Ah, the memories of meandering (well, more like speed walking) the streets of Austin to get to the next music venue and showcase. Not this year. Instead, the virtual SXSW 2021 had me bouncing back and forth from my couch to my kitchen (for refreshments) as I poured through hours of streaming content.
While the overall experience was different, it was enjoyable in some surprising ways. I suppose my biggest take-away was how mentally rejuvenating it was. While some of that undoubtedly reflects a welcome change from the monotony of pandemic days, it also speaks to the quality and range of content that SXSW, online edition, offered.
The in-person event is all about making tough choices among what could easily be double-digit simultaneous events. The on-demand format eliminated those predicaments and enabled me to see most everything that I wanted. Which, in point of fact, was pretty much everything.
In fact, the format expanded the range of my SXSW experience beyond my musical core. I shifted from a technology panel to a documentary film to a music performance to a keynote interview. The content diversity was refreshing and restorative.
The Musical Theme: Artists Near and Far
If you didn’t have an international passport (ironically) or an Austin mailing address, you probably weren’t showcasing at SXSW. The somewhat subtle message was about arts funding. International artists have support from government or arts-related agencies; in Austin the equivalent is the Black Fret not-for-profit group that showcased numerous local artists.
Sounds Australia, hosts of the always enjoyable Aussie BBQ, expanded their presence to a multi-night extravaganza (BYO-BBQ). The British Music Embassy, as with tradition, also hosted showcases across multiple evenings.
Regular sponsors Sounds from Spain, Dutch Export, and M For Montreal provided a platform for their respective home artists. Other global participants included Korea, Brazil, Finland, Japan, and Norway.
And then there were locals. Austin is a storied music town and its artists were well represented, from the soulful Sir Woman and Greyhounds to the incendiary rock of Jon Dee Graham and William Harries Graham.
The Performances: Professional and Fun
The musical performances were pre-recorded, professionally produced, and generally full band – a welcome respite from home-based, solo acoustic fare. While the crowd noise and experience was notably absent (and sorely missed), there was a nice energy to many of the 2-4 song mini-sets.
While many of the music showcases were multi-camera club performances, several captured artists in unique surroundings. Norway, most notably, had performers staged in a snow-filled city square, on a moving mountain gondolas, and on top of a snow-encrusted mountain. Sounds Australia took over their artists’ homes, setting up inside, outside, and in one entertaining instance both inside and outside (one band member visible inside and the rest outside).
Also of note was a pair of showcases from Austin’s legendary Continental Club. Quite honestly, it wouldn’t be SXSW without a Continental experience.
The Panels: Go Forth and Experiment
One of the benefits of going virtual was the increased accessibility of the panels. From a music perspective, I’d summarize the take-away as a call for artists to experiment – exploring new avenues to engage fans directly and, in doing so, to diversify their income streams. While that seems somewhat obvious, the benefit here was listening to a diverse array of panelists discuss the pros and cons of various methods. Discussions ranged from the buzzy NFTs to the more mundane but important world of publishing. Sure, not all of the options discussed are accessible to all artists (such as the Lil Nas X virtual concert on the Roblox platform), the value of new ways to engage fans directly was a point well taken.
The Movies: Documenting Music History
My movie viewing tended more towards the documentaries, the musical ones that is. Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free – a profile of Petty creating the classic Wildflowers – was particularly anticipated. The associated filmmaker panel provided additional context on the film, the album, and Petty.
Without Getting Killed or Caught, the Guy Clark documentary, was especially moving. The film captured how Clark faced both triumph and tragedy with a restrained fortitude, not to mention some captivating insight into the lives of Susanna Clark and Townes Van Zandt.
About the author: Mild-mannered corporate executive by day, excitable Twangville denizen by night.