In just two weeks, roughly 2000 acts will descend upon Austin, Texas as part of the annual South By Southwest Music Festival. It’s an enticing and chaotic four-day feast of panels and live music that brings together radio program directors, journalists, publicists and record label reps, tons of corporate sponsorship, and of course, hungry music fans, all shambling down downtown Austin’s jam-packed 6th Street, from one venue to the next around the clock. It’s a long week of late nights, lots of walking in crowded streets, and ringing ears (bring those earplugs!). But it’s also a total blast.
This year, I’ll be down there on the ground and in the fray of the photo pits representing Soundcheck, covering the festival and my experiences in the form of daily blog posts and photo galleries, rolling updates to Twitter and our Soundcheck Tumblr, which will be brimming with Instagram pictures, short videos and some brief missives about my three Bs: breakfast tacos, beers and barbeque. I hope to provide a little taste of what it’s like to be in the clubs and on the streets of Austin.
In the meantime, I’m in pure prep mode. South by Southwest can be an overwhelming and daunting week where it’s possible you can spend more time hoofing it from one spot to the next or waiting in lines (or lines just for RSVP wristbands), and come away feeling like you didn’t hear much music. But one of the things I’ve picked up from my colleagues at NPR Music from the previous years I’ve attended is that with some simple logistics planning and listening, SXSW can be doable and a fun challenge. And, for me, it starts with the music.
Despite the increasing presence of megastars -- like Kanye or Green Day -- and over-the-top corporate sponsors, music discovery is remains the real currency of South By Southwest. So as much as I can help it, I usually try not to see bands I’ve already seen, or at least recently. With so many artists from such a diversity of musical genres -- from indie rock and electronic to hip hop and country to Latin alternative and blues rockers to metal and folk and more -- all simultaneously performing throughout the week, SXSW is really a collision of multiple festivals at once. As you might expect, everyone’s experience will vary greatly. And that’s exciting.
Right now, I’m in the midst of listening to nearly 1000 mp3s of officially showcasing acts, rating songs in iTunes and making note of what I like so I can try to seek ‘em out. This is an admittedly half-crazy, half-self-punishing marathon that I picked up from my pals at All Songs Considered, but ultimately, a useful one. It can all feel like a sweaty binge -- I can really only give any one song 30 seconds to make an impression before moving on to the next. But really, if I come away from this pre-listening with even five bands I like that I’ve never heard of, that’s a success.
Last year, I, like many of my pals at All Songs, came across the fabulous violinist and songwriter Kishi Bashi this way, who at the time, was not even officially appearing as part of the festival. His song "Bright Whites" -- still new at the time -- was so good, I made a point to seek out his short solo set at a small wine bar patio, and it was one of the highlights of my week. So yeah, you never know what you might find.
So far, I’ve gotten through listening to artists A-G in the alphabet, so I’ve clearly got a lot more listening and note-taking left to go in the next two weeks. In coming days, I'll be curating this ongoing Spotify playlist of bands playing SXSW as well as a many of my favorite pre-SXSW discoveries I hope to hear down in Austin.