South by Southwest Global Market in the Making

'Boy' live in Austin, Texas
'Boy' live in Austin, Texas | Photo (detail): Josh Sisk / Initiative Musik

At the festival South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, the largest music industry exhibition in the world, with concerts and parties, German bands try to seize their opportunity. The competition is great, but so are the hopes.

Both bands wear their hair rather long. And both returned home with a good feeling from the South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, the largest exhibition of the creative industry, that took place from 11 to 16 March 2013. Otherwise, Boy and Kadavar have little in common. Boy is two women who live in Hamburg; Kadavar, three men from Berlin. The one plays mellow but featherlight folk-pop that relies on lots of melody and harmony. The other banks on very bearded hard rock, soaked in heavy blues, which seems to come straight out of the 1970s. In Austin, both bands found their audiences. Boy filled and enchanted the Central Presbyterian Church, one of the most beautiful venues in the city, otherwise reserved for well-known American artists like Iron & Wine or Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks. Kadavar brought the rockers in the period bar Rebel’s Honky Tonk, where not five metres from the stage bucked the electric bull, to nod in approval.

Hot spot of superlatives

A dream place for young bands: the main stage of SXSW. A dream place for young bands: the main stage of SXSW. | Photo: SXSW / Extreme Airshots SXSW invites more than 2,000 acts every year, which present themselves over five days to a professional audience and quite ordinary fans. Each of these bands can find their audience in Austin. But this does not mean that the audience finds each band. The concerts of stars like Prince, Justin Timberlake, Depeche Mode and Dave Grohl in unusually small halls are so popular that tickets must be raffled among the 120,000 registered SXSW visitors. But still unknown bands with big hopes can easily disappear in the sheer mass of concerts, film screenings, panel discussions, more than 5,000 official events and countless unofficial parties. It is quite possible that newcomers have to appear in a small club with hardly a dozen listeners.

A frustrating experience, which Sizarr, for example, was spared. At home the young trio from Landau in der Pfalz had already performed in mid-sized halls; in Austin it appeared in the Iron Bear, a small bar. But about sixty people came by and listened eagerly to the melodic electro-pop that adroitly helps itself to voguish influences ranging from Dubsteb to world music. Not a bad cut, and Sizarr was therefore satisfied, even if the venue was rather small by their standards. The trip to Austin was definitely worth it, said guitarist Philipp Hülsenbeck after the performance: “We met people who didn’t know of us before, but now want to work with us. We’ll see what happens.”

Support from home

The trip to Austin was made possible only with the help of the Initiative Musik. In 2013, the non-profit funding institution of the German Federal Government, in cooperation with the music industry, supported twelve of the nineteen German bands that were present in Austin with travel allowances and again organized the popular afternoon boat cruise on Lady Bird Lake, where Sizarr, Boy and the Berlin rapper DENA had the opportunity of presenting themselves to international concert and festival organizers. Although the immediate effect of such events cannot be quantified, they still represent a gain for the artist and his CV. “For us it was a dream come true to be able to perform at all here in Austin”, said Fabian Altstötter, the singer from Sizarr, after their on board appearance. Nor is it out of the question that this will lead to further engagements.

Networking in the garden of the German Haus, photo by Josh Sisk / Initiative MusikBecause for the German companies attending SXSW it is not essentially about gigs in small bars and picturesque boating. The aim is to create forums that will draw attention to pop music in Germany, which has hitherto been under-represented in the international context. Thus the “German House” offered other German musicians such as the Berlin krautrock improvisers Camera and the electro siren Dillon, who is also based in Berlin, the opportunity to give performances in additional to their official SXSW showcasing. In a rented house in walking distance of the Convention Center, institutions such as Initiative Musik, the Berlin Music Week, the Berlin Music Commission and the Reeperbahn Festival concentrated most of their SXSW activities for the first time in one place. The people from Hamburg invited visitors to “Reeperbahn Burgers”, the “Berlin Calling” night proved to an audience of more than 4,000 that electronic music is not the only sound which comes out of the German capital, and the Berlin Music Week gave a breakfast during which its organizers presented their plans.

A touch of Texas in Berlin

Similar concept: a musical river boat turn at Berlin Music Week, photo by Berlin Music WeekWith its fourth edition in September 2013, the Berlin Music Week plans to adapt many features that have made the SXSW the world’s most important event in the creative industry, especially the interdisciplinary thinking which has ensured that in Austin the music festival still forms the core of the event while at the same time being comprehensively supplemented. The programme now includes a film festival and an interactive conference, which focuses on social networks and other new media, extending the whole event to a total of twelve days.

This is the direction the Music Week wants to take, said organizer Björn Döring, and no longer rely solely on the music industry. Among other things, it plans a “Long Night of Start-Ups”, with the support of Telekom and Amazon. The trend is towards medial and content diversity, an opportunity for the still young Berlin festival to sharpen its profile. Up to now, however, SXSW has been way out in front, even if in its 27th year the music event seems, with downtown Austin’s closed-off streets heaving with masses of party people, more like a carnival than a market place of visions. But that is what it sometimes takes for small bands to get a chance to make it big.