By Thursday, we finally thought that we had SXSW covered, and most of our plans, shows, and interviews were on lockdown for the rest of the week. But as official press at an event of this magnitude, there are always at least a few surprises in store. The most dramatic example was an invitation to attend one of the most talked about events at SXSW, Lady Gaga's pinnacle performance of new songs from Art Pop, live from the Fuse TV Box at Stubb's. This was such a last minute occurrence that we literally had to pedicab it back to our respective living situations, slap salve on our sunburns, find shoes that both matched with our fabulous outfits and didn't irritate our three day accumulation of blisters, and practically sprint downtown again.
Austin won't eat your shoes the way that our respective cities do, but you will come back from SXSW with some major foot damage unless you can afford to pedicab it everywhere. Unfortunately, we didn't manage to completely skip the VIP line, but the media person that we had communicated with was nice enough to pull a few strings for us. Our experience in the Fuse Box definitively taught us lessons one, two, three, and four of our second half of SXSW. We'll get back to the actual logistics of the Queen of Art Pop's performance later (hint: it was the epitome of the catchphrase that we concocted the first night at the xojane.com event, "artfully shameless and musically mad.")
1. Always be nice to the doorman
As hard as it is to get into a VIP event, or more importantly skip the line once you get there, it is even more difficult to decide which press personnel to let in when those running the event are not always present. The doormen, most of whom are Austin locals and working overtime during SXSW, have to juggle multiple factors, including capacity, who's technically in the front of the line, and most importantly the "who's who" of the line itself.
Although security often presents as harsh and impenetrable, we definitely shaved off a few minutes in line multiple times just by being understanding that working the door is just as pressing and difficult. We will admit that they were particularly intense when we entered the Fuse Box though, and even kicked an actual producer that we met off of the balcony, and to be honest it was like… "I work for Fuse," at that point, out of sheer ridiculousness.
2. Always be on a list (any list)
As has been loudly proclaimed in press before and after the festival, the music portion SXSW had its most commercial year ever in 2014, complete with an iTunes sponsored event featuring the likes of internationally famous artist Pitbull and the infallible and always unpredictable Lady Gaga as the keynote speaker.
In our experience, what an official music badge was preceding what we'll refer to as "the new SXSW", and if you're not on a list even as accredited press you could wait in line for up to two hours without getting in. In fact, we missed several artists that we really wanted to see because of the wait time, including Little Dragon, MS MR, Betty Who, and Haerts, amongst others. Events such as Nylon's "The Loft" at Malverde and "Dickie's Roadhouse" thrown by Amazon at Bangers were somewhat open with RSVPs, but it was first-come-first-serve, and a music badge really did nothing if you happened to be at the end of the line.
Even the Spotify house, which from what we heard used to be a more underground and private spot, had the public running over to get in line and then drink away their hangovers at 11 am. The North Door seemed to hold strong as a music-badge-friendly and easy access venue in our personal experiences there. Plus, some of our housemates and friends from our respective cities were working or promoting events there that we could walk right into.
3. Media personnel are fairly nice in general
Producers, managers, publicists, and promoters receive a lot of flack for being "fake", but we believe that's just a general misunderstanding of the terms that they have to think in to get the job done (although there are some exceptions). In our experience, media personnel were happy to work with us as long as we had informed and unique opinions to bring to the table and handled ourselves in the most professional manner possible at a crazy festival of SXSW's caliber, although they usually understood when we were out straight, because they were too!
4. Big Freedia (and his crew of dancers) twerk a million times harder than Miley
It was a big year for the "Queen of Bounce" Big Freedia at SXSW 2014, and Fuse TV christened it "a takeover" festival for him (and his crew of dancers) on their site. The team was even picked to perform at both the Fader Fort and in the Fuse Box afterparty following Lady Gaga's much-talked-about performance on the Doritos Stage.
Let us say that from a front row viewing, his team had practically professionalized booty-popping, and we've seen a lot of hip-hop dancing in our time (we're city-dwelling Gen Y-ers, after all). They certainly weren't shy about VIP audience members snapping NSFW pictures for their SXSW collections. They knew that they could twerk it, and who doesn't love a woman (or man) with confidence? Especially one who started an entire dance movement devoted to bounce!
5. If you didn't have a music badge, Empire Control Room and Garage and House of Vans at the Mohawk were the places to be
Speaking of personable media personnel, we must say that promoter Steve Lynn of iHeartComix was one of the best that we worked with. We'll get into it more in an article to be released at a later date, but we hold firm that iHeartComix threw some of the best events available to the masses, which spun into all-day and all-night events where the general public could see Cashmere Cat, When, Haerts, Boys Noize, MS MR, and even a daytime BBQ featuring a set by EDM superstar Skrillex himself, super up-close-and-personal. Although there were still some lines (as is expected at a major festival), the team worked tirelessly to allow the public a taste of what those with a music or press credentials would have access to, and we all appreciated it.
