A colleague of mine once said, “You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a music festival.” He was speaking hypothetically, in case PETA is thinking about mobilizing their troops, but his underlying message rings true; music festivals have flooded the nation. In a digital age, festivals are the last stand for independent music and cinema, but also one of the remaining communal art experiences in an age of online solitude.
The unequivocal mega-fest, South by Southwest, held each year in Austin, has received flack for adopting more and more corporate sponsors each year to fund the week long interactive, film, and music portions of the festival. While the heavy hitters in each category were present – Google, Samsung, a surprise appearance from Miley Cyrus – when you remove yourself from the superficial hype you realize the true focus was on the up-and-comers looking to break into their respective fields and network their way to success. Musicians mingled with producers and technicians, alongside budding filmmakers, directors, corporate representatives, and fans.
I attended many of these “networking” sessions, accompanied by liberally stocked open libation stations, which featured relatively obscure musical acts in every genre imaginable. One point of contention is the endless supply of free stickers, buttons, koozies, and promotional material being handed out that seems relatively disconnected from the true meaning of the festival and rather an attempt by companies to create as many walking brand ambassadors as possible.
The free booze was all right, though I was often surprised the next morning at how many business cards and t-shirts I had unintentionally accumulated.
However, any efforts to promote socially conscious events or charitable ventures seemed to be lacking, which calls into question the sustainability of a festival that is increasing in size and line length.
Guillermo del Toro interviewed Ryan Gosling about his new film, “Lost River” and Billy Crystal promoted his new show, “The Comedians.” Then of course Will Ferrell simply walked around downtown Austin interviewing Kevin Hart on street corners and stoops to promote his new film, “Get Hard.”
Midwest native, James Ford Murphy, promoted his new short, “Lava” which will appear before Pixar’s new film, “Inside Out.” Murphy has been an animator for Pixar since “Bug’s Life” and since has helped bring joy to children around the globe. The veteran animator pitched three different ideas for shorts to the Pixar exec and they chose to move forward with “Lava,” the only musical amongst the three.
“Lava” is about a lonely volcano who yearns for companionship. The volcano’s song is accompanied by careful plucks of the ukulele by Murphy who learned how to play the instrument for the film.
After several days of being bombarded with film panels, unfamiliar musical acts and technological inventions I couldn’t begin to understand, I sought solace in the strong Cleveland presence at the festival. I could not help but smile as I checked out the Cleveland-based printing company, Jakprints, at the interactive expo. Eager millennials looking to impress big wigs flocked the booth as they sought catchy and high quality business cards. I had been given a deck of business cards from various techies throughout the festival but one in particular caught my eye with its crisp print and unique square shape opposed to the standard rectangle. When I asked the Colorado startup who had printed these miniature works of art, they responded “Jakprints.”
Breakout rockers The Lighthouse & the Whaler, King Chip (formerly Chip tha Ripper), and indie-punk favorites Cloud Nothings all performed showcasing slots. The crowd swelled during King Chip’s set at The Palm on 6th St. and the house was full before the show capped off with a performance from Too $hort.
Both The Lighthouse & the Whaler and Cloud Nothings were booked at an intimate bar, The Swan Dive. The close quarters gave the room an energetic charge, but proved that the two bands have grown beyond small barroom stages. The friendly Midwestern spirit was alive and well during Cloud Nothings’ late night set, in which I experienced what had to be the friendliest mosh pit ever. Inspired by the camaraderie and one too many YouTube sponsored cocktails from the prior party, I indulged my inner punk and jumped up to crowd surf, all while relishing in the familiar songs I’ve heard many times around Cleveland. After an exhausting set, the crowd spilled out into the warm night, drenched in sweat, and slowly made their way to bus stops and pedicabs to head home before starting again in only a few hours.
I’m still humming along to new music and sorting through promotional material; all while wishing I had a foot masseuse on call. Despite the controversy over the size and scope of SXSW, if you’re willing to dig beyond the hype, you can discover a wealth of new information, music, and make meaningful connections. And, hey, if YouTube wants to comp me a few Whiskey Sours to lubricate the entire process, so be it.