As has been chronicled tirelessly this year and in recent years, music discovery has become an afterthought at SXSW. Now it’s the showdown at brand corral, and I don’t just mean the big guys like Doritos and Samsung.
I had not been to SXSW in a few years, and I suppose I went into it thinking it would be possible to find music that’s completely new to me — as in, I’ve never heard of these bands, ever. That did not happen. SXSW is not some fantasy of drifting from one open club to another. There are times of day when you stay where you are, because no matter how many lists you try to get on beforehand, you will waste the day standing in line, official badge be fucked. During the day, SXSW is a consumer festival, unless you actually go to the panels. You see bands you’ve been meaning to check out, you follow curation brands you already trust, and you do your best to not wait the week away while still maintaining some sort of schedule.
Among the bands that play at least twice a day (afternoon party, evening showcase) during the music portion of the conference, it’s crucial to be associated with a “cool” media brand. The coveted spots are at SPIN’s House of Vans, one of the Pitchfork day parties at the French Legation Museum, the Brooklyn Vegan shows at Red 7, Hype Hotel (in partnership with a bunch of different music blogs, like Consequence of Sound), the Spotify House (which as far as I can tell, was never not at capacity), the numerous Filter events, and the NPR Music showcase at Stubb’s… just to name a few.
Getting on one of these lineups is more than half the battle won, even if you sound like shit. Some “curator” with a four-digit Twitter following will see you and blog about you. The media brand that put you on the lineup in the first place will take your photo and call you an “artist to watch,” even if you’ve been plugging away for years in near obscurity. They will co-opt you as their finding, because for some reason we need to hold on to the idea that the main function of SXSW is cool hunting. In all actuality, you could sit on your couch and figure out who the darlings of the fest are simply based on lineup announcements, Tweets, Instagrams, and online coverage. Here’s a fun activity: read the preview listicles/slideshows that publications ran early last week, then look at the review listicles/slideshows they ran yesterday. See how many bands overlapped. Self-fulfilling prophecy much?
In the spirit of all this, here’s a list of acts we will be talking about this year based on the fact that people at SXSW would not stop talking/Tweeting/Instagramming/blogging about them, and because they played a bunch of high-profile gigs. I’m essentially aggregating music-writer groupthink. I didn’t see some of these bands because, fuck, I’m one person and I require sleep and sometimes I spend the entire night covering Lady Gaga’s Doritos show. (Seeing the big shows will leave little time for music discovery. In fact, I think those two things are diametrically opposed.) In a year you can tell me I was wrong, but as Gaga said in her SXSW keynote, no one cares about your web content in a week. Maybe this will last that long.
The alt-R&B singer caught the attention of the Fader late last year with her debut mixtape, Cut 4 Me, an effort so alarmingly fresh-sounding amidst a saturated genre that it landed her on BBC’s Sound of 2014 list. She played Pitchfork and SPIN parties at SXSW, where I can attest that she was adorably humbled at how enthusiastic crowds were to hear her crystal-clear voice and weirdo production.
Established Baltimore synth-rock band whose lead singer elicits nearly as much of a reaction for his dance moves as Miley does for twerking. Their excellent new album, Singles, is their fourth, but suddenly everyone has decided they’re great. Attempts to see Future Islands at SXSW: four. Amount of times I saw Future Islands at SXSW: 0.5? I heard them while in line outside their Pitchfork day party gig on Wednesday, and their Tuesday set at the Spotify House. The cruelty of hearing but not seeing a Future Islands set is not lost on me.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Perfect Pussy is to hardcore Deafheaven is to metal. This is the band that makes people who’ve never listened to truly aggressive music see the appeal, thanks in large part to singer Meredith Graves’ shockingly personal lyrics. The day after SXSW, their debut Say Yes to Love got Best New Music in Pitchfork. Down in Austin, bassist Greg Ambler was the talk of the town after he threw his bass in the river following a late-night “secret” show on a bridge. He didn’t have another one, either.
When the Brooklyn MC/producer promoted his fresh new EP, Hey, with a Letterman performance of breakout “hit” “Wut” shortly before SXSW, it really felt like his moment was taking shape outside the underground. He continued his roll with shows in Austin that, based on what I heard (and read), emphasized just how much fun he’s having. At a festival increasingly dedicated to hip-hop superstars like Kanye and Rick Ross, promising rappers pounding the pavement with purpose are actually sort of rare amidst the sea of ~*qUiRkY*~ four-piece synth-pop bands.
In 2005, Helium and Autoclave vet Mary Timony released a solo album called Ex Hex. She then went on to play in Wild Flag, which reintroduced her stellar guitar work to a new generation of indie rock fans. Now Timony is revisiting Ex Hex as a moniker for a brand new power-pop band, which first debuted last fall around CMJ. At SXSW, the Merge trio was on the tip of everyone’s tongue, despite only having a few songs out. It’s the sort of rock ‘n’ roll that feels like a reaction to how complicated and punctuated by subgenres the music has become, a familiar style with something new to add.
By all accounts, The Wytches’s first-ever US shows at SXSW were a smashing success. Not only were they trailed by mainstream media outlets for upcoming features and recorded an acoustic NPR session, the Partisan surf-psych trio delivered an assaulting performance that demanded attention. By the end of the set I saw Saturday afternoon, the final one of their six-show run in Austin, folks were cramming into the small room to head-bang up close and personal with the Sabbath-meets-Dick-Dale disciples. They only have a few songs out now, but I’m certain the release of their LP this May will be showered with hype. (Check out “Wire Frame Mattress,” it’s on repeat for me.)
Bonnie “Prince” Billy associate Olsen has been slowly building buzz since her 2012 debut, Half Way Home, but with Burn Your Fire For No Witness, she went from an artist to watch to an artist who’s arrived. The album, a stunning work of organized folk-rock chaos, was given the Best New Music honor last month, making this SXSW something of a perfect storm for Olsen, who played both the Pitchfork and SPIN parties.
The LA-based electro-R&B singer was technically one of last year’s finds, particularly after her London EP — her second EP of the year — came out in the fall. SXSW won over those who hadn’t had an opportunity to actually listen to her ambient love songs, only see her name on literally every “artist to watch” list for 2014. She’ll have her debut LP out this year on Capitol imprint Harvest Records, the showcase of which was impossible to get into precisely because of the warranted buzz around Banks.
I figured these guys’ saturation point would peak somewhere around Letterman and Bill Murray tattoos, but I was wrong. The Leeds act played the NPR Music showcase, in addition to what felt like every other high-profile gig, and they didn’t even have to open. Admittedly their sound is derivative of a whole lot of punk and post-punk that came before it — so much so that their self-titled debut, released earlier this month, does not sound of this era. And that’s precisely why people like it.
This Detroit post-punk band was pegged by the LA Times as the antithesis to Gaga’s Doritos-fest. I heard other writers praising them for similar reasons: a lack of stage presence, an unabashed ordinariness, etc. I have to admit, I don’t entirely get this pick. I’m from the midwest and used to do DIY booking. There are tons of noisy bands with bleak outlooks like this floating around nothing towns, but I’m willing to be wrong about Protomartyr. Their second album (and Hardly Art debut), Under Color of Official Right, is out April 7.