SXSW or bust

Scandanavia by Southwest: A roots music band from Sweden gets the crowd dancing in the middle of the street.

Back from South By Southwest (my first time attending the festival and visiting Austin), my head is still spinning from the sheer number of musical acts I encountered. According to SXSW's FAQ page, at any given time there are more than 80 bands performing — and that's just the official acts. Add on all the unofficial showcases and parties (which official bands also play) and then the random shows that happen in any space that can count as a venue — an ice-cream shop, a dentist’s office, a real estate agency, a flea market, a street corner. It's impossible not to catch live music at every turn.

Among the thousands of bands performing, Asheville was well represented. Indie-pop duo-turned-trio EAR PWR played the Carpark Records showcase; River Whyless performed at the Papergarden showcase; Airbird (the side project of Ford & Lopatin's Joel Ford) was on the roster at Moog Music and Switched On's party; alt-country act Drunken Prayer played the RoadHouse Rags showcase; Wages members Nick Campbell and James DeDakis joined Carrboro's Fan Modine at the Blurt! Magazine party, Archers of Loaf frontman Eric Bachmann (formerly from Asheville) was on stage at the Merge Records showcase with his Americana group, Crooked Fingers; and Austin-by-way-of-Asheville outfit The Baker Family Band performed throughout the week.

(Some non-WNC discoveries: French-Spanish electro-pop singer-songwriter Andrea Balency; singer-songwriter Afie Jurvanen aka Bahamas; and Canadian indie-pop group Said the Whale.)

All of that was pretty exciting, but it also established that Asheville music is absolutely on par with national and international bands. The question is, how to let the rest of the music-listening community know what we've got going on here in WNC?

While in Austin, it occurred to me that an Asheville showcase at SXSW needs to happen — though the sheer number of bands at that festival does raise the question, how beneficial is SXSW to bands that play it? Other than the large acts (e.g., Bruce Springsteen), it's unlikely that bands are making money by performing SXSW. Many emerging artists go to the festival at their own expense. They book a hotel (or find a couch to crash on), tour on the way to Texas and then haul equipment through crowds in order to perform for 45 minutes. Considering that those up-and-coming artists are often overshadowed by bigger names (Fiona Apple! The Shins! 50 Cent!) — is it worth it?

If the answer is yes, then Asheville bands and music businesses (Music Allies, Moog and Blurt! were there) should team up to create a platform, a showcase that could share the Asheville sound with the SXSW audience while helping other WNC-based bands make the trip to Texas.

And, whether the answer is yes or no, there's plenty about the Austin festival that could be applied locally. With Moogfest heading full-speed into its third year, Asheville music is prime for national exposure. Moogfest is a boon for the city, and even if only a few local acts are booked for the official roster each year, there's no reason for other groups and venues not to jump on the proverbial bandwagon with unofficial parties and showcases. Why not? SXSW has shown that the unofficial acts are every bit as important and noteworthy as the officially sanctioned events, and music fans are unlikely to care if a show is official or unofficial as long as it’s good. Plus, non-sanctioned acts create a festive atmosphere even for those who can’t spring for a pricey festival ticket. Free and low-cost side shows are likely to attract bigger crowds and regional performers to town.

Two more takeaways from SXSW: First, there’s a lot more to music than bands and stages. The Austin festival (in its 26th year) is road-tested and well organized, but it also continues to grow. A gear-trade show filled the convention center for a few days and a fashion component (Style X) included merch and a runway show. Panel discussions, book signings and keynote addresses were also on the schedule, giving an interactive Hatch-like aspect to the festival. Why not add an art-inspired-by-music exhibit, or a workshop for music writers, or a bloggers’ gathering? The possibilities are endless, both in Austin and in Asheville.

And, finally, despite why a person would attend SXSW or Moogfest (or any music festival) — be it for exposure or business or fun — music creates a community. I was impressed over and over that an event as huge as SXSW could be so organized and friendly (some of my favorite moments were on shuttle rides chatting with musicians and professionals, like producer Clif Norrell who just engineered Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball), but really, why not? Music bridges gaps; that’s been said before. It builds a community that touches on yet defies ethnicity, economics, class, education, age, language and gender. It creates family beyond DNA, though surely someday we’ll discover that the desire to connect with and through creative media exists within our human genetic makeup. Some of us play music, some promote it, some support it. It’s a collaborative process in which all roles are of equal value and, by participating, we’re made richer, wiser and better. And all it takes to get in on that is the willingness to listen.

— Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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