Say what you want about South by Southwest: that's it's overrated, that it's over-inflated, that it's already jumped the shark...
None of those statements are necessarily false, but there still remain a few absolute truths about the annual Austin music festival. Like the fact that it still has some clout. And the fact that the industry still seems to get itself off on it. Hence the 1,600 or so bands playing the fests and the big industry names hosting showcases: Xbox 360, the BBC, Gibson Guitars, Billboard and dozens of small indie labels.
Good for South by Southwest. Good for Austin.
And good for Dallas, too, actually.
Because, see, there's another truth lying somewhere beneath the shimmering, happy surface: We Dallasites reap what Austin is sowing this month.
Look around this and next week's local concert listings. They're chock-full of big names: Acts such as Jens Lekman, They Might Be Giants, Grand Archives, Beach House and North Mississippi Allstars to name a few.
Bands such as Cloud Cult, whose 2007 release, The Meaning of 8, was named by the Denver Post as one of the top 12 albums of the 2000s. High praise, but not too far off. Taking cues from both The Flaming Lips and The Polyphonic Spree, Cloud Cult offers a sound that's at once unrefined and epic, ethereal and simple, powerful and fragile.
There's a back story here that helps that sound make sense: After the death of their 2-year-old son, lead singer Craig Minowa and wife/visual artist Connie, turned to music as a way to pour out their emotions.
"It's kind of like a group therapy thing through the creative process," Craig Minowa says.
You can hear it. On disc, the band's music is a carefully manufactured product in which the music evolves and grows into something new with each passing second. Take the song "Chemicals Collide," off of The Meaning of 8: It starts off with a snare drum, a rattle and some simple acoustic guitar playing. Later, it factors in falsetto vocals and violin. By the end, it's a cacophonous amalgamation of all those elements—plus keyboards, cello, electric guitar, bass drum and more. It takes a couple minutes to get there, and listening to it do so is like watching a flower bloom.
Onstage with Cloud Cult, a similar development takes place. At each of the band's performances, two artists, who double as the keyboard and horn players, paint away on easels between contributing their parts to the orchestral sound. It's quite the sight, watching something actually come to life on canvas while the band provides a soundtrack to its emergence.
That organic growth stems from Craig Minowa's background as an environmental scientist—a gig he still keeps up with today, even when on tour.
"I wondered if I could be as helpful to the planet with music, and I didn't really understand how the two could go together," he says. But with a touring act whose sound epitomizes naturalism and a record label he spearheads that specializes in a wholly green production process for its discs, Minowa's starting to see how the two can intertwine. In interviews, he emphasizes the importance of taking care of the planet while answering questions about his band and its sound. Two birds, one stone, so to speak.
"Things are starting to grow bigger for us," Minowa says. "And we're thankful for that."
With a new album to be released on April 8, a gig at South by Southwest and a few touring dates around it make sense for Minowa and Co. They help him get the message about his band out to the public while allowing him to promote the album and his cause.
Similarly, the South by Southwest stop makes sense for Ryan Jarman and his brothers Gary and Ross in The Cribs. On the heels of its critically well-received 2007 release, Men's Needs, Women's Needs, Whatever, the English punk trio (imagine Franz Ferdinand paying homage to The Offspring's Smash, with a hint of Art Brut thrown into the mix) aims to fully crack into the American market with its energetic live performances.
"We're a punk rock band," Jarman explains. "The songs that sound fierce on the album sound a lot more fierce live. It's not like we're a well-oiled machine...and that's all part of the fun. We don't put on a professional rock show."
With 18 dates on the band's current jaunt through the States, Jarman knows that there's a reason for his band to be playing South by Southwest, but, actually, he sounds kinda over the whole deal. A few years back, when the band's U.S. label, Warner Bros., first tried introducing The Cribs to the States, they did so in Austin.
"I really enjoyed it," Jarman says. "I had a really good time there. But you don't sleep during it. I don't think I actually went to bed for the whole week."
Though Jarman insists that his band "treats every gig the same" and that there's really no difference between an 8 p.m. gig at The Loft and a 4 in the afternoon gig in a bar for a bunch of industry types (or fans who don't mind fronting the exorbitant asking price for a festival badge), you have to imagine that there is.
And that's where the gigs here, surrounding the festival, come into play. Sure, the South by Southwest stops certainly have their benefits. A South by Southwest gig allows a band an opportunity to play for crowds of proverbial movers and shakers such as radio personnel, journalists, label representatives and bloggers. But does that really amount to anything?
Jarman's not sure. He likes to think so but insists that the best way for his band to reach out to new fans is to do so on its own terms.
"The best way for people to experience us is to see us live," he says.
A South by Southwest gig only allows so many people that opportunity. But, in a bunch of cases, the festival affords plenty of Dallasites that opportunity—and without the three-and-a-half-hour drive.
That doesn't happen by accident around these parts. That's happening because of South by Southwest.
So—for once—maybe we shouldn't scorn Austin with jealousy. Because, at least for the next two weeks, we're certainly benefiting from our neighbors to the south.