AUSTIN, Texas — We spent more than 100 hours on the ground in Austin, trying to take the temperature of South by Southwest 2007.
We wrestled with it, weighed it, complained about it and even wrote a bit about our experiences (see ” ‘Apocalyptic’ Stooges Close Out SXSW With A Bang” ). But after all that, what did we learn from SXSW ’07, the biggest, most sprawling and — to be honest — most confusing installment in the fest’s 20-year history?
We gathered MTV News’ SXSW team in a room and let it rip. What follows is a no-nonsense look at the highs and lows of our time in Austin, plus a discussion of where the fest has been and where we think it’s going.
James Montgomery, MTV News writer: I think the general consensus of SXSW this year was that there was no consensus. No one band came out of it and wowed everyone.
Gil Kaufman, MTV News writer: There wasn’t one band that came there this year that everybody had to see or one that had everyone going, “Wow, those guys deserved all the hype,” after seeing them. There were certainly some acts that got a lot of hype, like Peter Bjorn and John, that were overexposed because they played so many shows and people were bored with them. Or Amy Winehouse, who had a lot of hype and delivered but didn’t seem to come out of it with more exposure (see “Amy Winehouse Raises Eyebrows, Bloc Party Draw A Mob As SXSW Wakes Up” ). There wasn’t a band like the Arctic Monkeys last year, who came, saw, delivered and everyone was talking about.
Montgomery: We’ll get to the heavier stuff later, but for the sake of this wrap-up, if you had to pick one band or one moment from SXSW as your favorite, what would it be?
Christopher “CJ” Smith, MTV News segment producer: The Tom Morello show at the Parish (see “Tom Morello’s SXSW Gig Turns Into Raucous All-Star Jam With Slash, Perry Farrell” ). It was incredible. I was at the bar flirting with some girl when Perry Farrell, Slash and everyone walked onstage. And in my jaded indie-rock indifference, I sort of thought, “Oh, big deal.” But after listening to Perry sing the Jane’s Addiction stuff it clicked, and I was like, “Holy sh–, this is really awesome.” And as it went on, it kept getting better and better. … everyone in the crowd was feeling it.
John Norris, MTV News correspondent: A personal favorite of mine, because I hadn’t seen them yet, was definitely Beirut. And their show was the most difficult to get into. I had to wait 20 minutes to get in, and I was way in the back, and I was not sorry at all. And it was a bit of a messy show because they were planning on doing a shorter set than they actually did. And I think their music is so different, and Zach [Condon] is so special, that I didn’t mind being way in the back for it.
Alyssa Vitrano, MTV News director of talent: Cold War Kids, Thursday night at La Zona Rosa. Love the album, and this was the kind of show that made you think differently about some of the songs, in a good way. I’m now newly obsessed with “Hospital Beds” — an eloquent performance that made me really listen to the lyrics. And “Saint John” was never one of my favorite tracks on the album but was the best live song I’ve seen in forever.
Montgomery: My favorite show was Against Me!, even though I went to school in Gainesville, Florida, where they’re from, and I’ve seen them a bunch before. But just the fact that they had a new record coming out and getting to hear the new stuff. But also the energy and the crowd that stuck around to see them. It was like a warehouse show I would go to when I was 14. And it wasn’t even a SXSW show at all. And they played after Jack’s Mannequin, so like three-quarters of the crowd left and it was just Against Me! fans. And the energy they brought, it was really excellent.
Kaufman: I’m gonna say the Stooges, who had nothing to prove but rocked. I mean, everyone knows that Iggy is going to come out with no shirt on, and his pants are going to fall down at some point, and he’s going to jump into the audience, and he’s going to bring all the kids up onstage, but he just gave it 900 percent. And it’s a totally predictable pick, because of course the white rock critic from the Midwest is gonna say that, but the energy was just incredible.
Montgomery: See it’s weird, because even though all of those may have been great things, I didn’t really hear anyone talking about them. I didn’t hear anyone the next day saying that the Tom Morello jam was the greatest moment of the festival. But strangely, one thing I heard tons of people talking about was that Public Enemy show, which struck me as odd … or, at least, very un-SXSW like (see “Grunge Rebirth, Beyonce Nod — And Flavor Flav! — More SXSW Surprises” ).
Kaufman: Everyone was talking about all the hip-hop stuff. Public Enemy, the Ghostface/Rakim Scion-sponsored thing at Stubb’s. And it seemed like, at the very least, there were a lot more options than in the past. I mean, on Saturday night, when I couldn’t get in to anything else, I walked from this singer/songwriter guy’s show and saw this Mexican rock band and a Japanese band and then that band Black Moth Super Rainbow. And if you were looking for that, you could find all kinds of music … but this year, it definitely seemed like there was a lot more hip-hop, a lot more Latin music and a lot more experimental hip-hop stuff.
Norris: The only thing I’ll say about the hip-hop thing is that to an artist, from PE to Ghostface and Rakim, these are guys who have always had currency with rock fans. And not every hip-hop artist does. I couldn’t imagine T.I. or the Game or Young Jeezy playing SXSW.
Kaufman: Well, for a long time, SXSW has been trying to broaden the scope of what they do and attract different types of audiences. On one hand, they try to stay true to their roots in Texas, by presenting a lot of rootsy, singer/songwriter types … but I think this year, you could go to SXSW and not see a single rock band. Easily.
