By the numbers, this year’s South by Southwest Music Conference was smaller than last year’s.
According to early figures, attendance (which includes registrants and artists) was down at least 3,000 from last year’s 28,000, though it felt like more than that.
There was anecdotal evidence, too: Sixth Street, the festival’s main vein in downtown Austin, wasn’t as consistently jam-packed.
Most people with badges and wristbands were admitted to the festival’s official showcases, which wasn’t the case in previous years, when lines outside a full venue were more than a block long. Even lines to the food trucks and waits for tables in restaurants seemed shorter.
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“The whole SXSW vibe was much more mellow this year than last,” said Gregg Todt of Kansas City rock band Federation of Horsepower. “It really did seem like, overall, moods were better.”
The trend was predicted. This year’s festival lacked any 5-star marquee performers, such as Jay-Z, Kanye West, Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, Prince, Bruce Springsteen or Metallica, all of whom had performed at the festival in previous years.
This year’s biggest names: Iggy Azalea, D’Angelo, Mary J. Blige, J. Cole and Miley Cyrus, whose surprise performance at the Fader Fort drew mostly shrugs from those who heard about it afterward.
And security was much heavier, prompted by an incident last year when a car plowed through a crowded street, killing four people and injuring more than a dozen.
The weather no doubt affected attendance by people without badges or wristbands. Rain fell Friday night and through most of Saturday.
Yet attendance was high at the four-day MidCoast Takeover, an unofficial showcase of Kansas City/Lawrence bands. It took over Shangri-La, a venue east of downtown Austin. Admission was free. For the inclement weather, the music moved inside to the indoor stage, which had been the acoustic stage.
“The poor MidCoast crew this year had their hands full with the rain,” said Todt, “but they handled it all with an amazing amount of professionalism.”
“It was amazing to see how everyone pulled together and how we were able to keep the show going and not have to cut any bands,” said Rhonda Lyne of the Midwest Music Foundation, which presented the showcase.
“I know we had 2,000 through the door on Wednesday, and Thursday was more. The rain deterred some on the weekend, but it was still packed inside both nights, at capacity several times.”
Lyne said members of the bands Spoon, Cracker and Dashboard Confessional spent some time at the showcase, and several labels stopped by, including Bloodshot Records.
“Overall, we are very happy,” she said. “The responses have been great so far.”
Several Kansas City acts got attention from media in other cities, none more than the son-mother duo Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, an official SXSW act who is signed to Glassnote Records.
“The press responses we’ve received have been strong with everything from ‘Rolling Stone’ to (The Associated Press) to small-town papers,” said Neill Smith, the duo’s manager. “It seems like I’m getting an update every hour.”
Their showcase at the Radio Day Stage on Friday drew several hundred fans, dozens of whom drew closer to the stage to shoot photos or videos. They drew similar responses at their three other performances.
“Their Pandora showcase Friday night at Gatsby’s was one of the best performances I’ve seen them play,” Smith said. “I saw a lot of tears in the audience.”
The Philistines, a Kansas City psychedelic rock band, left Austin with one of the best stories of the festival. During their Saturday set at Maria’s Taco Xpress, actor Bill Murray was in the place and became an immediate fan.
Guitarist Cody Wyoming, a veteran of several SXSW conferences, said the experience was the highlight of a beneficial festival for both of his bands (Pedaljets being the other).
“First off, it’s just really cool that someone we all admire was there and enjoyed himself — immensely I’m happy to add — listening to our music,” Wyoming said. “But it turned out to be a story with legs and got us mentioned in NME, among several other newspapers and blogs.
“There’s no question that it has introduced our music to people that would have never heard us before. I would say that alone made it worth the effort and expenses. But our other shows were productive as well.
“The same goes for the Pedaljets. We played great shows and made great contacts. All in all, this was probably the most productive SXSW experience I have had yet.”
For most Kansas City bands, SXSW is an exercise in sacrifice and endurance, starting with the nearly 1,500-mile round-trip drive. Yet most say it’s worth the effort.
“I would absolutely love to go to SXSW as many times as we are able to,” said Josh Berwanger, whose band played seven shows, including the Takeover. “I love feeding off the energy in the air and the creativity that is happening. It’s inspiring to see so many people and bands work hard for what they want.”
Todt: “It’s totally worth it, for us. We love playing in Austin. It’s kind of our second home at this point.”
“Of course I’ll go back,” Wyoming said. “I love playing music, and I love being in Austin while it’s exploding with music.”
For Madisen Ward, discovering new acts was as rewarding as getting discovered.
“As much as I loved performing at SXSW, my highlight was when our flight got canceled because of an absent flight crew,” he said.
“That gave me an extra day in Austin to roam the streets and stumble into various gigs. The festival takes on a whole new dynamic when you’re there as a spectator and not a performer.
“We made a lot of new friends and got to play for many people who had never heard of us. It was a great.”
A South by Southwest Top 10
My favorite performances, in alphabetical order.
▪ Courtney Barnett: She’s a primo lyricist who sets her words to appealing guitar-based melodies that swing from grunge to indie-rock and -pop and delivers them in a sing-speak voice that recalls Liz Phair. Or Lou Reed. She will open for Belle & Sebastian June 18 at the Uptown Theater.
▪ Black Violin: The duo from Florida performed before “The Who at 50” panel discussion. Their viola/violin rendition of “Baba O’Riley” was fabulous.
▪ Hypnotic Brass Ensemble: They’re a 10-piece funk/rock/jazz band with an eight-piece horn section, and they captivated the audience of a few thousand that awaited the keynote address by Snoop Dogg.
▪ The Juliana Hatfield Three: She played a rousing 1 a.m. set that revived the sounds of her ’90s indie-rock heyday.
▪ MidCoast Takeover, Thursday evening: The lineup comprised Dolls on Fire, the Medicine Theory, the Bad Ideas, Me Like Bees and the Architects, and it showcased the diversity of the Kansas City music scene.
▪ No Brain (South Korea): They tap into many styles and influences: punk, ska, metal, reggae and rap; the Ramones, Social Distortion, the Offspring, the Pogues and others. And they do it with flair and panache.
▪ The Recycled Instrument Orchestra of Cateura (Paraguay): They’re a band of six young adults, most teenagers, who perform on instruments constructed from parts pulled from the landfill that dominates their impoverished neighborhood. The most inspiring performance of the week.
▪ Stromae (Belgium): He’s a 30-year-old singer/songwriter with evocative poses and dance moves. He and his four-piece band took the stage dressed in matching school-boy garb and delivered a set of songs with roots in pop, hip-hop and ’90s dance music.
▪ Tiger! S**t! Tiger! Tiger! (Italy): They mix shoe-gaze rock with no-wave punk. It was noisy and clamorous, but it always delivered a melody or stuck to a groove.
▪ Toffee (Taiwan): They’re a five-piece that mixes pop with hip-hop, all performed on traditional Chinese instruments.
Timothy Finn, email@example.com