Kiernan McMullan performing at SXSW Picture: Nick Carswell
EVERY year hundreds of acts make a pilgrimage to the bubbling cosmopolitan hot-spot of Austin, Texas in the hope of making a splash at South By South West (SXSW), the world’s biggest music industry showcase.
Effectively a trade show for the music, film and interactive worlds, at its heart it is a jamboree for industry professionals, publishers, managers, bookers, media and most importantly, a chance for some 2,000 music acts to show off their wares to the most important people in the American and international music industry.
As ever this year, the 26th staging of the event, participant names ranged from the established - Bruce Springsteen and Jack White - to unheard of and unsigned bands, some of them building a head of steam as ‘buzz bands’, to ten Irish acts travelling on an official showcase, and Limerick’s own Kiernan McMullan, travelling under his own steam to perform at SXSW Music.
Austin rises up like a cultural oasis in the red state of Texas, the city a cultural hot spot largely because it is home to the University of Texas and some 60,000 students. This helps, at least in part, to give rise to and support an eclectic and vibrant music scene that locals claim makes it central among the great rock and roll cities of the world.
Indeed, downtown Austin boasts having more original music venues in a concentrated area than any other city in the world.
First held in 1987, SXSW was dreamed up as a way of bringing the industry to Texas – and as a result, the music business as a whole has followed over the 26 years of the festival’s history.
In 1994 a film and interactive element was added, to the point where SXSW as a whole annually attracts something in the region of 32,000 registrants to Austin’s Convention Centre, where a massive trade show and panels – boasting Sean Parker of Napster fame, Springsteen and many others as speakers – takes place while the city outside wilts from the heat and the hustle bustle of clashing musical acts.
Careers can be made and broken here in an instant; it is claimed that acts such as Beck and Norah Jones got their big breaks in Austin, and the scale of the festival is something to behold.
While established performers like Jack White perform in a 200-capacity venue with hundreds more gathered on the street outside, peering in windows, Snoop Dogg struts around on a stage kitted out to look like a Doritos vending machine on a nearby side street.
Nike, MTV, VH1, any record label that matters and more all have their own stages, while the individual venues scattered around the city host both official and unofficial showcases throughout the week.
McMullan, speaking after his official showcase at the Creekside venue in the Hilton Garden Inn, away from the madness of Austin’s 6th Street where much of SXSW is centred, refers to the festival as “crazy” and struggles to fully describe ‘South By’, as it is referred to, despite this being his third year to attend the festival.
“SXSW is crazy, basically - the population of Austin doubles for two weeks,” he says after a well received show on a stage that UK smash act Ed Sheeran will later headline.
“It is ridiculous, the whole city is like a giant nightclub and you can see everybody in their band cliques and yet they all hang out together. It is like walking into a casting session for music videos, a giant city full of extras.”
McMullan, who now lives in Nashville but was home recently to record his album with engineer Owen Lewis in Noel Hogan’s studio, notes that there is a serious side to SXSW Music.
The well travelled McMullan spent time at some of the many industry panels being held in the nearby convention centre.
“I want to go to Australia with my music, so I went to a panel about that, and some about advertising. It is a whole new wave of music right now and it is interesting to see people try to explain why that is happening,” he adds.
Ed Sheeran, for his part, has delved head first into the spirit of SXSW, sporting a bandage-covered tattoo he got on 6th Street when he speaks to the Limerick Leader.
“This is my first time here (but) I am loving it, it is mental but fun,” says Sheeran, who has played gigs for Warner Music, MTV, VH1 and will later share a stage with Timbaland at Perez Hilton’s showcase.
“A lot of people say it is an industry showcase, but the real thing is that it is a place for the music industry to unwind, and everyone is having fun, so with gigs I had to realise that people didn’t want to necessarily hear the songs, they wanted to be entertained, and I played the songs in a similar fashion,” he adds.
There is a major beating Irish heart at the very core of SXSW, with ten Irish acts invited to the festival to play official showcases, while St Patrick’s Day sees downtown Austin turned a riotous colour of green for the day itself.
The invited Irish acts are looked after by Angela Dorgan of First Music Contact (FMC) under the banner of Music From Ireland – a collaboration between Culture Ireland, FMC and IMRO - and SXSW is a key market in Dorgan’s eyes.
“What we do is take a stand here at the trade show and we promote all of the acts that are here and, more importantly, make sure that people are aware of new music in Ireland,” she explains.
“I like the people who come up thinking that Ireland is just about traditional music and leave with at least 40 new Irish bands of amazing calibre in their hands. That for us is job done,” she adds.
FMC also curate a show in BD Riley’s Irish Bar, centrally located on 6th Street, where all ten bands play to huge crowds. Interested industry professionals are never far away.
“There is a certain stamp of approval or kudos in being selected or invited at all,” says Dorgan.
“We talk in depth with each of the acts about how appropriate it is to come here and we feel that the ten acts all have a bit of an American story, they have a story that they are building on, and I think this is really useful for that.”
Two of the Irish acts who make a big splash in Austin are Dublin’s The Minutes and Belfast’s And So I Watch You From Afar, the latter who secured an American label and booker from a previous appearance at SXSW and who hope to “keep awareness” of the band growing this year, which they do with some aplomb and leave Austin on a wave of positive acclaim, bound for big things.
Chris Wee, drummer with ASIWYFA, describes SXSW as “the most amazing carnival style event” he has ever seen.
“The easiest way to describe it is as a city that is overtaken by music, literally overrun, trampled by musicians and music lovers, it is just the best thing,” he says.
“There is a serious side to it,” he continues, “and on the back of being here two years ago we actually got a US booking agent which led to a full US tour.
"America is such a huge market and you need to get here and be seen and chat to people. This is our first time back with the label. We are getting to play a better variety of shows and I guess keep the awareness of the band and try to hook up with more people and broaden the presence of the band in America.”
Mark Austin of The Minutes is of a similar mind.
“We were here two years ago, this is where most people at home heard about us first,” says the Minutes’ frontman.
“We came over and played a load of shows and played in front of the Irish industry guys and they were like, who the f*ck are these guys? That was a mad experience. This time we are taking it easy, we have five shows, so it is more focused and concentrated on meeting people.
“We are talking to labels over here so that is the big thing. If we get a decent label on board and maybe an agent over here, because this is where we need to be, you know? If you want to have any sort of a career you have to give America a proper shot, so that is why we are here.”
Speaking at his keynote address during the festival, Bruce Springsteen offers a clarion call to arms to musicians everywhere in a spirited key note speech that underlines the type of event SXSW is.
We’ll leave the last word to the Boss then.
“Rumble, young musicians, rumble,” declared Springsteen. “Open your ears, open your hearts. Don’t take yourselves too seriously and take yourself as seriously as death itself.
“Don’t worry, worry your ass off. Have iron clad confidence. But doubt! It keeps you awake and alert. Believe you are the baddest ass in town and you suck. It keeps you honest. Be able to keep two completely contradictory ideas alive and well in your heart and head at all times. If it does not drive you crazy it will make you strong. Stay hard, stay hungry and stay alive.”
For more see SXSW Music.