Innocents in Austin: Keeping it real

Culture It’s the music that keeps South by Southwest closest to its indie roots | Warren Cole Smith

Innocents in Austin: Keeping it real

Keith Jeffery of Atlas Genius performs onstage at SXSW 2013 venue.
Photo by Roger Kisby/Getty Images for iHeartradio

AUSTIN, Texas—The vibe at South by Southwest 2013 took a definite turn on Tuesday. It’s the only day in the 10-day festival when the Interactive, Film, and Music festivals overlap. So the geeky interactive guys were pulling out and the geeky in a different way music guys were pulling in—some of them in vans they’ve been sleeping in for a while.

Or, as a policeman I talked to on Sixth Street said: “From here on out is when it begins to get crazy.”

And that scruffy fact, more than anything, and for better and for worse, is what connects SXSW to its roots. Interactive is dominated by big companies or sophisticated venture capital-backed organizations. Sure, there are start-ups, but this is not the place for a company with no marketing budget to come and get noticed.

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Movies are the same way. None of the directors and producers I talked to wanted to discuss budgets, mainly because there were very few truly low-budget movies in the festival competition. It’s one of the dirty little secrets of the self-consciously progressive independent film business: It would be unseemly—and perhaps even illegal—to admit that you spent a couple of million dollars on your movie but hid or understated costs so you could avoid paying union scale. That’s one of the reasons they call it “Hollywood accounting.”

But music is different. Many of the bands at “South by” are strictly DIY. Sixth Street is where most of the live music takes place, and it was impossible Tuesday night and Wednesday to walk down the street without hearing music coming out of every open door and window. (And, by the way, all the doors and windows have been open to this week’s gorgeous Austin weather.)

Sure, there are big bands and corporate players here. Some of the biggest names in hip-hop are in town. I had dinner Monday night with Nick Huff of Hard Knock TV, a YouTube channel partner for all things hip-hop (see the Hard Knock TV clip below of Lecrae talking about sin and God). It had more than 3 million page views last month. By way of comparison, WORLD’s website has about half that many monthly page views.

Huff has been coming to SXSW for eight years, and he said when he started coming, hip-hop was barely even a part of the festival. The last couple of years, though, the biggest names in the genre have been here, including Jay-Z, 50 Cent, and Lil Wayne. The bands outside of hip-hop are big, too. L.A.-based Dawes (who I saw do a fantastic set yesterday afternoon) has become a SXSW darling, and the Foo Fighters chose SXSW 2013 to stage their reunion comeback.

But the little guy is definitely here, too—from buskers on the street, to small bands playing obscure venues trying to get noticed. For example, I was at a private party on Monday night on one of the many rooftop venues in Austin’s downtown. A local guy, EagleEye Williamson, amazed a crowd by playing an electric guitar with one hand and a full drum set with his other hand and his feet. To call him a “one-man band” makes him sound like a novelty act, but this was original, inventive music, not shtick.

Busking on the streets was a band called The Ugly Club, featuring a melodica—a little plastic keyboard that you blow into to make a sound—and ukulele in addition to two guitars and drums. Coin, a band that got together in Nashville a couple of years ago and has only a single EP in its discography, is fronted by Joe Memmel, an evangelical Christian who went on a mission trip to Guatemala last year.

So if the Interactive and Film part of SXSW has gone corporate, look for the music at South by Southwest to “keep it real,” or at least as real as a festival with a half-million visitors over 10 days can get.

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