Today there are more opportunities than ever to showcase your music internationally. A myriad of different events such as The Great Escape, Popkomm, Womex, Transmusicales, Eurosonic, GoNorth and CMJ bring A&R, live agents, promoters, bloggers, broadcasters and journalists together in one place, to feast their eyes and ears on the finest new music on the planet. There is, however, a behemoth that straddles the globe and eclipses them all – South by South West (SXSW).
Originally set up in 1987, in reaction to the coastal stranglehold that Los Angeles and New York had on the US music industry, a group of wide-eyed, counter-culture enthusiasts with a hearty disregard for convention took it upon themselves to start something in their back yard. Although Austin is a University town whose motto is ‘Keep Austin Weird’, it’s also the capital of America’s most right wing and Christian-conservative state. Perhaps initially the chips were stacked against them.
Slowly but surely, word about the quality of the festival began to spread, drawing crowds and increasing kudos. From its tasteful programming of the night time concerts, through to the unconventional nature of the daytime barbecue parties; SXSW carved out a well-deserved niche as THE place to find the most exciting, cutting edge bands on the planet every March. It’s quite some achievement, and testament to their initial belief and foresight, that more than 2,000 artists now officially display their musicals wares in this hot, humid and hectic city. It has to be said that the beautiful weather, the Tex-Mex food, the margaritas and the infamous southern hospitality don’t harm their chances either…
For ten years, I’ve made the pilgrimage here to film a BBC 2 TV documentary; broadcast live on BBC Radio 1 and BBC Radio Scotland; and pen many an article about this overwhelming audio bean-feast. The annual trip becomes addictive. Conveniently in 2012, my trip here coincides with the fact that the British Music Group also celebrates its tenth anniversary of officially showcasing at SXSW. Today, the UK actually block books a venue, Latitude 30, just off the notorious and awe inspiring 6th Street. They even call it the British Music Embassy. It’s an ingenious move, as it focuses all the attention on one place, with the majority of our home grown heroes under one roof.
There was a veritable smorgasbord of up and coming acts from every corner of Great Britain. Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland as well as northern and eastern England, all have separate events that highlight the cream of their local talent. With huge amounts of hopefuls looking for that ever elusive US breakthrough, Huw Stephens from BBC Radio 1 concedes, ‘For the bands that come here, it’s important they’re at the right level, that they’re ready and they have things going on at home. Coming to SXSW is almost like fitting the last piece of a jigsaw – it can open up loads of possibilities.’
But what will artists really gain from attending the festival? ‘Contacts,’ says Stephens. ‘These can be big ones with labels, managers or promoters. Or they can be smaller ones with other bands; friendships that end up in collaborations, tours and ideas. Sometimes you can hook up with people from the UK that you haven’t managed to meet anywhere else. It’s all about building up your portfolio of contacts.’
Critics of the festival may say that it’s grown too large, corporate and unmanageable, but it still inspires devotion and respect from UK festival promoters and bookers. John Rostron, co-founder of the SWN festival in Cardiff says, ‘We loved the format, the voyage of music discovery and the energy of SXSW, and we loved how it had put the small town of Austin onto the world map. We hoped that in some small way we could do the same for Wales, and so SWN festival was born.’
SXSW is now the first stop when trying to impress the right people stateside, and start that all important buzz. Managers and labels bringing their new bands want it; bloggers, journalists and radio presenters feed off it; and live agents and promoters want to book it. If a band can cause a stir at SXSW, they’re quickly on their way to inking the right deals and infiltrating the airwaves.
Positioned in March, it means that anyone performing or talent-spotting at SXSW is usually way ahead of the curve too. This year, the blogosphere was alive with rumours, gossip and buzz, a lot of which was stimulated by UK artists. Scottish psych-popsters Django Django were one of the most talked about acts of the festival; as was folk-tinged singer-songwriter Elena Tonra, aka Daughter; Manchester’s math-pop shape-shifters Dutch Uncles; and new London arts collective Breton, recently signed to the Fatcat label. All these artists played multiple shows across the dusty streets of Austin over the five days, garnering huge critical acclaim from media and audiences alike.
Originally seen as a hotbed for indie, rock and country, SXSW now caters for America’s growing love affair with electronica. Hip-hop is massively popular stateside and has been for decades, but more esoteric, instrumental forms like dubstep, techno, house and electro are still relatively underground despite mainstream artists co-opting the production techniques for their own chart domination. In 2012, the original pioneers of dubstep and UK bass music, Skream, Benga and Plastician were one of the hottest tickets in town.
A sizeable amount of more established UK acts were in attendance too. Spearheaded by electro-charged, lad-rockers Kasabian and household names such as Kaiser Chiefs and Keane; there were bands performing who may well be festival headliners back home, but aren’t particularly well recognised over the pond. Acclaimed songwriter Ben Howard has broken through in the UK recently, with a gold-selling album under his belt; but over in the USA he’s just starting out.
But why is it important for UK bands to continue to come here, year after year? Craig Kneale of fast-rising, Scottish rockers, Twin Atlantic says, ‘This is our third time here. We come over because we feel there is no better way to get your band known by the entire, worldwide music industry. On our first visit, we were unsigned. You probably won’t actually get signed here, but a lot of important people can hear about you.’
With large swathes of the industry working hard, networking and sweating buckets in Austin, it’s quite something to witness the sheer size of UK presence here. The PRS for Music Foundation’s British Music Abroad initiative supported twenty artists to go out; Tony Moore’s talent night at South London venue The Bedford relocated to Texas; PRS for Music teamed up with Raw Power Management for a special showcase; PPL was there in association with NME magazine; Clash Magazine and Ben Sherman hosted a successful party… and the list goes on. It’s obviously impossible to see and experience everything. However, in order to compete globally Stephens claims, ‘SXSW makes people step up their game. It reminds you there’s so much going on out there and there’s always room for us to do better.’ It seems that’s exactly what’s happening too.
The Texans gregariously boast that ‘Austin is the Live Music Capital of the World’ and as I look back on another year of outstanding talent and sensory overload, I find it impossible to disagree. Austin, I love y’all!
British Music Group members include: AIM, Belfast City Council, BPI, Creative Scotland, Fast Forward, Liverpool Sound City, PPL, PRS for Music and UK Trade & Investment.