(Check back for GRAMMY.com's ongoing South by Southwest conference coverage, including blogs and artist interviews as part of our GRAMMYs on the Road series. Meanwhile, visit The Recording Academy on Facebook and Twitter for SXSW updates.)
By Chris Thompson
A half decade before Richard Linklater directed Slacker, a film that portrayed Austin, Texas, as a haven for quirky alternative cultures, a handful of marginally employed 20-somethings — in this case, alt-weekly journalists — unwittingly created a monster. And now, 26 years after the South by Southwest Music, Film and Interactive Conference's modest beginnings as a low-key music event, it has evolved into a massive annual industry congregation well beyond the most vivid hallucinations of its creators.
Of course, each growth spurt along the way has been greeted with a new round of criticisms about SXSW "selling out" to major labels, corporate branding and various other devils at the crossroads. But what's overlooked, perhaps, is the degree to which the annual event brings together the creative energies of phenomenally diverse constituencies, not least the thousands of performers from all over the world who showcase their music at some 100 venues in the "live music capital of the world."
SXSW's maturing process is recently evidenced by the 2011 debut of SXSWedu, a new component that has taken the SXSW brand into a socially significant new direction in bringing together educators, business people and policy makers with a "keen interest in modernizing teaching and learning."
As these various worlds converge, the resulting dialogue has become enriched. At Wednesday afternoon's panel titled What Happened To The Big Idea In Music Technology?, for instance, author Rick Moody talked about how music education cuts have brought us to the point where "the audience that's coming up doesn't have any idea how an octave works or what [a] I-IV-V [chord progression] means." One thing technology can do, Moody suggested, is to find new ways to educate that audience.
In another Wednesday daytime highlight, a panel of hip-hop artists and industry professionals participated in Maximizing Alternative Income As A Hip-Hop Artist. The most unique suggestions came from Doomtree Records artist Dessa Wander, who spoke of extracurricular activities ranging from being a tech writer (specifically, instructions for pacemaker implantations) to serving as a "whiskey consultant" (when asked for professional advice, she'd offer 90 minutes of consultation in a bar for $50 plus her favorite cocktail).
And there was the music. With a seemingly infinite lineup of performers spanning nearly every genre imaginable, SXSW has plenty of it. At La Zona Rosa on Wednesday evening, up-and-coming New Zealand pop sensation Kimbra (sample Kimbra ) gave a phenomenal performance reminiscent of a young Kate Bush (if that young Kate Bush had been drawn more to jazz and soul), and GRAMMY winner Dr. John's set saw him switching over for one song to electric guitar, an instrument he'd abandoned many decades ago in favor of piano. There were also a variety of talent on display at "unofficial" SXSW showcases on South Congress Avenue — including Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.'s tribute to the late Whitney Houston with "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)"; the Animals' Eric Burdon joining the Raconteurs' Brendan Benson for the Animals' "When I Was Young"; and one of Austin's best-kept secrets, songwriter Beaver Nelson (sample Beaver Nelson), who sang about being "killed by the department of sanitation."
The mission of keeping Austin weird (and, by extension, SXSW as well) is still in good hands. Stay tuned.
(Come back tomorrow for an update on Thursday's Recording Academy-related SXSW events, including an advocacy panel, How Stella Got Her Masters Back; the GRAMMY Museum's Woody Guthrie Centennial Tribute; and the Texas Chapter's GRAMMY Block Party.)