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Life (and death) at South By Southwest

"Life (and death) at South By Southwest" Continued...

Issue: "Coat of many dollars," May 3, 2014

But can festivals that become this large remain vibrant and trend-setting? Michael Parrish Dudell, a technology maven who has been a regular at SXSW Interactive for years, chose to pass on South By this year: Not since 2011, he said, when Twitter got a boost from South By, have any significant new products launched at the interactive festival. “Is [SXSW] dead? No,” he said. “Is it still good for launching products? I don’t think so.”

That doesn’t mean that festivals like SXSW are in danger. Their combination of music and art, or music and digital, is a powerful draw. Silicon Valley recently ripped off SXSW with its own Creative Convergence Silicon Valley (C2SV), a four-day festival that this year will feature The Lemonheads and include opportunities for technology startups to pitch their companies to venture capitalists.

GIVEN THE MONEY INVOLVED, don’t expect crime, drugs, and even the deaths of four attendees in Austin this year to slow the festival juggernaut. Live events have become the bread and butter of the music industry. According to a statement released by Pollstar, which tracks the live music industry, 2013 was “a record year” for the global concert industry. The top 20 worldwide tours took in $2.43 billion in primary ticket sales, a 24 percent increase over the $1.96 billion generated in 2012. 

SXSW claims to inject more than $200 million into the Austin economy. In October, the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership said the Coachella Festival pumped more than $250 million into that region’s local economy.

And local governments are learning how to take their cut: Indio, Calif., site of Coachella, now has a 17-year agreement with festival organizers to tax each ticket sold $5.01. The agreement will generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue for the town of 76,000 about 100 miles east of Los Angeles.

So despite growing problems not only at South By Southwest but other festivals around the country, they will likely continue—at least until the body count grows.

Other top American festivals in 2014

Capital Cities performs at Coachella 2014.
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Coachella
Capital Cities performs at Coachella 2014.

April 11-13, 18-20: Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. For two weekends each April the Empire Polo Club in Southern California’s Coachella Valley is the site for a festival that traces its roots to a 1993 performance at the Polo Club by Pearl Jam as a protest against venues controlled by Ticketmaster. Last year’s combined attendance: 225,000.

April 24-27: MerleFest is mostly bluegrass, country, and Americana in Wilkesboro, N.C. Founded by guitar legend Doc Watson to honor his son Merle, who died in a tractor accident. Attendance: 75,000.

June 12-15: Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival takes place on a 700-acre farm near Manchester, Tenn. It started out as a showcase for jam bands such as Phish. Last year’s attendance: 90,000. 

June 25-28 (Pennsylvania) and July 30-Aug. 2 (Washington): Creation Festivals are two annual, four-day Christian festivals that take place in two locations, Pennsylvania (Creation Northeast) and Washington (Creation Northwest). They include not only music but sermons, baptisms, communion services, and children’s programs. Organizers claim combined attendance of 50,000-100,000.

June 25-July 6: Summerfest bills itself as the world’s largest music festival, with 700 bands on 11 stages spread out over 11 days. In 1968, Bob Hope headlined. Last year’s attendance: 1 million. 

Aug. 1-3: Lollapalooza features alternative rock, heavy metal, and hip hop at Chicago’s Grant Park. Attendance: 160,000.

Signs of Life

Bands to watch from 2014’s South By Southwest

It’s hard to believe that more than 2,000 bands play SXSW, but do the math: The festival has about 100 official venues. Some book as many as 20 acts per day. 

At one venue one band set up while another band played at the other end of the room. When the first band ended its 30-minute set, the crowd simply did a 180 and the other band launched into its set. And so it went for 11 days.

Amidst the 2,000 bands I found a few favorites. Here’s an idiosyncratic list of bands who performed at SXSW worth checking out.  

Andrew Belle
Handout photo
Andrew Belle
Andrew Belle’s new album Black Bear is reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens, though not as weird. Belle graduated from Taylor University but had a spiritual crisis after college that in the end caused both his faith and his commitment to his music to deepen. Microsoft and others have licensed his music for commercials and television use, but that success hasn’t turned his head, and his latest album, which he featured in three different showcases at South By, explores relationships and mystery in interesting and compelling ways. 

COIN The founders of the band met as students at the Christian college Belmont University. This is their second trip to SXSW with their infectious synth-pop sound. Nashville, Tennessee. www.thisiscoin.com.

Gungor This Dove Award–winning band led by Michael Gungor and his wife Lisa already has a significant following among 20- and 30-something Christians. But their music transcends genre, as this year’s appearance at SXSW demonstrates. 

Matisyahu is the stage name for Matthew Paul Miller. The name means “Gift of God” in Hebrew. Matisyahu blends Orthodox Jewish themes with reggae and rock, with his most recent music trending toward dub. The band’s 2005 single “King Without A Crown” was a Top 40 hit in the United States. 

Penny and Sparrow
Handout photo
Penny and Sparrow
Penny and Sparrow Rich songwriting and soaring harmonies. Penny and Sparrow are Texas singers and former roommates Andy Baxter and Kyle Jahnke. They claim The Swell Season, Bon Iver, and Mumford & Sons as musical influences. You can hear all that in their music, but there’s more. They weave biblical imagery into their music in ways that are surprising and unself-conscious, and the duo’s backing band allows for sonic adventure as well. The band’s latest album is Tenboom, featuring a line drawing of Christian heroine Corrie ten Boom on the cover. 

Matrimony is a family affair, with Jimmy and Ashlee Brown leading and Ashley’s two brothers and a cousin rounding out the band. 

Michael Martin Murphey A long-time Austin favorite, he was one of the founders of the Austin Music Scene in the 1960s. Despite his (well-deserved) reputation as one of the originators of “Outlaw Country,” Murphey has also been singing about faith, family, and freedom for a half-century. 

Run River North
Handout photo
Run River North
Run River North The core members of the band met through the Korean church community in Los Angeles. Though all the members are Korean-American, their country-rock feel is often branded Americana. They claim John Mayer, Jason Mraz, and Jack Johnson as influences, but you can also hear in it Dawes, Jackson Browne, and the Eagles.

Warren Cole Smith
Warren Cole Smith

Warren, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., is vice president of WORLD News Group and the host of the radio program Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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