South by Southwest (SXSW) Music is the largest, and one of the most famous, music festivals in the world. Over 2,000 bands from around the world flock to Austin, Texas to play in over 100 venues. Performers receive only a small cash payment, and they have to travel and stay on their own dime. But they’re willing to come… for the experience… for the new fan base… or for the chance to get signed.
Music lovers who live here or are willing to travel here benefit. We get to see bands from Israel, Spain, France, Azerbaijan, and more. It’s a unique chance to broaden our music and cultural horizons. While fun and educational, SXSW can also be exhausting and overwhelming. Just trying to decide who to see is quite the challenge. It takes a SXSW expert to make the most of the experience. Ned Reinhold has been going to SXSW for over twenty years, and he started a research project about the festival along the way. As soon as the band names are released, he lives, sleeps, and dreams South By. I got the chance to pick his brain about the event and his project.
How did this research project begin?
I’ve been in Austin for a very long time, and I used to go to free concerts at Auditorium Shores. I saw Stevie Ray Vaughan before I knew who Stevie Ray Vaughan was. I went to SXSW in 1988. It was real tiny back then. There were only a few venues and maybe 30-40 bands. I had no idea what it was going to be. It used to focus on local bands, but it doesn’t anymore.
In the 80s, SXSW charged pretty big cover charges if you didn’t have a wristband. It cost like… $10-$20 bucks to see a band. You could easily spend $500, so that made getting a wristband worth it. But, it wasn’t really worth it overall back then. These were unsigned, unnamed band, and most of them I could see other times of the year for free. There’s just always so much music in Austin. I didn’t really take it too seriously, but it was fun to go out as a group.
I got a wristband for the first time in 1998 and went full out. I would pick up The Austin Chronicle and pour over the Picks and Sleepers, as they called it. I’d carry that piece of the Chronicle around with me and cover it in little pen marks. I’d circle venues and make all sorts of notes. That’s where it all started. Scraps from the Chronicle.
So how did it develop into a full-out project?
SXSW grew some more, and the internet made a huge difference. The number of bands went from the hundreds to the thousands. Because of the internet, I could do research and spend a lot more time preparing. The problem was that they never put the bands up early enough. The week before the event, I would spend eight hours a day listening and trying to get the research done and up.
What’s your process like now?
They have already put the list of bands out, so I’ve been going through them. I do a search for the band, pull up their website, and listen to their music. It’s really frustrating when the bands don’t have a website. It’s also frustrating when their music starts playing immediately. Because I’m going through so many, I’ll open eight websites at a time. If music starts playing, I have to go figure out which website, and therefore band, it’s connected too. It’s extra confusing when multiple bands all start playing.
Also, bands really need to have their music available to listen to for free. If there isn’t music to listen to for free, then I won’t go to their show. I wish the bands would spend more time thinking about how people see their music for SXSW.
I listen to the music and rank each band from 1-5. 1 = absolute yes. 2 = depends on location, but hopefully. 3 = fine but meh (most of them fall here). 4 and 5 = don’t annoy me with your website. I also describe the bands’ genres and sound in my own words and write comments to myself.
What are the comments like?
One from this year reads “Could be music from a 70s sitcom.” And another is “Hipster pop rock that wants to place in feature films and television shows.” Sometimes they are just normal, genre oriented descriptions like “Korean dance pop.” But other times I amuse myself with the comments.
How many shows do you go see?
II see a band for every slot there is at SXSW. There’s six days of shows and usually five-six bands a night. There is so little time for so many bands. You REALLY have to pick the bands.
How do you pick yours… do you only see #1’’s?
1’s include the big names, but I generally believe that you shouldn’t wait in line. Some people stand in long lines to see a huge name. I’ve seen hundreds of people pay hundreds of dollars to see Duran Duran. But I want to see the bands coming from around the world. Location of the venue is also really important. You don’t want to waste time walking from one side of town to the other. You have to get creative and figure out options close to each other. I try to pick smart from my lists of 1’s and 2’s.
Who have been some of your SXSW favorites?
