To prepare for their inaugural South by Southwest Music Festival, Madisen Ward and his mother, Ruth Ward, watched the film “Frank,” a dark comedy about an avant-garde pop band.
“It’s a really weird movie,” Madisen said. “They end up going to South by Southwest and it ends badly. Someone gets stabbed in the leg. I hope things go better than that for us.”
Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, a son-mother duo from Kansas City, has four official showcases scheduled at this year’s festival, which starts Tuesday in Austin, Texas. The past several months have been a busy time for the two: They signed a deal with Glassnote Records, performed on “The Late Show With David Letterman” and generated a wave of accolades in the music media. The goal in Austin is to sustain that momentum, Madisen said.
“We’ve never been a part of a festival of this magnitude,” he said. “It’s a good showcase for new artists and can open doors to other things.”
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The duo has already created some festival buzz. Last week, National Public Radio released its annual list of “100 Songs by Artists to Discover at SXSW.” Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear made the list. So did another Kansas City act, the Josh Berwanger Band, which will perform at least six times in Austin, although none of the performances is an official SXSW showcase.
“We just finished up our new album and will be playing all new songs from it,” Berwanger said. “My plan is to play as many shows as we possibly can and to meet people and make as many connections as possible.”
They may have an easier time making a splash.
This year’s festival has turned down the star power and, according to some observers, is in a state of transition. Previous festivals have featured megastars such as Lady Gaga, Kanye West, Jay-Z, Bruce Springsteen, Justin Timberlake and Prince.
This year, there are no such five-star acts. Even the announcement of this year’s keynote speaker, Snoop Dogg, drew a lukewarm response.
Andy Langer, who writes about music for several publications, posted “The State of SXSW Music 2015” this week at medium.com. This year, many big performers said “no thanks” to SXSW, he said.
“Imagine any other year where acts the caliber of Alabama Shakes, Death Cab for Cutie, Modest Mouse, Mumford & Sons or My Morning Jacket all have recent/forthcoming albums to promote and instead opt out altogether,” he wrote. “Imagine a year where the two most talked-about new multi-format artists on radio — Hozier and George Ezra — also opt out. Instead, this is the SXSW where the return of Incubus warrants an official SXSW news release.”
Last year’s festival was infamous for the tragedy that occurred on Wednesday night. Four people were killed and nearly two dozen were injured when a driver plowed his car into a crowded street.
SXSW 2014 was also notorious for Lady Gaga, the festival’s keynote speaker, and the marketing strategy behind her performance. A ticket to the show was available only to those who posted something to social media promoting her sponsor, Doritos, a gimmick that turned off many.
New York Times critic Jon Pareles wrote: “One thing I won’t be doing at SXSW is attending Lady Gaga’s concert on Thursday night. … Getting a ticket to see the show would have required posting to social media a certain corporate-specified hashtag, the kind of social-media shilling that I don’t think anyone’s friends or Twitter followers should be subjected to.”
This year, McDonald’s made the news by first announcing it was sponsoring a stage that would feature emerging artists, not bona fide superstars. But all that goodwill was punctured when indie-pop duo Ex Cops disclosed that McDonald’s asked them to perform for free. McDonald’s, which initially said it had no budget to pay bands, has since agreed to pay all performers at its showcase.
Big stars also draw bigger crowds, and last year’s festival felt larger than any that preceded it. Lines into venues seemed longer; not even an official festival badge, which goes for more than $700, guaranteed entrance into a show.
Thus the popularity of unofficial showcases like the sixth annual MidCoast Takeover, a four-day gathering of bands primarily from Kansas City and Lawrence at the Shangri-La, a venue east of downtown Austin and away from the SXSW mayhem. Admission is free, the venue and production are first-rate, and bands draw people interested in exploring new acts.
Star power also draws crowds from smaller acts and other showcases, especially up-and-coming acts like Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear or the Josh Berwanger Band. SXSW was founded as a place where bands who hadn’t yet signed with a label could play in front of label representatives and get “discovered.”
This year should be different.
“If you’re the type who’s bellyached for years that SXSW should be about artists discovery, if you’re the type that scoffs at major-label talent playing the festival because they take the place of an unsigned band, this is your year,” Langer wrote.
Discovery isn’t necessarily everyone’s motive. Other than not getting stabbed in the leg, Madisen Ward said his goal is to get exposure and see new performers, such as Leon Bridges and Courtney Barnett.
“We just want to get our foot in the door and get our music in front of people,” he said. “And it’ll be cool to get out there with other up-and-coming artists.”
Berwanger agreed: “The overall goal is not to get signed by a label but to work as hard as we can.”