spontaneous.
"It's a big expense, but for the most part we broke even [last year]," Miller says. "This year we'll get close to that."
Other local bands, like colorful pop-rockers Carroll, will be on the road anyway, making SXSW just another stop on the tour. Like We Are the Willows, Carroll also applied to play and were selected, but didn't stop there.
"You don't want to go down to play just one [official] show," drummer Charlie Rudoy says. "The past couple weeks we've been picking up more unofficial shows that make it more worth it."
More established artists skip the vetting process altogether and let their label handle SXSW bureaucracy. Local psychedelic rockers Night Moves had their record label, Domino, place them in various showcases, frontman John Pelant says. On top of that, locally loved song-and-dance man Har Mar Superstar asked them to play his "Best Party Ever" showcase.
But SXSW life isn't without its drawbacks. Broken dreams, dysfunctional planning, and suffocating corporatization are all part of the SXSW machine.
"Getting discovered, rising in the ranks, or whatever — that might be a thing still, but I just don't really think that's what it is anymore," Miller says, adding that networking with other bands is the most realistic opportunity. "[SXSW] is where A&R people would go to find new acts, but now the internet does that."
Dreams of barbecue and tacos, on the other hand, are absolutely achievable, provided you can handle the lines.
"There's a lot of pseudo-mythologizing about what can happen at [SXSW]. It's over-the-top and kind of unrealistic," guitarist Max Kulicke of Carroll says. "We're just hoping to eat good food."
It's not always as simple as shoving back tacos, though. The swarm of thousands of bands means tons of potential for errors and miscommunications. "There's always a last-minute scramble for something that drives me crazy," Miller says.
Rudoy echoes this frustration with festival logistics.
"You show up sometimes and you have five minutes to load on for a 15-minute set," he says. "The first time we played we had to walk seven blocks to the show, and one of our members had a hernia and couldn't lift anything. We used a skateboard to move stuff."
Local artists aren't stoked about the flashy logos and useless branded water bottles and key chains made in China, but the overwhelming presence of commerce doesn't claw at their cores enough to keep them from attending. At least the five-story-tall Doritos stage — which was fashioned after an actual vending machine and hosted Snoop Dogg and Lady Gaga in years past — was retired for 2016. RIP.
"We've grown up in a world where this happens. Everything becomes about capitalism and branding," Gold says. "The climate is so corporatized in our everyday life. It makes sense that they would come in and take this market as well."
Pelant doesn't remember a SXSW without big-name brands like Verizon, Bud Lite, and Mazda, so it doesn't bum him out. "I don't know what the alternative would be," he says.
And for Kulicke, the whole corporate ordeal is irrelevant to what Carroll is going down to Texas to do: play music, obviously.
Star Tribune and First Avenue's SXSW Midwest Showcase
With: Har Mar Superstar, Night Moves, Bad Bad Hats, the Blind Shake, Holidae, others.
When: Noon Fri., March 18.
Where: The Sidewinder, 715 Red River St., Austin, Texas.
Tickets: Free; more info here.