Music: she's an evil mistress, isn't she? She can lead you down a path, tease you, then turn tail and run. Nevertheless, there's something about her charms that keeps you coming back. Maybe it's the seduction, maybe it's the synergy, or maybe it's simply the sparks that fly when the chemistry is just right. Whatever it is, it's an ongoing affair that you can't seem to walk away from.
South by Southwest is much the same: The annual conference and music festival is captivating and spellbinding, the perfect storm of music, business, parties and networking. It's the rare location and occasion that street level music fans and industry big wigs cross paths and rub shoulders, often unwittingly, and get an opportunity to reconnect with the mistress that brought them there in the first place.
Sometimes, though, you can get distracted and forget why you've come in the first place. To some, SXSW is a giant concert. To many, it's one giant party. To others, it's an extended weekend of work and networking. In truth, it's a little bit of each, but it's up to you to keep it balanced.
Each year that I've attended SXSW, it's been a different beast. You can't really go in with set expectations, because there is so much going on, it can become overwhelming. At the same time, you have to approach it with a plan or you'll be run over by it all and miss the best parts.
After taking two years off from SXSW for personal reasons, I was able to return last year and rejoin the madness. In hindsight, though, I lost track of what brought me to Austin in the first place. I spent much of the 2011 conference working the parties and networking, working on business connections. In the end, I did meet some great people, but I walked away missing something -- a little of the joy that normally comes with the event. This year, though, I went with expectations and agendas wiped away as much as possible, with a goal of rediscovering the joy that is SXSW.
For me, that began with embracing the fact that I'm a music dork and enjoy the details. So after working on Tuesday and driving all night, I arrived in Austin with my travel partner on Wednesday morning, changed shirts and brushed my teeth out of the back of the car and popped open a Monster with a full day ahead of me. Once I hit registration and got my badge, I headed up stairs with a schedule in hand and went directly to the conferences to soak up enough geekdom on musicology, tastemakers and the business side of the music kingdom to build my appetite for the live stuff in the afternoon and evening. The afternoon even offered up an opportunity to sit in on an interview with Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning, the creators of Napster who are now involved with Spotify, amongst other projects.
As the evening arrived, I was ready to hit the streets. After meeting up with friends for an early dinner, we headed over to Friends, which had become "Buffalo Lounge" for three days to showcase Oklahoma talent. Last year, I spent the better part of my first two days in and out of Buffalo Lounge, networking and covering the Oklahoma bands. This year, I decided to spread myself out more and although I'd make sure and check out a few Oklahoma acts, I knew our additional correspondents would be on hand to allow me the freedom to check out more.
Even so, this seemed the appropriate place to begin, and the band that effectively kicked off my live music experience this year was Oklahoma City's Defining Times, setting a high standard for the rest of the week and proving right from the start that Oklahoma is producing talent just as impressive as or more so than anywhere else. We've got some great indie/modern rock acts in Tulsa, but Defining Times may be one of the best I've heard from our state in the past two years. A class act with great songs and an incredible poise on stage, these guys were amazing.
From there, the rest of my night -- and week, for that matter -- was a mixed bag. Big names, buzz bands and barely heard ofs intertwined during my evenings for an incredible blend of styles that reminded me why I love SXSW in the first place. Indie songwriter Sharon Van Etten was followed by OKC's The Non on Wednesday while Thursday mixed Oklahoma staples like The Damn Quails, Fiawna Forte and Green Corn Revival (of which the latter two made great impressions on publicist friends from Nashville who continued to ask about them) with the rough and tumble roots rock of Heartless Bastards and the pop-punk of Say Anything. Tune in next week for the continuing saga of SXSW.
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