Montgomery: So perhaps this brings up the larger question of, “What’s the point of SXSW?” Because to be honest, you’re not going to get the average music fan heading down there, because the average music fan isn’t going to spend $450 on a badge. And it seems to be less and less about a band coming to SXSW without representation and leaving with a manager, et cetera. I mean, Ghostface played, and he doesn’t have a record coming out. The Stooges or Kings of Leon, it makes sense for them to play, but why Ghostface? Why do artists like him play the festival?
Kaufman: Think about the audience there: You have every rock critic in the country there. So it’s an opportunity to make it in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, MTV, whatever it is. And it’s an opportunity to get in front of an audience that normally wouldn’t come see you. I mean, plenty of indie kids love hip-hop, but given the choice between seeing Rakim or Cold War Kids on a Tuesday night, they’re going to take the Cold War Kids. But if Rakim is playing on a Saturday afternoon, of course they’re going to go see him. So I think it’s a way for them to solidify that other side of their audience.
Montgomery: I bet Ghostface also got a free Scion out of it. But is there a true purpose for SXSW anymore?
Kaufman: Yeah, it’s a business thing. And people slam it for that, but it’s a promotional scheme for these labels to have showcases and show off their hot new things for a bunch of writers. … I mean, some bands spend thousands of dollars to get down there, and they believe that they’re gonna get discovered, but no one’s going to see them. It’s a showcase for labels to get all the important people in a room and get them excited about their product.
Smith: Well, I disagree. It’s like what Zach Condon said to us: “The Internet is the new SXSW.” And I agree with him. … Music blogs did more hyping than all of SXSW put together.
Norris: And why is it more significant what some rock critic who goes down there has to say about a Peter Bjorn and John show at SXSW as opposed to what someone has to say about a show they played in a different town a month ago?
Kaufman: Not much, but it matters that they called them out of the hundreds of bands that were playing SXSW. That ink makes a difference. It gives the band a cachet.
Montgomery: Every year I’m down there, I find myself saying, “I fail to see how this pays dividends for anyone.”
Kaufman: Well, look at a band like the Black Lips. SXSW is a great thing for them. We all know the Black Lips, but now I will tell anyone I know to go see the Black Lips. Or like Amy Winehouse, who when I first saw her, I thought she was phoning it in, and then when I saw her at night, she was really on. And I will tell people to go see her. It’s that word of mouth that’s most important.
Norris: I had always been kind of resistant to Sondre Lerche because I thought he was some throwaway singer/songwriter type. But then I saw him at this Astralwerks thing, and he’s actually got this really great band, and I was impressed. So I will go tell people to check him out.
Montgomery: Was there anyone or anything you were disappointed with? I’ll start by saying Lily Allen, who really let me down (see “Pete Wentz Clones Descend, Lily Allen Warbles As SXSW Gets Under Way” ). I thought she was a total drag at the NME showcase. She came on drunk, she slagged people, it was a half-assed set. And compare that to Against Me!, who were excited and having fun.
Smith: I’ll say the day parties. I had a bitch of a time getting into any of them. I mean, on the weekend, unless you got there from the start, you couldn’t even get in. People would get there at noon to see, like, the Apples in Stereo. Oh, and the Peter Bjorn and John show was a letdown after all the hype they had been getting.
Vitrano: Beirut, only because by the time I got there it was so incredibly packed that I had to stand outside the door and couldn’t see a thing. I was getting so jostled and annoyed that I had to leave. Crowds are the downside of SXSW. Especially if you’re small.
Montgomery: So wrapping it up like Jerry Springer: Final thoughts on SXSW 2007?
Smith: It was a lot of loosely tied-together stories, which all seem to have overtaken the buzz factor of SXSW. I was surprised there weren’t more people talking about specific, overarching themes or bands. And it took me by surprise that there wasn’t an “it” band this year … but everyone talking about the Stooges or hip-hop … these more broad themes, and not specific bands. And I don’t know if I like that or not. Because I was always under the impression that SXSW was where you broke, or where you found new bands.
Vitrano: It was better [than previous years] because I finally ate at Iron Works. In addition, Thursday was a near-perfect, 80-degree Austin day, with tons of great BBQ and bands. I hate going to festivals where lots of the higher-profile bands get all the attention. For some reason this year seemed really more about good music and less about hype. … I don’t even know what the past years’ themes were, so I definitely don’t have an answer about what this year’s theme was — nor do I care. My theme is always the three B’s: bands, BBQ and boys.
Montgomery: I’m struck by how all these points we’re making about the festival are also completely interchangeable for the music industry. I was struck by how it’s like a microcosm of all the problems the industry is facing now: It’s too big, there’s too much to see out there, you have no idea what’s going to be big, it’s too splintered, there are too many ways of consuming music.
Kaufman: And to that point, I think that the fact that I came away most excited about a band that’s 40 years old is sort of odd in a way. … I mean, I’m conflicted, because I was there to discover new music, but here I am going on and on about a band that’s almost ready to get their Social Security check. But what the Stooges did for me was confirm the importance of going out there and doing whatever you do with utter conviction. Whether you’re This Moment in Black History or Mary Timony or the Hush Sound, you get on that stage and just bring it. And that’s what I came away with: a rededication to live performance proving who you are.
For more sights and stories from concerts around the country, check out MTV News Tour Reports.