From March 16-20, Austin overflowed with more Converse sneakers and black plastic glasses frames per square inch than anywhere else on the planet, as musicians and music industry types swarmed into the city for the 2005 South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Festival. Every March SXSW helps establish the year’s upcoming buzzworthy acts.
This year’s clear winner was Sri Lanken-via-London rapper M.I.A. After releasing her debut album just a few days after the conference, she has already garnered more publicity than a grilled cheese sandwich shaped like the Virgin Mary, with piles of international coverage and a recent profile in the New Yorker. Hundreds of would-be listeners were shut out of her venue as lines snaked around the club, spilling into the street. M.I.A. lived up to her hype, as well as her bold claim, “I got the bombs to make you blow, I got the beats to make you bang.” Keep your eyes and ears open for her global hip-hop’s upcoming visit to DC.
SXSW has been blowing up Austin since 1987, bringing together dirty creative types and the men who exploit them. During the day, the conference has evolved into the ultimate schmoozefest, with groups of people clumping together, swapping business cards and albums. Desperate to perform in front of this influential audience, bands take 2 or 3 p.m. afternoon time slots, playing before nonchalant passersby in the hazy Texas heat. A sort of desperation to be discovered clings to lesser-known bands as they court record labels, while acts who have already slid into the Indie consciousness take to the stage late night, pouring buckets of attitude onto an already sweating audience.
The international music business views SXSW as a critical access point to the wealthy US market, with this year’s international representation hitting 20 percent. Not surprisingly, this year’s most well represented countries were fellow-English speakers the United Kingdom and Australia. Q magazine, an influential English music magazine, recently claimed, “British music will conquer the world in 2005.” While that may not be entirely accurate, there are several bands from the UK who will surely rise to notoriety in the coming months; including Bloc Party, Ash and the Doves, each of whose names were passed around like a game of telephone after they played before cascading, not-so-easily impressed crowds. Last year’s SXSW “it band” was a UK band – Franz Ferdinand, who set a promising precedent with loads of radio play, album sales and packed venues in the states. As one of this year’s most obvious sponsors, the British Photography Institute is hoping to add fire to the flames currently surrounding British piano rock, with mod guitar and electronic rock. Apparently someone smells another British invasion.
Also noteworthy this year was Ukrainian punks Gogol Bordello, whose cartoonish front man and theatrical performance pushed the band to center stage. Bordello’s 2 a.m. St. Patrick’s Day set saturated street corners with the sounds of an accordion and gypsy violin, as handclapping drunkards gathered around their outdoor show.
Australians were similarly inescapable in Austin as festival-goers and musicians alike. Organic singer/songwriter types Ben Lee, John Butler Trio and Missy Higgins scored primetime venue placement alongside some of the festival’s most anticipated shows.