Breed 77. After I saw them at South By, I saw them again in Germany. I hope to see them again someday.
I.U.D.M. from Tel Aviv, Israel. I saw them about two years ago. I couldn’t figure their name out, but they’re really good.
I saw Norah Jones at Waterloo Records before “Come Away With Me” came out. The place was packed, but I got my CD signed. She wrote, “Ned, Come Away with Me.” I consider it a contract. She was a sweet, nice girl. She’s stayed so lovely, too; it doesn’t seem to have gone to her head.
Hozier from Dublin. They’re LGBT themed, and a bit like a young Elton John.
Jessica Hernandoz and the Deltas, a Latina chick from Detroit. I wrote “Chick Indie Dance Pop.” I like to make my own genres. Massive Scar Era was really great. They’re an Egyptian Metal band with a female lead singer.
Sister Seven. They’re a local band from Austin. They used to be called Little Sister, but they got in trouble for the name being trademarked. They looked and apparently there were six other bands named Little Sister. So they became Sister Seven
Action Bronson who raps over “Island Girl” by Elton John on Silverado
What have been some of your oddest moments at the festival?
It was the late 90s, and we were at Emos, back at the old location when it had two sides. My friends wanted to see the band on one side, and I wanted to see the band on the other. So I walk in, and there is a chick on stage. I was so close that I got smacked by the cords. Then the chick on stage took off her shirt and threw it into the crowd. I look around and the audience is basically a topless lesbian mosh pit. It was a bit risqué. My friend walked in, so I have proof that it happened.
Another time, I saw a band that knocked my socks off. I walked out, and a guy turned to me and asked me what I thought. He told me it was Robert Plant’s son. It was Logan Plant, but I hadn’t even put it together. I had no idea! Knocked my socks off. Good looking kid, too. Totally fit the image.
Oh! I met Rachael Ray at South By. Her husband is in a band; John Cusimano from The Cringe. They played here. I admit that I picked that one because Rachel might be there, and I got my picture with her.
Any other really outstanding music experiences?
Robert Plant was playing Austin Music Hall. We thought, “No way are we getting in there.” But we weren’t very far away, so we walked over. We got whisked right in. The hall was half full, and they started playing Led Zeppelin III. Not the huge hits, but songs I knew really well. I was blown away, and I walked out in a daze. Monumental moment. Anything can happen at South By.
What are your favorite venues?
Dirty Dog, without a doubt. I love seeing shows there. They’re a rock venue. Emos and Steamboat used to be my favorites. Sister Seven was the last show I saw at Steamboat. It’s a huge loss. They do a Steamboat Reunion show at Threadgills now, and I saw Pushmonkey there. Also, the Black Cat turned into the Nook, and I’ve seen some good shows there.
So who are bands that you can’t miss this year?
I’m only through about 300 bands so far. But let’s see…
Louise Goffin, Carole King’s daughter, is coming. Gonna go check her out.
Sonny Night and the Lakers is a big R&B band that charted in 1956.
Emily King, Grammy nominated singer, another R&B performance.
Gochag Askarod Ensemble is a traditional Azerbaijan band that looks really interesting.
East of the Wall, which is progressive genre-bending.
Doctor Awkward, rap.
What other music festivals do you recommend?
Pecan Street is starting to have some good bands. They had about 10 bands play last year, and it was a pretty good selection. They had Residual Kid, which is made up of a group of kids. Before the show they were just skateboarding around. They were, like… 8 years old. You gotta check them out. The drummer is unbelievable. He abuses his drum set. Really, the little kid is ripping it apart, free scale.
Formula One also had some really good free stuff downtown. They have had some really excellent shows.
Last, do you have any tips to survive SXSW for our readers that have never been before?
Pace yourself. You might be able to have a beer at every venue., but if you have two… you’re not going to make it. Also, you’re not going to get into every show you want. You really need to have second choices. Don’t waste your time – see as much as you can. Also, if there is anything I’ve learned from doing this project, it’s that it’s important to do your research. Find out who’s here. It’s an amazing opportunity.
To view the entire LOCALE Austin SXSW edition digital magazine click here.