South by Southwest: Colorado Bands Find Inspiration in Austin

The promise of Something-is-Happening-Now-in-Your-Town is a gift to experience palpably and one to bring home.

As a musician and music lover, it’s easy to be swept away by the chaotic allure of South by Southwest, an annual music festival in Austin, TX. The promise of Something-is-Happening-Now-in-Your-Town is a gift to experience palpably and one to bring home. If you’re already feeling the buzz back where you live, SXSW is extra honey to add to the pot when you get back. (I think Neil Young called that a Honey Slide.) There’s no way you can be in Austin for a week and not feel inspired to pick some of the zing up off the street and cram it into the back of your van with the rest of your gear. The excitement of 40,000 extra arts lovers in one place is hard to shake.

Predominantly viewed as one of “the” places to experience music each year, as well as a commercial outfit slinging logos against the backdrop of rad bands you’ve always wanted to see playing within blocks of each other in a matter of minutes, South by Southwest (SXSW) raged into its 27th year in March of 2014.

Like us, many Colorado bands made their way to Austin this year to participate in official and unofficial SXSW showcases. “I think SX has inspired many Colorado folks,” said Steph Jay of the Fort Collins band Wasteland Hop, “making them want something similar in our neck of the woods. SX is a great way to meet people, and it is the place to go for anything and anyone music-related in March.”

         Post Paradise          Post Paradise

SXSW is “almost like a rite of passage—we didn’t understand it until we played it.”

Noah Cecil of Winchester Holiday said what brought his band to Austin was “the perception that SXSW has been the center of the independent music world on an annual basis for some time now — we’ve wanted to be a part of that from the beginning.”

Nick Duarte of Fort Collins rock quartet Post Paradise said SXSW is “almost like a rite of passage — we didn’t understand it until we played it.”

Longtime goers admitted that noticeably, and perhaps predictably, the festival has grown in sponsorship activity as its musical reach and attendance have expanded. There are free sunglasses at every corner with “Wordpress” etched in the sides, T-shirts from Gig Salad, fluorescent sponsored headwear, guitar picks emblazoned with logos and towels from Payola.fm (the logo crusted off after one wash). Everything is something. A day planner is a branding agency, a zine is a company’s glossies, a tote bag is a social network, a LED light is a Taylor guitar. So many people offered to design our merch that I was almost offended.

Looking past the logos, we met real, awesome people who were delightful to talk with. They knew someone we knew, had lived somewhere we’d lived, or usually both. Beyond the schtick, humanity was revealed. One man in an engineer’s coat blatantly told us he didn’t know what the 3D printer at his booth was doing. “It’s for teaching topography,” he said when I asked him what the printer was making.

“Topography?” I asked. “Like, how?”

“I don’t know,” he admitted bashfully. “I’m in the graphic design program.”

Texas is a hospitable place, much more so collectively than I could have remembered or imagined.

Texas is a hospitable place, much more so collectively than I could have remembered or imagined. Its thrift stores are bountiful, its citizens so warm I definitely expected a stage light to fall out of the sky à la The Truman Show. And the trail to play music in Austin was blazed by surrounding cities lighting torches for bands passing through. The waves of good vibrations that rocked us to and from SXSW were in every city we played and all points between. I find myself eager to tour Texas again.

Having not really understood the allure — from hauling gear through sweaty, crowded block upon crowded block, asking each person in the swarming crowd specifically to move out of the way, and parking 45 minutes away by foot after load-in, sometimes for three shows a day, for days on end — I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about SXSW. Tyler Grant of Boulder band The Grant Farm was also surprised by “the type of load-in that venues expect bands to accomplish around 6th Street — quite a challenge, and a workout!”

Sarah and the Meanies Sarah and the Meanies

Strangely, an air of order pervaded the festival, with shows swiftly beginning on time and the crowds marching rather than milling.

Strangely, an air of order pervaded the festival, with shows swiftly beginning on time and the crowds marching rather than milling. “I was surprised how organized the shows seemed to be, for the most part, given the amount of people attending and the amount of bands playing,” said Steph Jay.

Meanwhile, Sarah Angela of Sarah and the Meanies loved “the absolute mayhem of running around with the band from showcase to showcase. I craved the frantic excitement of it all and it was completely satisfying.”

