South by Southwest | 2015 Wrap-Up

murray sxsw_sqSunglasses and slow movements were the order of the day, but the music surged on ahead.






Sunday’s weather turned for the better, and it made for an eerie calm in Austin. Streets that had been full and trashed last night turned empty and bright as the SXSW circus pulled out of town. There were still a few islands of it, though. Japanese comic-punks Peelander-Z throw an annual family-friendly event that’s terrific as a festival come-down. Together with Austin’s delightful rock choir Mother Falcon, they presided over what was likely the week’s tiniest and most adorable mosh pit, with five year old fans holding up handmade signs and bopping along to “So Many Mikes” and “Mad Tiger.” That had been my plan for the day, really, but then a friend who had started late in his SXSW-ing challenged me with a “What’s next?” that took us back downtown for one final round.

Remaining out-of-towners huddled around the corner of Seventh and Red River with the party lurching on at both Beerland and Empire. Sunglasses and slow movements were the order of the day, but the music surged on ahead. I finally caught Manchester’s Spring King, whose name had been passed around quite a bit, and returned for more of Dutch psych-popster Jacco Gardner and New Orleans bounce master Vockah Redu. We ducked around the corner for a party boasting free chili dogs and Austin garage rock revivalists the Ugly Beats. The Ugly Beats delivered, but the last of the week’s free food ran low, and suddenly all that was left was the official SXSW closing party. South Korea’s doo wop girl group the Barberettes gave a curtain call on their U.S. debut, and then Vockah Redu (fresh from Beerland—still working at a frantic pace) cranked the party back up. And then, like that, SXSW 2015 came to a close, as dizzying and dazzling a musical buffet as it’s ever been.

A few concluding thoughts:

  1. Much has been made of the apparent retreat of the headliners this year. Artists like Modest Mouse and Kendrick Lamar have new high-profile albums but neglected to appear. This doesn’t mean that big names weren’t in town, but it may be that the brightest stars don’t need this additional stage to shine. And that should be just fine. A bit of pruning might be healthy for the festival, and there’s always been a tug-of-war between those who see the festival as a place for emerging acts and those who see it as a place to make the biggest stars accessible. Re-centering the festival on hungry new acts, sprinkled with a few veterans and reigning chart-toppers, should be sufficient. Bill Murray made his annual rounds with the Wu Tang Clan, and that’s enough for me.murray right
  2. Where SXSW has grown, though, is really where it counts, in creating unique opportunities to hear artists who have not had wide American exposure. The wide array of international acts stood out this year, as always, and I keep coming back to the Korea night at Elysium as perhaps my favorite experience 2015. Its expansive and experimental range, from the performance art of EE to DJ Hitchhiker to the more traditional K-Pop of Crayon Pop kept this listener thoroughly engaged. Reviews from Taiwan Night suggest that it left a similar impression. Japan, the godfather of SXSW Asian showcases, may well have to step up its game (though people are still raving about Perfume). Artists from Pakistan, Greenland, Colombia, Trinidad and Tobago, and elsewhere around the globe found new fans this week, to say nothing of the strong programs put on by SXSW stalwarts Canada House at Friends and the British Music Embassy at Latitude 30.
  3. Hip-hop has been the other growth field keeping SXSW healthy and vital. Of those headliners who did appear, many of the most coveted performances were of the hip-hop elite. Hip-hop also carried on the SXSW tradition of artists guesting on friends’ sets, whether the gathering of the Dirty South  and H-Town tribes for Bun B’s birthday party or the surprising mash-ups of Miley Cyrus and Mike WiLL Made-It or Bushwick Bill and Thee Oh Sees. The marriage between SXSW and hip-hop makes sense given their promotional tendencies and love for hype, and I look forward to watching how the relationship develops.
  4. Branding is a tight-rope that SXSW continues to walk, and it seems to be learning lessons from years past. The giant Doritos vending machine from a few years back has become the symbol of brands overstepping their bounds and crowding out the musical experience. McDonald’s got into some hot water of its own before the festival started over whether the acts it asked to perform at its pavilion would be paid. The reality is that the “music industry” SXSW was originally created to serve is in a state of radical transition (some would say free fall) where the big money to make an event like this possible no longer resides with those mythical giants the “major labels.” The corporate branding of SXSW is its only means of survival, really, but needs to be followed in a way that foregrounds live music performance and artist creativity while keeping those logos visible, but in the back. My time at “Hype Machine’s Hype Hotel presented by Taco Bell Feed the Beat” left me feeling fairly empty inside. Granted, many of these companies set up events on their own that parallel, but by no means are under the purview of, the official festival. This has irked the SXSW organizers for years, though satellite events do help raise the energy of the event as a whole, and is an area that needs to be navigated thoughtfully.
  5. And then there’s the City of Austin. The reputation, the experience, and the growth of SXSW and Austin seem as if they’re twinned to one another. Whether they will be victims of their own success or will continue to thrive as spaces for surprising and creative expression remains to be seen. As a 20-year resident of the city who considers it home before all else, I’ve got my heart set on the latter. Let’s make it happen. | Jason Mellard

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