Everything (even SXSW) is bigger in Texas

The festival down south where the industry dogs chinwag and the rest of us party has grown.

by Jessica Lee

AUSTIN – No street corner was out of earshot of an amateur rap performance or without a whiff of Texas BBQ.

Crushed mixtapes littered sidewalks in the downtown Austin area last week, where five-gallon bucket drumming mashed with power chords coming from inside bars, and thousands of music connoisseurs waited in lines for a taste of free beer and tunes.

The industry’s biggest movers and shakers mixed with buzz-hungry musicians for the 29th annual six-day South by Southwest Music festival, where schmoozing is an art form and no one escapes the target of big-name marketers.

“It’s like a circus,” performer and rapper Earlly Mac said. “Who doesn’t love the circus?”

SXSW has grown in recent years, increasing its number of mainstream sponsors and music gigs to become an overcrowded advertising hub and trade show where venues regularly reach capacity and line-waiting is a sport.

Alongside much less established acts, artists who sell out stadiums or play the main stages of Pitchfork and Coachella festivals snag set times in tiny Austin bars just for bragging rights and some Internet fame. Meanwhile, industry personnel maneuver the showcases on the hunt for next year’s biggest names in music.

Conference wristbands and badges choke the arms and necks of SXSW registrants. Like using Disney World fast passes, these badge holders — or “badge holes” — jump shows’ long lines, catching jealous stares from those waiting outside venues.

The special privileges and hard-sought access to more than 2,000 official shows maintain the festival’s exclusive nature, though hundreds of other performances carry on throughout the city as “unofficial” and attract attendees ranging from free-Mexicali-beer-seeking cowboys to indie hipster teens who can’t afford an official SXSW ticket.

Officers worked aggressively to keep the chaos in order, especially considering a fatal accident last year when a drunken driver killed four people and injured others who were waiting in line on the street. Barricades blocked dozens of streets, and fire marshals were always on call to ensure venues were following protocol.

With the increased focus on keeping sites under capacity, the lines were long and slow moving.

Regardless, the cult following Boston-based rockers Krill packed between beams of an unfinished and poorly ventilated garage without any concerns of violating fire code at a house party miles away from the downtown melee.

Sweaty and intimate, the fan-band lovemaking session was clearly more passionate than the group’s set hours later at an SXSW-officiated pub, where only a few dozen registrants stood mostly catatonic to Krill’s shambolic rock.

Whether headlining a corporate-sponsored show, crowded garage or Wendy’s parking lot, musicians at SXSW share the same goal: perform a hot-and-sticky run of shows and brush shoulders with the industry’s top dogs, considering more than 90 percent of the festival’s badge and wristband holders aren’t casual fans.

They’re dad-looking guys in baseball caps with long-nosed cameras and media credentials slung around their necks. Maybe they’re part of a band’s entourage or are social media strategists, glued to their smartphones for a six-day finger-workout binge.

Donovan Wolfington, an angsty rock four-piece from New Orleans, didn’t get on the official SXSW roster, but it crowded an upstairs bar for a Topshelf Records show on Thursday, one of many shows the group had lined up throughout the week.

Climbing the SXSW popularity ladder or gaining official status wasn’t at the top of the band’s priority list, singer/guitarist Neil Berthier said.

“With artists there are different hierarchies,” he said. “You got to stay true to what you do … [We’re] here to have fun, you know, and not be a jerk, and meet some people, and play a sick show and get really drunk.”

An herbal-smelling cloud followed guys in bucket hats and Hawaiian shirts at Friday’s Earl Sweatshirt set where free 8 percent ABV beer stupefied the crowd and the show’s pounding bass made water droplets from the day’s rain shower bounce off of the audience’s corporate-sponsored ponchos.

No one leaves a show without a new hashtag to check, app to download or free branded item. The rain was a perfect opportunity for marketers to wrap festivalgoers in their labels, and a mainstream promoter’s chargers could help dead phones.

Ten corporations made up SXSW’s “super sponsors” list this year, more than in 2014. Newcomer McDonalds, for instance, signed on in an attempt to tap into the trendsetter crowd, offering free Wi-Fi and McDoubles.

The no-cost theme extends beyond simply corporate marketers. Musicians, too, promote their music by passing around free samples when at any other time of the year they may shake their heads at cheap, illegal downloading.

It’s the attention, perhaps the hope for discovery, that’s part of SXSW’s promise — or its wild marathon of networking and performing — that keeps eager artists, promoters and full-time partygoers in lines for hours with high spirits, rain or shine.

“It’s a very, very good thing for a lot of people who are trying to get out there and be able to just explore what their sense of purpose is,” BBQ stand cashier Allen Green said between mouthfuls of standard Texan cuisine, blueberry cobbler and brisket.

He added, where else but SXSW could you potentially see “Matthew McConaughey playing his bongos naked?”