Where buzz is born
Nearly 900 bands in 10 days. It's a techno/funk/ surf/lounge/pop/metal/ grunge/hip-hop/salsa/ roots music showcase like no other.
Texas has seen its share of bizarre acts, but never one like Petty Booka, a ukulele-playing Japanese duo who dress in Hawaiian-print skirts, cowboy hats, and leis. In their appealing sopranos, the petite women were singing heavily accented covers of pop songs, from Van Halen's "Teacher's Pet" to Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," at South by Southwest, one of the premier US music festivals. Think of it as Sundance for musicians.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The pair, who go by the names Petty and Booka, record for an Italian label and created their act, Petty says, because "We thought, 'It's gonna be unique.'" Unique is the operative word for every act that performs at SXSW, the South by Southwest conference, aka "spring break for the music industry."
Like the nearly 900 other bands that perform here every year, Petty Booka has to use as many attention-getting devices as possible to generate the all-important "buzz" that gets cynical industry types journalists, label representatives, booking agents, and promoters to show up for a short set when at least 45 other acts are playing elsewhere simultaneously. (And that's just at official SXSW venues; many artists also appear at private or unofficial events). Ordinary music fans can attend shows, too, but only at venues that are not already filled by laminate-wearing conference goers.
Another well-received foreign act, Mexico's Kinky, skipped the outlandish getups, but had a publicist send out video press kits that conveyed both the band's sense of humor (i.e., a cow examining a picture of a huge burger in a fast-food restaurant window) and its musical chops.
It worked. According to Monica Seide of Nettwork America, the band's stateside label, Kinky's alluring and unusual mélange of traditional Latin rhythms, techno, hip-hop, and funk, drew glowing reviews in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. And Spin magazine has just named Kinky as a band to watch.
The more than 100 foreign acts that dig up the money to travel to SXSW, from places as diverse as Brazil, Norway, and China, know they must concentrate on their mission: Getting heard. Because if the right people hear a band, they can assist in navigating the vast, youth-propelled center of the music-buying universe America.
Every year, SXSW draws an increasing number of foreign acts, says Brent Grulke, SXSW's creative director, who oversees the selection of artists. It's often easier for international artists and music-industry decisionmakers to connect in Austin, Texas, he says, than in their own regions.
"It may turn out, and frequently does, that somebody is actually seen by somebody that lives next door, figuratively speaking, in Austin," Mr. Grulke says. "Maybe a Swedish act is seen by a German promoter."
That's because an agent, promoter, or label representative is less likely to travel to see a single act when he or she can visit a place where many acts are performing at once. That was the initial premise of SXSW when it started in 1987 as a showcase for Austin-based musicians.
Even if artists aren't necessarily looking to hit it big in America, they still may need to expand their presence beyond their home borders.
"We come from a very small country ... the market is too small. You have to look elsewhere," says Robbert Tilli, international promotions manager for the Netherlands' Dutch Rock & Pop Institute.