South By Southwest, once the golden ticket to musical stardom, has become as important as a LinkedIn connection for Portland’s local bands and musicians.
With its skyrocketing popularity over the past few years, the Austin-based festival has shed its skin as a platform for scrappy bands to prove their worth. In its place is a beer- drenched free-for-all where anything goes. As a record number of attendees soaked Austin well past its saturation point, a number of shows were reported as mismanaged, off-schedule and inaccurately labeled. A few players from Portland’s music community mentioned how SXSW wouldn’t put them onstage until well-past their scheduled time, or neglect to place their name on a show roster altogether.
It’s not exactly a solid return in the investment Portland artists make for travel, food and accommodations—expenses SXSW fails to cover. In fact, the only hard compensation performers receive for their performances is either a paltry payment or an all-access wristband. Most bands spring for the latter.
While local artists, like hip-hop artist Tope, made their inaugural pilgrimage with an “anything goes” attitude, the experience didn’t quite meet expectations.
“I can see how the show could have been more helpful eight years ago for younger artists like me,” the rapper says. “People are more focused on acts like Lady Gaga and Rick Ross. I played some good shows, but they weren’t the right ones.”
Recast as needles in a haystack—or picks at a Guitar Center—Portland bands must try harder than ever to set themselves apart from the tsunami of similar acts jockeying for the same ears. In fact, SXSW may be better served as a barometer for young bands gauging their current progress. If they can’t stay afloat, it might be better to save the money and wait until next year.
“If you have a common sound, there’s just no point,” says rapper-producer Stewart Villain, another Portland hip-hop artist who performed at the festival for the first time. “There are thousands of rappers and rock bands down there that sound exactly the same. Everyone’s on the same level you are. You have to figure out a way to make yourself better than everyone else.”
But while SXSW’s fairy godmother days are long behind it, the festival still offers plenty of networking opportunities for bands, producers, and media outlets. Think of it as a professional mixer, but with beer and dirt instead of wine coolers and résumés. Bands can interact with music industry members far removed from their normal wheelhouse, which according to Rare Monk’s Forest Gallien, exposes them to more professional sounds, ideas and opportunities. The payoff may not be as immediate, but an iron in the fireplace is better than nothing.
“We ‘shook hands’ with a lot of people this year from various parts of the industry,” Gallien says. “With big social events like this, it's hard to tell who is serious or not. But we did meet a good amount of people that came out, so hopefully it will benefit us.”
Both Tope and Villain agreed that the festival opened up plenty of new doors for them, too, which, fingers crossed, will pave the way for promising opportunities. When so many artists are flying from one stage to the next, musicians never know who they might meet—like, say Dizzy Wright, who Villain happened upon while hustling to a venue. While Wright didn’t offer any record deals, Stewart said he managed to exchange numbers with the prolific rapper.
“I went down there to make some connections and meet some nationally known artists,” Villain says. “That’s exactly what I did.”
In fact, some bands—much to their surprise—walked away from the show with broad smiles on their faces. Bearcubbin’s Mike Byrne said he knew of SXSW’s soured reputation, and was bracing for tough times. (And this is coming from a guy who used to drum for the Smashing Pumpkins.) Luckily, Bearcubbin’ caught the attention of the Austin events website, Do512.com, which gave the band four extra sets amongst their official shows.
“It’s exciting to know that if you play well, something good can happen,” Byrne says. “This is what SXSW is supposed to be about.”
And at the very least, SXSW is still a cool place to rub elbows with professional heroes—even if you can’t like a fan boy.
“I wasn't expecting to be behind the same stage as Nas and find myself in that mix of extremely famous people,” Tope said. “I had to catch myself from being a super fan and rapping alongside them.”