The concert experience, the very liveness of live music, is the one thing that technology cannot replicate, and this is the value of a festival such as SXSW.
South by Southwest has always had the capacity to astound and overwhelm; it’s a bit of a walk on the knife’s edge whether you find the former or the latter. But, when the festival hits Austin every March, there is simply no other place for people who take their music seriously. To navigate a city filled to the brim with all that music has been, awash in the glimmers of what popular music might next be, is an experience you owe yourself. There were some grumblings this year, as there so often are, that the headline acts were not quite as headline-worthy, or the buzz acts not quite as buzzworthy.
But Drake made it here (although at the Fader Fort and not at the official festival, and for all of 13 minutes), and it is hard to quibble in the presences of icons like Loretta Lynn and Iggy Pop, Leon Russell, and George Clinton. And, while is possible that this festival may not have been the crucial moment that, say, it was to the careers of Leon Bridges and Courtney Barnett last year, there are plenty of rising artists who are likely to receive a boost in fandom and media attention from their marathon of shows, like Hinds or Anderson Paak. And SXSW remains one of the largest stages for an artist’s midstream reinvention, too, which we just may have witnessed in Charli XCX’s head-turning, edgy set with Sophie at Stubb’s. And now that SXSW 2016 is just barely behind us, we may not quite know its effects for a while yet.
Where no one has any right to complain—and, indeed, where SXSW increasingly deserves more credit than it gets—is in the wide array of international artists. They come from every continent (except Antarctica), and embrace all styles from metal to traditional to Latin to hip-hop to EDM, and everything in between. Many of these showcases seemed under-attended in comparison to years past, but here’s hoping the acts that traveled from around the world found what they needed. I know I got plenty from them: Asian hip-hop acts Aristophanes (trippy electronica and stutter-step from Taiwan) and Suboi (empowering tributes to the old-school from Vietnam), the sufi qawwal of Pakistan’s Imran Aziz Mian and the screaming glam metal of Korea’s Victim Mentality, the cumbia of Mexico’s El Cojunto Nueva Ola and the funk of Chile’s Los Tetas. And that’s just barely scratching the surface.
SXSW’s expansiveness can seem like a Frankenstein about to go haywire, practically begging for cutbacks and a tightening of the festival’s vision. I can only hope that if and when that reckoning comes, the festival’s global vision is not the thing that hits the chopping block. If I were to take a stab at where things might be reined in a bit, it would be streamlining the relationship between the festival and its countless satellites and hangers-on in the day party world, but SXSW itself has been saying much the same for years.
And you can still see people at their hungriest here. When Mariachi Ghost held the crowd at Canada House spellbound one evening (A killer Day of the Dead prog-mariachi with interpretive dance and a Guy Maddin–directed video. Too much concept for one band? Nope, not at all), I was surprised the next day to learn they didn’t have a tour manager or a label. That’s what brings the new and exciting acts to town, I guess. At another showcase, the acts’ manager earnestly introduced herself to everyone in the small room.
At a time when technology has disrupted the music industry’s revenue streams more than most, when we no longer associate our consumption of music with a physical object that we purchase (vinyl’s strong sales to the contrary), the concert experience, the very liveness of live music, is the one thing that technology cannot replicate, and this is the value of a festival such as SXSW. (I mean, maybe the omnipresent virtual reality goggles from SXSW interactive will catch up with this. Lord knows they’re trying. It was funny, really, seeing whole rows of people lined up to strap screens to their faces for a virtual experience outside reality after traveling halfway around the world to a social gathering in Texas—but I digress.)
The realness of SXSW is the visceral experience it delivers again and again and again over a week of days and nights. Believe me, even after a few nights’ sleep I can still feel it deep in my bones. There was a lot of time spent standing in the dirt of the Hotel Vegas patio, increasingly one of the festival’s nerve centers. And, SXSW is rather distinct on the ever-growing festival circuit. Coachella, ACL, Bonnaroo, Jazzfest—all offer glorious buffets of music, but they do so on sanctioned, dedicated festival grounds, rather than in the living heart of a city and all of the spaces it has to offer: grand theaters, dive bars, churches, parks, warehouses, dance clubs, historic hotels, and on and on and on, a different feel for every night, or for every hour, and more than you could possibly plan for.
It does get wild and wooly now and again. After all, what in the ’80s and ’90s was the convergence of the University of Texas’s and the music industry’s spring breaks has, over the years, become the world’s spring break, with all of the messiness and joy and excess that entails. SXSW 2016, now in the books, was a monster of a time yet again, the festival’s 30th anniversary, and proof positive that music’s future still unfolds on stages and in clubs, even as it rings through our laptops and phones. | Jason Mellard