South By Southwest is a little like those Vegas travel commercials, except instead of gorgeous models filling every elevator, it’s a shirtless Justin Bieber with a police escort and two bodyguards twice his size.
Like Vegas, it’s limitless debauchery and sensory overload, and every day ends up stretching from noon until the early morning hours of the next day. On nearly every block of the festival in downtown Austin, there’s a party with corporate-sponsored free drinks and food for those with the right wristband or enough patience to get inside.
It’s the ultimate musical pub crawl. There’s a venue designed to look like a giant vending machine, a venue with pole-dancing clowns, a venue with a half pipe, a venue with rappers Twista and Trinidad James walking outside among the crowd, and so on.
Meanwhile, stars like Lady Gaga perform around the corner from bands just getting their footing, such as Santa Cruz’s Eliquate, which drove straight to the festival for a handful of gigs in hopes of finding new fans and catching a break in the industry.
Unfortunately, among the highlights of one of the best music events in the world is the dark reality that people get hurt and sometimes die there. These things happen at events where hundreds of thousands of people are partying at all hours of the day and night.
The tragic accident Thursday night that claimed three lives and injured almost two dozen more when a driver attempted to evade police by driving through a festival roadblock was an acute reminder. We were standing at the accident scene two hours before it happened.
Highlights from the festival:
Something often overlooked in coverage from SXSW: There are a lot of great acts from Texas. We were most impressed with The Suffers, a 10-piece soul band from Houston with a healthy mix of R&B, jazz and Latin influences fronted by Kam Franklin on vocals. Fans of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings will appreciate this new group.
Latin funk band Grupo Fantasma is another group that we run into every year in Austin, and when we do, we stop and listen. Recruited to back Prince on several occasions, the nine-piece group is among Austin’s best. Houston underground veteran Trae the Truth, one of the many rappers from H-Town that made the trip to Austin, was another highlight.
We have watched The Coup perform several times in the Bay Area since our first chance to see them in the early 2000s, but the Oakland band has never sounded better than the mid-day set we caught at a dive bar on Sixth Street, the main artery of the festival. Boots Riley climbed on a bar adorned with antler chandeliers as a sweaty crowd filled the space inside and surrounded the door from the street. The scene was perfect for the band’s high-energy funk.
Another veteran act, L.A.’s People Under the Stairs, debuted new music at SXSW and rocked a Pandora party with golden era hip-hop showmanship. Thes One echoed the overall theme of the Sixth Street venues, dousing himself with a Lone Star before jumping into “Beer”: “If you don’t like beer, get the fuck outta here.”
Life Lessons From Diddy
A humble Diddy spoke with Forbes writer Zack O’Malley Greenburg on a variety of topics, including entrepreneurship and the current state of the music industry, while also answering questions from the capacity crowd and offering tips for making it in the music industry.
On what Notorious B.I.G. would be doing if he were alive today: “I think he would be an R&B singer; he loved R&B and I think he would have transitioned. He was a great singer and he loved R&B songs, he loved Luther Vandross.”
On entrepreneurship: “What I’m doing, you could do too. You just have to work as hard as me and believe as hard as me. … There has to be a starting point, where you put that pressure on yourself. … Any successful entrepreneur, they’re not doing it for the money, they’re doing it because that’s what they love and that’s their dream. And don’t wait until you’re 35 to do it.”
On the current state of hip-hop: “The bar lowered after Biggie and Tupac died, and now I think that bar is getting raised back up by a new generation of artists.”
On millennials: “This is one of the most intelligent generations that we’ve ever had and this is one of the most entrepreneurial generations that we’ve ever had.”
Allen Stone’s Birthday Set
Allen Stone delivered an inspiring late-afternoon set on his birthday, full of soulful hooks and a brief birthday celebration. His band shared some random gifts on stage (a pack of smokes and a liter of 2 percent milk) before the audience broke out into an impromptu birthday song.
The set felt particularly meaningful with Stone reminding everyone that we’re never promised tomorrow after the tragic accident just hours earlier in which three people were killed by a driver fleeing police. Stone finished the set leading the audience in a two-step dance before joining them on the floor to sing with the crowd.
Neil Young Fights for HD Audio
Neil Young introduced a Kickstarter campaign for Pono, his high-resolution music technology, during a keynote address, claiming nothing short of a “revolution to try to rescue and save an art form” that is suffering from low-quality MP3s.
Young hasn’t had any luck selling the idea to Silicon Valley investors and is hoping crowdfunding will be the answer to launching the technology that he claims will “bring you the reality and let you understand what the artists did in the studio.” That’s as opposed to MP3s, which, with compressed files, only offer about 5 percent of the audio recorded on studio masters, according to Young.
Young makes a good point: Digital technology has improved the quality of other media formats, including HD video and TV, while the quality of music formats has decreased for the sake of convenience.
“With audio, there’s never been such low quality and the ability to create something great,” Young says.
Pono’s campaign on Kickstarter had, at press time, reached nearly $4 million in less than a week (the goal was $800,000). Apparently someone is listening.