SXSW 2013: More Than Just a Music Festival

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The first word that comes to mind about my time at SXSW 2013: OVERWHELMING!  But oh, what a joyous way to be overwhelmed. It’s a musical candy store, and attendees are lucky to play the role of the proverbial kid. While choices must be made — you could call that an adult problem — between the array of musical offerings, the curators usually do their job and whatever one chooses will be at least interesting and possibly thrilling. Do I gravitate towards the acts I know and love? Do I venture to see the new “it” act everyone is talking about? Do I go see the act I found on my own but have yet to experience live? Whatever one’s answer to these questions, with over 1,300 performers, SXSW has the answer.

What many do not realize, though, is that SXSW is also a convention, one with a hall full of booths hawking music publications, music software, instruments, record and publishing companies…hundreds of presenters covering the interests of the professional musician and industry types. There are also a series of panel sessions, which may initially sound a bit boring, but which become another unique facet of an holistic, participatory, musical experience. These sessions offer the opportunity to hear artists discuss their new endeavors, to listen to industry executives pontificate on the state of the business,  or to experts talk about a particular part of music history. Particularly interesting this year was a panel on the famous “Muscle Shoals Sound” which traced the importance of a few recording studios in a small Alabama town. According to this panel, FAME Studios is where it all began and after a period of time a core group of musicians that included David Hood and Jimmie Johnson (no, not the NASCAR driver nor the football coach) moved to the new Muscle Shores Sound Studio. They were joined by a horn section that included Harvey Thompson (Hood, Johnson, and Thompson were on the panel) and the magic began at FAME continued on. Many well-known artists made their way to Northern Alabama to , ” to be a bit out of the fray”. Which artists, you ask? — just the likes of Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, Otis Redding, Carrie Underwood, and The Allman Brothers, amongst others. Pick wisely, and you’ll leave one of these incredible offerings (as many did the Muscle Shoals session) with a greater appreciation for the music you love and with a fuller, more participatory SXSW experience.

Still think it sounds boring? Well how about Deadmau5 (sans bobble head) talking about how the world of electronics affects the music business? How about Rob Zombie talking about his music and horror films and whatever else Rob Zombie might talk about? Depeche Mode discussing their first new music in years? Five-time Grammy winner and industry exec Clive Davis reminiscing on the amazing artists he discovered over the years/promoting his book? And if none of those appeal to you, then maybe you would go for this year’s  keynote address, where Dave Grohl gave a 47 minute retrospective on his personal history in music and the industry’s state of affairs. (Springsteen’s keynote from SXSW 2012 also merits another look). If you’re still not interested, then you’re probably not a serious music fan…have fun with tweens about those One Direction recordings.

Many attendees are aspiring artists themselves, and SXSW offers exposure to artists both emerging and established. Panel sessions like these give us all, artist, industry type, or fan, a chance to see how artists create their own brand. One day saw an interesting juxtaposition of Kenny Loggins and his new group Blue Sky Riders talking about the record they recently made in Nashville. Loggins, along with cohorts and Nashville fixtures Gary Burr and Georgia Middleman spoke of a sort of advanced DIY situation. The trio knew they wanted to work together and found muses in each other. This led to an album in which they formed their own label, secured distribution, and released and marketed their new album Finally Home — all without major label intervention. Burr spoke of how Loggins’ renowned career opened certain doors and allowed them to make and release their record and set a tour all on their own — all without a major label getting in their way.

In a room not far away was “The Anatomy of Amanda Fucking Palmer: An Inside Look.” Catchy title, huh? Amanda Palmer took a completely different yet still completely DIY approach. A former member of the Dresden Dolls, Palmer had built a large international following and she and her management decided to put that to work. A Kickstarter campaign began and when all the clicks and mouse moves were done a whopping $1.2 million dollars was raised. These funds were used to produce Palmer’s album Theatre is Evil while allowing the project to stay 100% artist controlled. Another campaign is underway, and Palmer reports over $700,000 has been raised thus far towards the new project. her massive web presence resulted in a world-wide tour where pre-sale tickets for ALL cities sold out in hours and Theatre is Evil debuted at #10 on the Billboard charts. Impressive to say the least!

As I count myself a full-on “Jackethead,” I was anxious to hear My Morning Jacket‘s  leader Jim James be Jim James and speak of things odd and possibly controversial. You never quite know where James is going to come from, and I think that is clearly one of the facets that makes his music interesting. It didn’t take long to get what I came for, “I think in 50 to 100 years we are going to look back at the internet as a big mistake.” And away we go! Jim James solo project differs from his work with MMJ at times. It’s difficult to pin down stylistically, but alternative rock would be a fair characterization. Thus, it was surprising to hear James invoke Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield as influences at least six times. Hmmmm…the falsetto singing, the slight funkiness of many of his tunes — yeah I guess it makes sense, but remains at odds with James’ aesthetic, which seems more appropriate for Duck Dynasty than Motown. But music that draws upon disparate styles in formulating a wonderfully unique creation is a commonality shared by a lot of great music these days — in that way, James fits right in. He shared his views on technology, his passion for making music with both MMJ and solo, and of course, social issues were not ignored: “If we would focus less on obtaining four houses each and more on taking care of each other, this country would be a better place.”  Go on Jim…PREACH!

“Stairway To Heaven (and Cloud Music),” “Leonard Cohen and His Women,” “The Power of Lyrics in the Digital Age,” “Masterminds Behind the Music of Cirque du Soleil,” “Miles Davis: The Lost Quintet,” “Patsy Cline and Kitty Wells: Pioneering Women of Country Music” and “Album Release Strategies for the 21st Century” were but a few of the topics explored in dozens of 2013’s sessions. All that, plus the aforementioned interviews and panels featuring Stevie Nicks, Nick Cave, Bootsy Collins, Eric Burdon, The Zombies, Chuck D, Jared Leto, all are a testament to the amazing and diverse experience that is SXSW. Sound like your kinda gig? Guess you’ll have to be there in 2014!


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Clem emerged from the underbelly of NashVegas where he began his love of ALL things musical. College found him in the commercial music program at the University of Miami where he actually learned what the hell he was doing. New York was next and whether he “made it there” is still up for debate. From playing in the honky-tonks of Nashville and the dance clubs of Miami to Broadway and theatrical stages around the country, to Carnegie Hall (while practicing one day somebody told him how to get there) and the recording studios of New York and L.A., Clem’s variety of musical experience has transcended the boundaries of genre. He owns a production company, lectures on music in colleges across the country and is on the visiting faculty of Elon Univ. He has a port-o-johns named after him at Bonnaroo, Coachella and Lollapalooza.