There's no arguing the fact that last week's South by Southwest Festival & Conference was an intensely visceral experience: five nights, a hundred clubs, two thousand bands, countless drunken revelers transforming Sixth Street into Austin's version of the French Quarter.
For diehard music fans — and what remains of the industry that lives off them — it offered variable degrees of Disney magic and Dante's Inferno, an extraordinary spectacle that the youthful slackers who put on the first festival 25 years ago could scarcely have imagined.
As co-founder Roland Swenson noted in his introduction to Bruce Springsteen's keynote speech, the music world's premiere event started out modestly.
"We had 700 registrants and 200 bands in 12 clubs. Today we have [skips a beat for comic effect] more."
In the case of SXSW, more means a lot more. While the event originally focused strictly on music, it now includes overlapping film and interactive conferences. According to an economic impact report released last September, 2011's SXSW added more than $167 million to Austin's economy, making it the city's highest revenue-producing event.
Another component called SXSWedu made its debut in 2011, with educators, policy makers and business people converging on Austin to discuss innovations in education. While obviously less glamorous than its music, film and interactive counterparts, the initiative suggests an intent to take the SXSW brand in a more socially conscious direction.
But forget all that. Let's talk about the music.
Kimbra, Nas and El Jefe
Due to the sheer volume and diversity of choices, there are no standard-issue SXSW experiences. In my particular case, here were just a few of the week's highlights:
For sheer spectacle, there was Nas, joined by original collaborators DJ Premier, Pete Rock and AZ in a live performance of his debut album, Illmatic. Framed by brick building facades, a subway entrance rising up out of the stage, and projected footage of Sugar Hill-era hip-hop culture, the musicians' stage banter summed up the spirit of the show:
Premier: "When you see Nas, you see hip-hop!"
Nas: "When you see DJ Premier, you see hip-hop!"
Premier (pointing to different sections of the theater): "When you see these motherfuckers here, here, and down there, you see hip-hop!"
I also saw hip-hop, albeit of a more underground variety, at a club called the TenOak, where the Planet Hip-Hop celebration brought together emcees and deejays from Portugal, Australia, New Zealand, the U.K., Canada and Sweden. Representing the U.S. were Austin's Riders Against the Storm and Colorado Springs' rising stars the ReMINDers, who readily won over the crowd with their socially conscious hip-hop.
Some of the other best shows I saw were by artists who have yet to release their debut albums. British band Clock Opera, for instance, came across as a spirited combination of LCD Soundsystem, Peter Gabriel and early U2.
Also making her American debut was New Zealand's Kimbra. While huge Down Under, she's still relatively unknown here in the States, apart from her vocals on Gotye's breakthrough "Somebody that I Used to Know" single. But I'd put her performance on a par with Fitz & the Tantrums' SXSW showcase last year. (And you know where that led.) Imagine a less operatic but no less brilliant Kate Bush, one who was raised on jazz and soul, and you'll have an idea of what to expect when her debut album comes out in two months.
Other personal favorites included piano man Dr. John playing an extended solo on electric guitar, the instrument he abandoned decades ago after messing up his hand in a bar fight; Jake Shimabukuro doing ukulele renditions of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"; and the dB's Chris Stamey playing a gorgeous set of chamber-pop originals, accompanied by two women from the Tosca String Quartet whom he'd just met and rehearsed with two hours earlier.
It was also gratifying to see Colombia's Bomba Estéreo, whom you may recall from an Indy cover story when they played as part of the World Music Series here in 2010. They've come a long way since Armstrong Hall, energizing a crowd of close to 2,000 people on a bill with Latin Grammy winner Juanes, who demonstrated why his bracing mix of Latin rock, pop and reggae deservedly sold more than 15 million albums.
And then, of course, there was Springsteen, whose keynote address was the opposite of last year's pompous spiel from Sir Bob Geldof. Over the course of 50 minutes, El Jefe charmed his audience with a talk that came across as genuine, inspiring and often hilarious.
