Preview: SXSW 2017

Will we frantically embrace nightlife to escape the headlines, or will someone say something, anything?

It is March 2017, and SXSW, that rough beast, slouches toward Austin to be born anew. Here are a few things to pay attention to:

The Mighty Morphing Music Festival

There’s been chatter the last few weeks around town that the SXSW brass, on the one hand, and the corporate brands that have metastasized the festival through satellite events, on the other, have come to a kind of consensus that things had reached a critical mass. As a consequence, there may be a slight retrenchment to recalibrate the SXSW landscape. Some of the key unofficial sites of the past few years—Spotify House, the Hype Hotel—have chosen not to return, while the crowd-favorite Fader Fort has downsized a bit, too. Austin’s growth has contributed to this, as there just aren’t as many open parking lots and fields near downtown to accommodate these kinds of improvised festival spaces.

As for SXSW proper, the developments look to have a salutary effect, with a renewed focus on up-and-coming artists over megastars booked for massive corporate sideshows. The reckoning seems a necessary and sane one, and SXSW in the long run may well be better for it. In the short run, the question will be whether the spring break crowds have gotten the memo, or if the shift in scale and number of venues will lead to longer lines and access issues. I am cautiously optimistic, all in all.

Bands vs. Brands

And that is a kind of optimism many of us have had in short supply lately for reasons far afield from the festival. The world is more than brands, but also more than bands. I confess, unlike most SXSW years, chasing that thrill of finding the next hot goth emo band out of East Timor is not among my most pressing concerns. Given the state of things out there in the real world, I would be willing to bet the same might be said of a lot of the industry reps, journalists, and artists gathering in Austin in this week. So, one of the things I will be watching for is how, or if, we see artists and panelists engage with Donald Trump’s brave new world. Will we frantically embrace nightlife to escape the headlines, or will someone say something, anything? Do something, anything, to represent the invigorating and contrarian role of art in speaking truth to power? Pussy Riot’s in town, so that’s one indication. Ozomatli is headlining an All Latino Resist Concert on Lady Bird Lake, so that’s another.

Further evidence that we’re all a little jumpy is that SXSW itself ended up in hot water recently over contract language suggesting that international artists might be reported to immigration over playing nonsanctioned shows outside the festival. SXSW insisted it was boilerplate language that had always been in contracts and never been enforced, but the current environment put the policy in a new light. Festival organizers owned up to the language’s potential for abuse and have agreed to remove the phrasing in international contracts next year. It only makes sense.

This hasn’t stopped newly empowered immigration authorities from messing with the fest. Italian band Soviet Soviet has already been detained and turned back at a Washington airport on their way to the festival, and they likely won’t be the last of the international artists who will come face-to-face with the new climate on American borders. In the end, SXSW’s commitment to art, creativity, diversity, difference, and innovation should put it squarely on the other side of the authoritarian wave. When they are at their best, these are the globalists Bannon warned you about, and proud of it.

New Bands, Old Favorites

That said, this is a music festival about discovering new bands and checking in with old favorites. Here are a few I’m excited about:

  • Two artists who have made the SXSW visit before but are poised for memorable star turns in 2017 are Americana soulstress Valerie June, fresh off of dropping her new album The Order of Time, and boisterous Minneapolis alt-rapper Lizzo.
  • Austin locals S U R V I V E, deans of the city’s burgeoning synth scene, also stand ready for the spotlight following their retro score to Netflix sleeper hit Stranger Things.
  • In the category of oft-unsung legends who walk the earth, another SXSW staple, this year’s festival brings the chance to see Grandmaster Flash and Modern English, members of Big Star, the B-52s, and Moby Grape.
  • Personally, I’m quite keen to catch James Chance, the jazzy avant-gardist of ’70s New York No Wave.
  • And, perhaps more than ever, the international showcases beckon. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan always send their best.
  • Add to that such politicized statements as the Contrabanned: #MusicUnites official showcase of artists from nations affected by the recent executive order on travel, and the first all-Venezuela showcase, and Austin yet again becomes a mid-March center stage for the state of the arts. | Jason Mellard

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