South By Southwest is the worst music festival ever. But it's also the best. Twenty-seven years ago, three local Austin Chronicle staffers started a regional music industry event that has grown over the course of its adult life into a juggernaut-sized bacchanal featuring over 2,000 bands and bringing in 60,000 people who take over the city of Austin in Texas for a full two weeks.
As a result, South By Southwest (SXSW) is the best and worst of everything all in one place. From literally corporate-sponsored rock to backyard-set house shows outside of town, the festival represents all forms of the music industry; ugly and pleasing, big cheques and DIY. Prince turned up on the last night for a three-hour show in the La Zona Rosa venue. It was the biggest surprise gig of the week, but the only way to get tickets was to interact with a wall with your Samsung Galaxy tablet. On the same night across town, Justin Timberlake played his secret show, which was to promote his new album and the new Myspace.
SXSW has 11 official sponsors, but there were a gazillion more financing every inch of the town.
For the smaller bands, and that's most of the ones in Austin last week, if they play an official showcase they get $250 (or $100 if they're a solo or duo act). Alternatively, they can choose an artist wristband which gives them access to the conferencing section.
On the flipside, there's a healthy DIY circuit of house shows in the US that Irish band Squarehead took advantage of while here. Music From Ireland grants help make the finances work to get to Texas and the band used SXSW as one stop on a larger US tour.
During his keynote music speech at SXSW, (bit.ly/grohlspeech) Dave Grohl alluded to the artist/brand dynamic with his theme "the musician comes first"' The brands, bands and everyone else better not forget it.