"Good morning, good morning, good morning, why are we up so fucking early?" began the Boss. "I mean how important can this speech be if we're giving it at noon? It can't be that important. Every decent musician in town is asleep, or they will be before I'm done with this thing."
But Springsteen put no one to sleep. Instead, he convinced the crowd, at least in that moment, that the obstacles before them are not insurmountable, no matter what musical path they choose.
"Purity of human expression and experience is not confined to guitars, to tubes, to turntable, to microchips. There is no right way, no pure way, of doing it. There's just doing it."
Describing himself as "an average guy with a slightly above-average gift," Springsteen intermittently picked up a guitar to demonstrate how a specific song he grew up listening to on the radio evolved into one of his own songs. He spoke rapturously of doo-wop, likening it to "the sound of snaps on bras being popped across the USA." And Roy Orbison, who taught us that "the wreckage and the ruin and the heartbreak were all worth it." And the Animals' Eric Burdon, with "a voice like Howlin' Wolf coming out of a 17-year-old."
As it turned out, I ended up seeing Burdon onstage twice during this year's SXSW, first sitting in with the Raconteurs' Brendan Benson on "When I Was Young" at an unofficial SXSW showcase on South Congress, and later joining Springsteen himself for a rendition of "We Gotta Get Out of This Place."
The latter show was, as you may have guessed, phenomenal, with Springsteen and his 16-piece E Street Band, including Nils Lofgren and Little Steven, serving up a 2½-hour set that included two Woody Guthrie songs, several tracks from the new Wrecking Ball album, and classic anthems like "Badlands" and "Thunder Road." No "Born to Run" or "Born in the USA," although those class-conscious sentiments are alive and well in new songs like "We Take Care of Our Own" and "Jack of All Trades." The latter is one of those stark ballads where Springsteen finds a determined optimism in the most dire circumstances: "If I had me a gun," he sings, "I'd find the bastards and shoot 'em on sight / I'm a Jack of all trades, we'll be all right."
The new math
So where does SXSW, and music in general, go from here? One truism, often expressed by people standing in seemingly endless lines, is that the event has grown too big for Austin — although it's hard to imagine it working as well in a city other than the "Live Music Capital of the World."
One could just as easily make the argument that the overwhelming popularity of SXSW is one of the best indicators we have that the music world is alive and well — at least artistically. The economics may be a different matter.
"I would much rather be able to sell 17 million records like you could in the '90s, but we don't have that option," said manager Nick Stern (Kid Rock, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah), one of 700 daytime panelists who debated the prospects for musicians in times of artistic, technological and economic uncertainty.
In another panel about the advantages of smaller markets, I was pleased to hear Benjamin Cartel of Brooklyn duo KaiserCartel rhapsodizing about his experience in Colorado Springs.
"We played at this small bar called Shuga's that didn't usually book music," Cartel told the audience. "It was something that started out as, you know, we'll just play for half an hour. And then it turned into a highlighted show that got press and all this kind of stuff. And it was a great experience, and we'll go back there as long as they'll have us come back there, because we've been embraced by this community."
In fact, live performances have sustained a number of musicians who might otherwise have given up in an era when album sales are depressed and digital streaming services pay next-to-nothing in artist royalties.
The jury's still out on where all that will lead. "It's just an overall different math than what people were used to in the past," R.E.M. manager Bertis Downs told me during an impromptu interview between panels.
"In the past," said the University of Georgia Law School graduate who guided the band through its 30-year career, "it was a relatively simple world where people liked music, and they bought music — and some of that trickled down to the artist. There's still something trickling down to the artist, but so far, at least in the States, its such a small number that it's been described as change that you pick up on the street, as opposed to a business model."
Downs believes that market will grow, although he admits there are still many unresolved questions, including a "big disparity of information" that's exacerbated by confidentiality agreements between online streaming services and major labels.
"It's still early days," said Downs. "But as we know, the stuff that's being decided in these early days is going to affect things for a long, long time."
Maybe it's just the post-SXSW buzz, but I can't help feeling today's musicians will find new ways to beat the odds, and that they in turn will inspire the rest of us to do the same. In the end, as Springsteen promises, we'll be all right.