SXSW Trends and What They Mean for Music in 2011

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Another South by Southwest has come and gone, and frankly we’re still recovering and trying to process all that we’ve seen. Lots of sun, food, and drinks made for hazy days and even harder to remember nights, but there are a few things we do recall seeing again and again. As in years past, we’re parsing the trends from South by Southwest 2011 to extrapolate on what they mean for the coming year in music.

Floor toms and smoke machines

Esben and the Witch at the Fader Fort. Photo credit: Leah Taylor

So you’re the lead singer in a band whose music is loud and/or full and/or heavily electronic, and you don’t feel like you actually contribute enough to your band’s live show. How do you add a little extra oomph to your stage presence? Get a floor tom. Hit it a lot. Sometimes, hit it in percussive unison with your band’s drummer. Other times, just bash the hell out of it. It’s a trick that works well for New York indie darlings Bear Hands, and one that we saw executed to jaw-dropping effect when British doom-rock sweethearts Esben and the Witch pulled their floor tom into the audience and proceeded to slam it within an inch of its (and our) life. UK pop starlet Ellie Goulding also tried it, but, other than when she used it to launch into a quick cover of the opening hook from Kanye West’s “Power,” it didn’t really liven up her sleepy performance at the Fader Fort. A+ for effort to Miss Goulding, though.

Another trend meant to liven up stage shows, but one we’re pretty much over, is the ubiquitous use of the smoke machine. Every single band we saw at SXSW 2011 used a smoke machine to some extent, and we blame witch house. This worries us, both about bands ripping off lazy, tired attempts at theatrics and about our lungs. What’s in that stuff?

Dancing

[Video via soldoutmusic]

If this year’s SXSW bands and crowds are any indication, we’ll be seeing a strange phenomenon in the coming year: when rhythmic music is performed live by bands, people in attendance for said band, as well as members of the band itself, just might be dancing. Crazy, right? This might be surprising, but you’re actually going to see more bands making music meant for having fun. Witness New Zealand’s Kids of 88, who opened our Flavorpill Austin BFFs day party with a rave-like bang. Dancing: it’s not just meant for the LCD Soundsystem farewell show any longer.

Everybody wants to be the next Moby

Nora I Rock I Roll with James Blake

Sure, the bald wonder may have thrown his own vegan BBQ at SXSW this year, in anticipation of a forthcoming studio album and photo book, but his days as the boy king of TV advertising are ancient history. And so, the hunt is on for the next Moby: an artist making unoffensive, accessible yet just off-kilter enough music to encourage kids and their parents to open their wallets and purchase things.

If SXSW 2011 is any indication, British dubstep crooner James Blake and Danish pop performer Oh Land are neck and neck for the “next Moby” mantle. Blake was like an in-costume Mickey Mouse at Disney: he was everywhere, and everyone was stopping for posed pictures with him. He even got recognized by Odd Future head Tyler the Creator (watch for it at 4:45 in the video here). Pair that with his pretty, soulful vocals layered on top of the so-of-the-moment bass-heavy foundation he creates, and you have advertisers fallin’… fallin’… fallin’. Oh Land looks like a model, sounds like pure pop confection, and dances like a fairy princess, but without the crazy Björk/Tori Amos bouts of insanity/activism. If we had a car to sell, that would read like a winning combination to us.

Violence

[Video via soldoutmusic]

In the post-SXSW 2011 musical climate, it’s not safe to go shows anymore. Ben Weasel of the staggeringly irrelevant Screeching Weasel punched not one but two women when he got an ice cube thrown at him during his band’s SXSW showcase, Death From Above 1979’s reunion gig ended in a riot, and, well, Odd Future happened. Odd Future’s show at Fader Fort was everything we’d expected and then some: Tyler the Creator flung beer cans, water bottles, and his own damn self into the crowd like bullets, and the audience reciprocated in kind, at one point pegging DJ Syd the Kid’s laptop with an open water bottle — and she just laughed off before flinging the bottle back into the audience. The OFWGKTA kids also took out their youthful aggression (and Tyler’s daddy issues) out on the amplifiers, the microphones (smashed to the ground), cameras from the photo pit, and headliner Matt and Kim’s drum set-up, much to the chagrin of security. The crowd ate it up, though. Catching Odd Future on tour? Bring a helmet.

When in doubt, bring your own sound person

Photo of Esben and the Witch from Flavorpill’s Your Austin BFFs showcase, courtesy Marley Magaziner

Hey, bands: your sound at your half-hour SXSW set is probably going to suck. Count on it. The venue’s overtaxed, the sound guy’s tired and overworked, and no one’s going to care if your third keyboardist’s timpani is properly distorted. How can you assure that the crowd you’ll be playing to can hear you to the best of your (well, the venue’s equipment’s) ability? Travel with a sound person. We’ve seen The Knife and Fever Ray do it, creating two of the most majestic-sounding live experiences we’ve ever been to. Esben and the Witch did the same at our Austin BFFs show, and we heartily approve. The bass reverbed with such an intensity the venue shook, particles of dust literally dislodging themselves from the rafters. The sound nerds in us applaud this attention to detail.

The next big thing is the same as the last big thing

Guess who the hottest tickets were at SXSW 2011? The Foo Fighters. Kanye West. Deerhunter. Dan Deacon. Jay-Z. Even the buzzed-about Wild Flag is made up of former members of the Minders, Sleater-Kinney, and Helium. Call us old-fashioned, but we remember when the point of making it through SXSW was to stumble upon some great, new band and watch them rise to fame. Last year, Diamond Rings walked up and down 6th Street busking with his keyboard, in full make-up. We didn’t know who he was them, but we sure do now. At this year’s SXSW, overly-established artists were everywhere, presumably to rub some “next big thing” luck on themselves. We caught up with Katy Perry in the Fader Fort VIP section, Diddy (Diddy!?) showed up to introduce insane weirdo rapper Lil B, and our friends made quite a ruckus when Jack White stepped out of a truck to perform an impromptu parking lot set. As for us, we’d rather spend our time at SXSW seeing bands who don’t already have platinum albums or Pitchfork “Best New Music” approval. Isn’t that the point?