Now in its 30th year, Austin, Texas' South By Southwest music festival has grown from a sparsely attended local showcase to an internationally known juggernaut. These days, more than 2,000 acts — not to mention many thousand more fans — travel from around the world to convert Austin into one clamorous five-day concert experience.
NPR's Audie Cornish recently dropped into the festival for the first time, and for guidance called on a colleague who hasn't missed SXSW in 20 straight years: NPR Music writer and editor Stephen Thompson, who recently stood with Cornish on Austin's Sixth Street during a busy afternoon at the festival. There, they discussed SXSW's origins, its allure, its unlikeliest stages, and its dominance among local festivals of its kind.
Cornish says the festival has grown tremendously since its first iteration.
"It started ... thirty years ago when a bunch of staffers from the alt weekly, The Austin Chronicle, and a couple of local music bookers wanted to create a showcase that could get them attention for their music scene outside of New York and L.A. and Nashville, and really bring the music industry here to see the talent in the middle of the country," she says. "Fast-forward to today and something like 8,000 bands apply to play 100 stages."
Thompson says that beyond the festival's 100 established stages, South By Southwest gives fans an opportunity to see bands perform in some much stranger spaces.
"For a few years bands used to play in the mouth of a 54-foot Doritos vending machine," he says. "I've seen bands perform in the middle of a busy thoroughfare. I've seen bands perform on the back of flatbed trucks. And I have seen bands perform in absolutely — as I did this morning — in an absolutely empty venue. And it's very hard to leave when that happens!"
Along the way, Cornish and Thompson examine the rise of music streaming and the effect it's had on the way fans discover music — after all, if every band can distribute its music worldwide with little effort, can anyone be truly "undiscovered"? But Thompson says there's something special about having so many up-and-coming acts, and so many passionate fans, in one chaotic and cacophonous place.
"For us, it's about discovery," he says. "It's still about going and seeing things that we hadn't seen before, talking about things we hadn't talked about before, and coming out of it with a new set of dozens of artists that we are excited about that we didn't know to be excited about before. "
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
In Austin, Texas, it's all about the music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TENNESSEE SONG")
MARGO PRICE: (Singing) Let's go back to Tennessee, you and me. Let's go back to Tennessee. Let's go back.
MCEVERS: That's Margo Price, one of the breakout musicians at this year's South by Southwest playing at Stubb's Barbecue, one of Austin's many downtown venues. It's the 30th anniversary of the festival. Thousands of people are crowding the streets and finding live music everywhere they go. Among them is our own Audie Cornish. She went to the epicenter of South by Southwest earlier today, Sixth Street and Sabine, to take it all in.
AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: It started 30 years ago when a bunch of staffers from the alt weekly, The Austin Chronicle and a couple of local music bookers wanted to create a showcase that could get them attention for their music scene outside of New York and LA and Nashville and really bring the music industry here to see the talent in the middle of the country. Fast-forward to today and something like 8,000 bands apply to play 100 stages - right? - just like 1 in 4 performers actually makes it to South by Southwest. And those who don't make it sometimes end up playing in the street, like this guy. He was walking down the street toting behind him what essentially was a snowman of drums, I think, on wheels...
STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: That's awesome.
>>CORNISH ...Attached to a laptop.
QUENTIN THOMAS-OLIVER: That's right, yeah.
CORNISH: It's an analog drum machine somehow.
THOMAS-OLIVER: It is an analog drum machine. It's actually reading written notation. I made it so that I write it in notation and that notation drops a little file. And then I have custom-written software that goes up and reads the file from the notation software.
CORNISH: And you are going up and down Sixth Street with this device, this rolling drum parade (laughter).
THOMAS-OLIVER: My name is Quentin Thomas-Oliver, and I play in a band called Ponytrap with my wife, Hillary Thomas-Oliver.
CORNISH: So for you, what's sort of the point of coming to South by Southwest?
THOMAS-OLIVER: Oh, I'm no different than any other musician, even though there's that - the giant snowman of robots which I really love. That was new for me. Even though I have this kind of crazy contraption, I'm really just doing the same thing everybody else is, just trying to get my voice heard.
CORNISH: So what's it like trying to get discovered at South by Southwest? Well, we're going to turn now to Stephen Thompson of NPR Music. He's been coming to this festival for how long, Stephen?
THOMPSON: This is my 20th year out of the 30 that the festival has existed.
CORNISH: You're a pro, and I am completely new. And the first thing I noticed is there's allegedly a hundred stages - right? - throughout...
CORNISH: ...The city. But I feel like that's not all.
THOMPSON: Right. I think that's a gross underestimation of how many stages there are because you have a lot of official showcases going on that are sanctioned by the festival. But then because you have thousands of music fans converging on the city, everyone in music wants to be here. And so you'll see stages pop up in the strangest places. For a few years, bands used to play in the mouth of a 54-foot Doritos vending machine. I've seen bands perform in the middle of a busy thoroughfare. I've seen bands perform on the back of flatbed trucks, and I have seen bands perform in absolutely - as I did this morning - in an absolutely empty venue. And it's very hard to leave when that happens.
CORNISH: And, of course, it's not just a festival - right? - it's a big music industry, music press gathering where people see bands and discover bands. But over the years, people have really kind of gone back and forth about this idea of whether you actually discover anything...
CORNISH: ...about South by Southwest. I mean, is that kind of a bygone era? When you talk a Doritos machine - people performing in a Doritos machine, it feels like, you know, it's probably jump by corporate shark.
THOMPSON: Well, I mean, talking about discovery, like - how is anything fully discovered as if no one had ever heard it before? Like now you start a band, you can put your demos on SoundCloud the day you form as a band and have people potentially hear them if you have the right, you know, kind of social media push about you. Nobody is truly unheard anymore, and I think that something like this has a little bit less the feel of, quote, unquote, "discovery" and more almost the feel of like product launches. So I sort of feel like South by Southwest isn't necessarily taking musicians from point A to point B. It's taking them from point C to point F.
CORNISH: NPR's Stephen Thompson here with us in Austin at South by Southwest on its 30th anniversary. Thanks so much.
THOMPSON: Thank you, Audie.
MCEVERS: You can find a hundred of Stephen Thompson's picks for the best acts at this year's South by Southwest at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.