House of Vans featured stellar talent all week, but our favorites were the shows on Friday night. After interviewing him earlier in the day, we got to see genre-bending UK artist Until the Ribbon Breaks in action. As anticipated, his show was a pure power production - full of lights, electro-percussion, trumpet solos, and rhythmically delivered, meaningful lyrics.
After his set, Warpaint took the stage, and we were captivated by these fierce females rocking out effortlessly. The venue itself was a cool bungalow backyard setup, with multiple decks overlooking a stage and pit area. At no point was the venue too crowded, providing a slew of optimal concert-watching vantage points, sufficient elbow room, and minimal drink spillage.
6. If you wanted a chilled-out, more intimate atmosphere, the Cedar Door or St. David's Historic Sanctuary were the way to go
We must say that out of all of the industry events we attended the second half of the week, the "Music Box" parties at the Cedar Door were some of the loveliest. The outdoor atmosphere was absolutely gorgeous, and the setup was complete with a large porch, free wine, and alcoholic cider. We had the privilege of seeing more acoustic performances by indie artists such as Misterwives and NYC-based songstress Emily King. The Music Box events were a nice alternative for us in lieu of the "chill out tent" at a traditional music festival, although we did enjoy the press space a few times!
Another great venue to catch our breath and rest our weary bones was St. David's Historic Sanctuary, where the Communion Records (pun intended, we think?) Friday showcase brought great acts such as Nick Mulvey and Hozier to the pulpit to preach beautiful emotive tunes that might otherwise get lost in the huge Austin night sky or deep concert venues.
Here, we were lucky enough to get a front row pew to witness the religious experience that was indie trio Bear's Den - a UK band that originally gained popularity by touring (subtext: they can put on a good show). Their ability to connect to a lyric, energize the audience, and create an authentic and emotive experience has helped to elevate them above other indie pop outfits, but also in our minds. In the dark, air-conditioned, and semi-quiet chapel, we felt a calmness and connection that was a refreshing reprieve from the chaos outside.
7. Perez Hilton's infamous celeb party, "One Night In Austin," isn't so VIP anymore
We had our Perez Hilton's "One Night In Austin" experience, and it wasn't exactly what we had heard. In the past (according to some of our housemates), the party was far more secretive and almost impromptu, but in accordance with the 2014 SXSW theme it was a massive and entirely commercial event at the Austin City Music Hall that featured performances by American Authors and the reigning queen of a continued career in rock music after 40, Blondie.
Although seeing Blondie at SXSW was definitely one to kick off of the bucket list, we had been hoping for a more private event where celebrities mingle amongst press and partygoers like "normal people." It seems that the big names may have wanted that too, since Snoop Dogg had unexpectedly popped into the Spotify house earlier in the week and had done an impromptu freestyle set.
We did our hour at Perez's party and then hopped over to Empire Control Room and Garage for the Neon Gold Showcase because it seemed like it was where those in the know were going. Beautiful performances from When and Haerts were totally worth the $20 let's-jack-up-the-prices on Saturday pedicab ride, although we are still disappointed that we missed the 50-minute-walk-away Boiler Room event (which antoeher Earmilker, Steel Hanf, reviewed in our absence).
We do give major props to Perez Hilton and his team for organizing an event that was able to donate so much towards VH1's "Save The Music" foundation, which is probably why it was bigger this year in the first place. Unfortunately, it's sometimes necessary to make an event more commercial in order to reach a financial goal, and we're sure that the general public also enjoyed their experience.
8. Most musicians are actually articulate and intelligent in interview settings
Although extremely difficult to coordinate at an event like SXSW, where all sets and event times are constantly subject to change, every interview that we conducted at the festival was ultimately successful. Popular EDM DJ and producer duo Classixx were so responsive to us even in between multiple gigs and interviews, and we were blown away by how well spoken Tel Aviv breakout group Terry Poison was. Even our interviews that had to be scheduled remotely after the fact, such as LA hip-hop artist Open Mike Eagle and Chicago-based electronic producer Different Sleep gave us some great insight.
9. It's not the "old SXSW" anymore, so let's accept the new
We are in total agreement, at least based on everything that we've heard of past SXSWs, that it was a totally different experience this year, with the major influx of both electronic music and general commercialism.
The tragedy that occurred near the Mowhawk and the selection of Lady Gaga as keynote speaker are two definite markers that the festival has entered a new era after the commercial build-up over the last several years, and it remains to be seen whether that will be a good or a bad thing. In the new festival's defense, having musicians like Terry Poison involved with the interactive portion of SXSW was an exceptionally bold move, and could send waves through the industry itself following the 2014 installment. Like it or not, a lot of electronic music does, in fact, have soul. Lady Gaga holds her place in popular culture, and the current entertainment media that we experience is deeply rooted in modern technology.
The new festival reflects the world that we live in now (although who wouldn't want to go back to the '80s and '90s?), and despite popular opinion, the grassroots aspect of the old SXSW was still there. It was in the attitudes of the acts (even the major ones) chosen to perform and you could still walk by a hole in the wall bar, duck in, and see amazing music. But we'll get to the heart of both the Austin local DIY community and acoustic indie acts more in later articles.