SXSW: A victim of its own success?

It's been the launch pad for acts from Skrillex to Amy Winehouse, but 25 years on from its inception, Emma Jones finds a festival that some feel has outgrown itself

“South By Southwest called me and told me you were in need of a little funk in Austin,” Prince told his ecstatic 300-strong ticket-winning audience on the closing night of the SXSW music festival.

If Austin did lack funk, it was about the only genre of music missing from the five-day event in Texas, which this year celebrated its quarter-century anniversary. With more than 2,000 bands performing, walking down East 6th Street in Austin during SXSW is to be assailed from every pub door by the sounds of rock, thrash, synthesisers, blues, country, punk, dubstep – and the occasional wail of a drunk who's had enough.

The 16,000, mainly industry, delegates come in search of the Next Big Thing – Katy Perry, Amy Winehouse and Skrillex are just a few who made a name for themselves here – but that doesn't mean they aren't willing to be entertained by Already Big Things. Prince played a dive bar on the closing night, but across town badge-holders could also see Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z, the Smashing Pumpkins and John Fogerty. Green Day played their first gig since frontman Billie Joe Armstrong left rehab. Dave Grohl brought his “Sound City” players – artists who contributed to his recent documentary about the famous LA recording studio – to Stubbs, a downtown bar. Add to the list showcases from Depeche Mode, the Specials, Paramore, the Flaming Lips and Snoop Dogg (pictured), and it feels as though every other person in Austin is either a rock star, or just behaving like one.

With goodwill towards British acts at its warmest since the festival started in 1987, venues like the British Music Embassy were overflowing with fans eager to see newly established UK acts including Alt-J, the 1975, Laura Mvula, Lucy Rose and Palma Violets as well as Ash, The Enemy and The View. The event may have started as a way of promoting Texan music internationally, but it has quickly become the biggest musical showcase in the world, the first chance each year for promoters and agents to snap up promising bands in time for the summer festivals.

Yet some feel SXSW is now full to capacity, even though it's worth around $147m to the local economy. At the weekends, the packed and – even in March – sweltering streets have the same party atmosphere as the Notting Hill Carnival, and the same after-dark menace. “I've been coming for 10 years,” said an industry delegate, “and it's no longer cool and laid back. You have hundreds of thousands of people swarming on the streets, without a badge, so they can't see any music, and those of us with badges have to queue for venues too. Now the festival coincides with Spring Break, so it's carnage. Last year it was also St. Patrick's Day and I swear the vomit was green.”

Yet the power of music was on display too, most particularly at the Daptone Records concert featuring 65-year-old Charles Bradley, a former James Brown impersonator who spent decades battling with homelessness and drugs before being signed. After his show, he went and hugged every single member of his audience, saying simply, “thank you for saving my life”.

SXSW success: The best new bands of the festival:

Five Knives

You won't catch this four-piece from Nashville, Tennessee, lamenting about dead dogs. Instead platinum-haired singer Anna Worstell is half Debbie Harry, all Courtney Love, as she leads her band in a delicious fusion of punk, rock, electronica, hip hop and dubstep. Signed by Red Bull Records, they are touring the US and Canada supporting their EP, The Rising. After rampaging through SXSW, an invitation to the UK is almost inevitable – if they accept, Reading and Leeds would be a natural showcase.

Black Violin

This classically trained hip-hop duo from South Florida played before Dave Grohl's keynote conference speech at SXSW. They got as big a standing ovation from the crowd as the Foo Fighter. Wil B is on viola and Kev Marcus on violin; they've described themselves as “the biggest independent group that no one has ever heard of.” Until, that was, the Obamas invited them to play their Inaugural Ball.Now they've performed with Alicia Keys and Kendrick Lamar as well. Their album, Black Violin – Classically Trained is out on 7 May. Someone book them a Sunday-afternoon slot at Glastonbury.

Palma Violets

One of the most anticipated of British showcases at SXSW this year, the Lambeth duo Sam Fryer and Alex Jesson didn't disappoint, although older members of the audience might have been haunted by the ghost of Echo and the Bunnymen. Hailed by the music press as “the saviours of indie”, “Best of Friends” was voted Song of the Year 2012 by NME. Their debut album 180 is out now, and they'll be trying to ride the crest of their wave to the top at various festivals, including the Isle of Wight, T in the Park Reading and Leeds.

Wet Nuns

There was scarcely room to spit at the Wet Nuns showcase at the British Music Embassy this week, which was hardly surprising: Sheffield- and Leeds-based duo Rob Graham and Alexis Gotts combine dirty riffs with monstrous drumming and vocals that sound like someone's throttling The Cult's Ian Astbury. Citing whisky and death as their biggest influences, their Broken Teeth EP is out now. Championed by both Radio 1's Huw Stephens and the Arctic Monkeys, catch them at Detestival in Sheffield on 30 March, and the Y Not Festival in Matlock on 2 August.


The 21-year-old Sydney-based DJ's late-night sets at SXSW became one of the most buzzed-about electronic acts at this year's event. Harley Streten, to give him his real name, has already had an iTunes No 1 hit in his native Australia; he's already progressed to arena level there, but his ambient electronica is more suited to Austin's sweaty, post-midnight club crowd. “Paper Thin” and “Sleepless” are the tracks to listen to.

The Virginmarys

This power trio from Macclesfield have been together since 2009, and recently released their debut album King of Conflict on Cooking Vinyl records. Comprised of singer Ally Dickaty, bassist Matt Rose and drummer Danny Dolan – the latter's style combining all the best attributes of Keith Moon and Animal from the Muppets – their Smashing Pumpkins-meets-Foo Fighters-meets-Kings of Leon sound went down a treat in Texas. They've been signed to Wind-up Records in the US and are touring this spring; catch them back in the UK later this year before America begs to keep them.

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