South By Midwest: Has Milwaukee finally given up on SXSW?
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This is usually the time of year when we roll out our annual “South By Midwest” story, a handy roundup of all the Milwaukee bands making the trek to Austin, Texas for the South By Southwest music conference/clusterfuck. (The official music portion of the fest begins today.) It’s a yearly tradition wherein we celebrate the many wonderful groups in our city’s ever-deepening pool of talent, and wish them well as they pack their vans and serve as Milwaukee musical ambassadors. But this year, you won’t find that story. Why? Because Milwaukee seems to have all but given up on SXSW in 2012. And isn’t it about time?
Before we get to that, let’s look at the numbers: In 2009, 13 bands made the trip to Austin, including Codebreaker, Juiceboxxx, Pezzettino, and Invade Rome. 2010 found roughly the same number of groups representing Brew City, a number that included Kings Go Forth, Juniper Tar, Altos, Collections Of Colonies Of Bees, Heidi Spencer, Jaill, and, um, the BoDeans. Many of those same bands returned in 2011, along with first-timers Maritime and Ramma Lamma. But this year, only a handful of bands—I’m Not A Pilot, Fresh Cut Collective, The Cranberry Show, and the newly minted Field Report—have bothered to make the trip for an official SXSW showcase. I’m Not A Pilot and Fresh Cut Collective both played a Shindig-sponsored event yesterday, while The Cranberry Show and Field Report play later this week. So what gives?
It goes without saying that the fest isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Far from a magical and mythic place where bands go to get “discovered,” SXSW has long since devolved into a mind-boggling mess of sweaty bands, sweaty music critics, and sweaty PR cretins. (Full disclosure: I’ve never been to SXSW. I’m allergic to anything with the word “conference” in its title.) It’s more or less an excuse for music industry types to hang out, drink, eat some barbecue, and tweet about hanging out, drinking, and eating barbecue. After all, don’t we leave it to reality TV to “make” bands these days?
So has Milwaukee finally wised up and decided that playing SXSW isn’t worth the trouble? It seems that way. The Journal Sentinel’s Piet Levy looked into the matter over the weekend, noting that the “Milwaukee music contingency at the South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival is going to be a little smaller this year.” In his piece, Levy talks to Tarik Moody of 88Nine Radio Milwaukee and Shindig, who admits that the fest is simply about—shudder—“networking”:
“I don’t want people to think they can go there and get signed,” [Moody] said. “It’s never about getting signed. It’s about connecting and networking and performing and growing a fan base outside Milwaukee.”
“Connecting and networking”? Ugh. Strangely, the biggest Milwaukee-based news at this year’s SXSW came courtesy of…Jeffrey Dahmer. Chris Thompson’s Jeff was an official selection for the fest’s film lineup, and received positive notices when it screened last Saturday. That’s wonderful for Thompson, of course, though having Dahmer represent Milwaukee is only slightly worse than having a cow wearing a Cheesehead parade around downtown Austin. But with all the networking and barbecue to attend to (oh, and the music), it’s doubtful anyone would notice one way or another.