Why you should care
Today’s underdog festival could launch the next Spoon or Frank Ocean.
There was a time when “music showcase” meant seeing bands at your friend’s dad’s basement or the local Unitarian church. Then came South by Southwest, whose music festival runs this week. Founded in 1987, the annual weeklong event started small — with the goal of promoting local musicians and bringing the outside world to Austin, Texas — and got big. Then behemoth. And music is now just one aspect of a mega-event encompassing film, tech and marketing.
Ben Goldberg, founder of Brooklyn, New York, independent record label Ba Da Bing, attended last year. “It was so, so depressing,” he recalls. “Like going to Disneyland with drunk teenagers and with all the rides closed.” This year, McDonald’s asked an indie duo to play in return for “food.” One magazine editor, who requested anonymity, lamented receiving two invitations to meet celebrity cats. Different events, different celebu-cats. Makes a sad sort of sense — the biggest thing, after all, to come out of SXSW 2013 was the hashtag #grumpycat.
SXSW can be of great benefit to young artists, says James Minor, general manager of its music festival. “Afterward, I always hear of acts being approached by some facet of the industry or adding a publisher, lawyer or booking agent to their team,” he says. The festival’s popularity has steadily risen: There were 32,798 registered attendees in 2014, compared with just 3,270 in 2004. But would you jump off a cliff just because 32,798 of your friends did? These five alternatives all showcase new talent, far from the Austin hype.
Americana Music Festival
September, Nashville, Tenn.
There’s more to life than indie rock. This four-night event is based in the only U.S. music capital with its own ABC soap opera, with roughly 165 shows at nine venues in downtown Nashville. Last year’s lineup included roots-scene veterans like Rhett Miller and Over the Rhine, as well as buzz-generating up-and-comers like singer-songwriter Anthony D’Amato and Australia’s Mae Trio — two sisters and a cellist.
Hopscotch Music Festival
September, Raleigh, N.C.
North Carolina has serious music credentials — the hip-hop of Lords of the Underground and the Justus League, hardcore greats like Corrosion of Conformity and indie-pop icons Superchunk. This wildly popular newcomer, founded in 2010, delivers premium acts like Spoon and St. Vincent. But you’ll also find lesser-known gold like Samantha Crain, an Oklahoma artist of Choctaw heritage who’s bound to break out, and locals like rapper Professor Toon. The festival, with 140 shows in 10 venues in 2014, and the city itself are both small enough that you could conceivably go from show to show without losing your mind in transit.
CMJ Music Marathon
October, New York City
It’s been around for 34 years, and it’s still one of the hands-down most relevant showcases, with 1,400-some shows happening at 80-plus venues. We’d argue that there’s no better way to seek out new acts. It’s more than just that, though: CMJ means a chance to see emerging music spaces, too. Death by Audio, 285 Kent and Glasslands are dead, but there’s still Baby’s All Right, Shea Stadium and the best small room in all of NYC — Rockwood Music Hall, Stage 3. And CMJ is breaking bands all year in its monthly mixtape.
Recent years have seen tragedy — a freak hurricane that killed five in 2011, the suicide of Ou Est le Swimming Pool’s frontman, death by heart attack of the Call’s Michael Been. But for those who like Europe, music, crowds and the great outdoors, there is fun to be had here. Almost every August since 1985, the massive Belgian open-air festival has featured 200-some bands in rock, electronica and pretty much every genre but country on eight stages. It’s now soliciting votes for the 2015 lineup on its website and Facebook — first names are out March 25.
February, San Francisco
The 23-year-old Bay Area mainstay draws cultural giants and the upper echelon of indie — Yoko Ono, Sleater-Kinney, Antony and the Johnsons. It’s also a film festival; the much-anticipated documentary Salad Days, the Birth of Punk in the Nation’s Capital screened this year. Look for multimedia events like a live recording of breakout act How to Dress Well for the podcast Song Exploder, in which artists break down one of their songs into its pieces.