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.
AUSTIN, TEXAS — 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.
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.
Though government-funded agencies or record labels often finance a group's trip, not all have such backing. Grulke estimates it can cost $10,000 to $20,000 for a foreign band to get its members and equipment to Austin, promote itself, and stay around long enough to "actually work the event."
Toni Pedecine, who represents SXSW Asia and Japan Nite, says Asian bands, like all "baby bands," have paid the demanding rock 'n' roll dues of cramming hotel rooms and skipping meals. She says they might receive some help from a record label, but raise much of the cash themselves.
Coming to SXSW helps them gain confidence, she notes. They also have been heavily influenced by American rock music, "[So] it's like coming to find your roots."
Grulke's not sure that's a good thing.
"The music that they're performing is really American music," he observes. "And they want to promote that at South By Southwest." He's sympathetic, but says he believes music that reflects an act's homeland resonates more with audiences and is more interesting artistically.
"As consumers, I don't think Americans are particularly going to want to seek out a rock band just because [it's] from abroad," he says.
Grulke doesn't advocate government support for American bands. He says he's seen many cases in which such support translates into mediocrity because an artist has to worry about being inoffensive and politically correct.
"Part of the reason why American music, in particular, has been so successful across the world is because it's been created in an atmosphere that wasn't a state-friendly environment for this kind of thing."
In other words, without the stamp of government approval, the music can be more daring and therefore more exciting.
Along with Petty Booka and Kinky, several other international bands generated serious buzz at SXSW, including Britain's Elbow and Sweden's The Soundtrack of Our Lives. Australia's Kasey Chambers was a huge hit last year, and Grulke lists Ireland's David Gray and England's Bush and Elastica as acts that have used SXSW "as part of an overall promotional effort."
A good showing at SXSW won't make an artist famous, he notes. But it certainly can help.
Just like their American counterparts, foreign artists try to perform at as many SXSW showcases as possible. Also like their US counterparts, they represent a broad spectrum of musical categories rock, pop, hip-hop, heavy metal, and electronica.
Among the 11 bands listed on Export Music Sweden's SXSW showcase schedule were the Jack Brothers, who describe their music as "sax-based folk-punk rock with a smattering of tender jazz ballads."
British acid-house DJs Oxide & Neutrino are called "ambassadors of the new garage underground" in a booklet titled "UKsxsw2002," a compendium of information about every British delegate, artist, company, and showcase at SXSW.
Ed Harcourt, a Briton signed to Capitol Records who made his American debut at this year's SXSW, says he went because "it's a promotional thing. Hopefully, it made a few people sit up and take notice ... that there's a songwriter who's from England who's a bit different from everyone else.
"Also," he added, "it's just this amazing festival.... If someone says, 'You're going to Austin to have four days of wonderful experiences,' then I'm definitely not going to turn it down. I had a great time."