Sunday, March 27, 2016

South by Southwest Music Festival 2016 Final Thoughts

Once more, I'd like to summarize my experience at South by Southwest this year and provide some additional thoughts about the festival. First, the more-or-less complete list of bands I saw:

Day 1: Boraj / Natisú / Spiral Vortex
Day 2: Moonlandingz / Noveller / Iggy Pop
Day 3 (parts 1 and 2): Your Friend / Julia Jacklin / Daniel Romano / Thao & the Get Down Stay Down / Frankie Cosmos / SIR / Ian Fisher / Great American Canyon Band / Vaadat Charigim / Yonatan Gat / Elephant Stone / Noura Mint Seymali / Bombino / Faust / Electric Eye
Day 4: Ian Fisher / Eleanor Friedberger / Your Friend / Morly / Mitski / Growls / Small Houses / Great American Canyon Band / DJ Dodger Stadium / Crystal Castles
Day 5: Stiff Middle Fingers / Bummer / Kasey Rausch's Country Duo / Bruiser Queen / Assuming We Survive / Ian Fisher / Hinds (did not actually perform!) / Lusts / The Ripe / Judah & the Lion / Ian Fisher (again)

Now for a few miscellaneous thoughts about the big picture.

The Hype: Much like last year, but unlike the year prior (2014), there didn't seem to be quite the same level of buzz and excitement. I heard this from several regulars. There were certainly plenty of big name performers, but not actually all that many, and many of those that did appear only played one or two sets (including unofficial ones) and then disappeared. There were several such bands that I missed one opportunity to see and then realized I wouldn't have another, such as the Dandy Warhols, who only played at 1am Wednesday night, Erykah Badu, who only played at 12:40am on the same night, and George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, who only played two sets. Plenty of other mid-level acts did the same, such as Kreidler, Barry Adamson, and Ghostland Observatory. I guess I got lucky that I did manage to catch Iggy Pop's only public show (although he did an ACL taping at the same venue the night prior).

Venues at Capacity: I can't tell you how many times I heard the word "fire marshal" this year. I really wonder if there was some sort of crackdown by the city on enforcing the fire code venue capacity limits. In the previous two years, I can't remember a single time that I couldn't get into a venue for any reason. There were a few times I bailed from extremely long lines for unofficial day parties, but that was different. This time, I missed out on George Clinton and Mumiy Troll because of capacity limits, and I had friends that failed to see The Roots, Sun Kil Moon, and others. (Apparently the Sun Kil Moon show was booked up because one of the bands on the bill had an incredibly long guest list.)

Scheduling Challenges: I didn't do a very thorough job planning out my schedule this year, in part because I had more friends in town that in years past, and in part because I'd told myself before that there were benefits to just going with the flow. To some extent, I still think that's true, and I did benefit from seeing some shows based on my friends' preferences, but I may have gone too easy. I missed out on a lot of bands I wanted to see (many of the aforementioned, in addition to Bloc Party, Neon Indian, Lower Dens, La Luz, Protomartyr, Shannon and The Clams, Mercury Rev, Thee Oh Sees, Waxahatchee, etc.) and yet had plenty of periods where I struggled to figure out what to see at the last minute. Some of that may just be the nature of the festival (certain periods may be fairly "dry" for my tastes), and I certainly don't regret getting to spend time with friends – that was a major highlight.

Set Length: Most scheduled sets are somewhere in the area of 40-45 minutes, usually with about 20 minutes between bands for the changeover. While this seems to work for many venues and bands, it seemed like there were many cases where things were running late or there were major delays and problems with soundchecking. This was particularly noticeable at the Portals showcase and the Levitation showcase at the Hotel Vegas Patio – and oddly enough, in my prior experiences with both of those events, those problems were present before (see here and here), but even worse this time around. Hotel Vegas tries to circumvent this problem by having a massive stage with room for two bands, such that one can set up while another performs, but in practice it only halfway works. Across the board, though, it seemed like most of the set lengths were more like 20-30 minutes instead of around 40. (Naturally, the major headliners like Iggy Pop get longer sets. In his case, it was actually like a normal concert, which was quite nice.)

Sound Quality: Probably for many of the reasons I just listed, many of the showcases featured rather poor sound quality. The mixes were often uneven, performers frequently complained about monitor levels, feedback was common, and vocals were rarely clear, crisp, or understandable. This is almost certainly somewhat inevitable, and probably a common problem at festivals like these, but this year it stood out to me. Perhaps my ears have become more discerning, or maybe I was influenced by my friends, many of whom were musicians or audio professionals, or maybe it really was worse this year. Apparently, because of the huge number of venues all hosting live music simultaneously, the industry becomes overtaxed and has to hire almost every sound engineer in Texas, regardless of experience or quality. Sometimes you get lucky – and certainly the bigger-name bands had great sound – but many shows suffered. This is particularly conspicuous because the audio quality of most shows in Austin is phenomenal (at least compared to what I was used to in the Midwest).

Cancellations: Again, many bands announced for the festival never appeared: Garland Jeffreys, Soda Fabric, Holy Fuck, Joan of Arc, Suzanne Vega, and plenty of others. It's nearly impossible to figure out why, but it is disappointing.

Diversity: South by Southwest seems to do a better job than many festivals in sponsoring bands with a variety of backgrounds and identities, but the music industry remains conspicuously male-centric. I haven't particularly gone out of my way to see bands with women members at SXSW, but I think I usually end up seeing a decent mix each year. This year it seemed like I saw an even higher percentage of bands with women (4 all-women, 13 with men and women, 19 all-men) but I still saw more bands without women than with. That's weird, right? I do think SXSW does a decent job including Black and Latin@ bands, but I only managed to see a handful of non-white and non-Western bands.

The Last Word: Even with all the above complaints, the inevitable exhaustion, the occasional bad weather, the impossible challenge of trying to sort through 2000 bands to see across five days, the disgusting amount of trash littered about Sixth Street, and the gunshot that was fired at the end of the last night, it's still a blast. I don't know how many years I'll have the energy to keep doing it, but it sure is a lot of fun and a quick way to wrap your head around the current state of the music industry. To anyone who says there's no good music anymore... you're just not looking.

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