“I think the most beneficial part of the craziness that is SXSW was the silent self-reflection that went on inside my head,” said Conor Bourgal of Colorado Springs folk act The Changing Colors. “I kept saying to myself, ‘Look at all this madness! Where do I fit into this?'”

The Changing Colors The Changing Colors

The other craziness, the super-real tragedy of Wednesday night, didn’t reach us until Thursday morning, when texts began pouring in asking if we were okay. We were shocked to hear a drunk man had supposedly tried to evade police in the heart of festival activities, and instead drove the wrong way on a one-way street before devastating the lives of many people. Four people have died as a result, and many more remain injured. Though I don’t know if the drunk driver had been partaking in SXSW, it certainly was cause to think twice about the high alcohol content of shows and the push for free beer all day long at almost every showcase. SX organizers said they felt an obligation toward those who had traveled from around the world to attend the event to keep the festival going. They released information as it became available via social media channels. The site of the crash was blocked off to passersby, concerts were cancelled or relocated, and friends hugged a little harder to express grief. (Links to donate to assist victims can be found at the end of this article.)

As a whole, there were many things to love about the atmosphere of SXSW. Music lovers make for very attentive audiences. People attend SX in order to viscerally experience as much music as they can within the span of a few days, so there’s an eagerness to soak in what is going on. Knowing they will likely be headed to a different venue within the hour, people are on the move, but they want to listen.

The Hopeful Heroines The Hopeful Heroines

“Although we only played for a handful of people, they were very attentive and super-receptive,” said Harriett Landrum of Colorado Springs gypsy duo The Hopeful Heroines. The band made the trek to Texas to play an unofficial showcase and to see longtime musician-friends from around the country. Said bandmate Xanthe Alexis, “I am so glad that we were able to witness the festival. It was a really incredible experience to be a part of the huge migration of artists all gathering in one location to celebrate music.”

SX felt like one of those dreams where everyone you know from different parts of your life is gathered together in your high school gymnasium.

Our shows were also incredibly varied and in front of widely differing audiences. We played an outdoor stage at a local coffee shop, the grand opening of a Mexican restaurant, a 50s canned-ham motor home, a black box theater, a rock venue, and a bike repair shop. And with our artist’s badges, we were able to attend a zine and tape panel, see Neil Young give a speech about his new sound system PONO, visit the Artist’s Lounge, and wander for hours around the Tech Trade Show. Add to that playing a label showcase and the primal joy of eating delicious street food and running into pals from all over the country, and SX felt like one of those dreams where everyone you know from different parts of your life is gathered together in your high school gymnasium (which is, consequently, the way I feel each time I see a show at Ivywild). It was a huge reward for all of our planning, practicing and recording.

The Echo Chamber The Echo Chamber

“As both a band playing and as fans enjoying music, the experience was amazing,” said Chris Thompson of Fort Collins prog band The Echo Chamber. “We saw countless bands, drank way too much beer, and slept rarely — but it was all worth it. We’ll most definitely go back next year.”

Like many other Colorado artists, Thompson came to Texas to play in the Colorado Music Party showcase held in collaboration with SpokesBUZZ, a nonprofit band promotion company based out of Fort Collins. “SpokesBUZZ accepts bands onto their roster through an application process, then helps those bands develop to bring national attention to the Fort Collins music scene,” Thompson said.

SpokesBUZZ has hosted the two-day Colorado Music Party since 2010, this year collaborating with Reverb, OpenAir CPR and other Colorado sponsors to bring together their hand-picked selection of artists. The collaborative effort brought over 30 Colorado bands to Austin.

SpokesBUZZ recognizes branching out local artists to a national platform is a huge part of SXSW. “The Colorado Music Party was born out of a need for visibility in an ever-crowded and overwhelming SXSW,” said Alana Rolfe of SpokesBUZZ. “By banding together, it makes Colorado’s stamp on Austin more significant.”

“We talk ad nauseam about the best way to help artists make an impact at SXSW,” said Virgil Dickerson of Illegal Pete’s and Colorado’s Greater Than Artist Collective. Dickerson helped book bands for the Colorado Music Party showcase. “The folks at SpokesBUZZ do an incredible job with it, and I think this year was the best party yet.”

Wasteland Hop Wasteland Hop

Vocalist Steph Jay said the Colorado Music Party brought her band to SXSW. “This was my first year attending the Colorado showcase, but I’ve heard from many people that it has been getting stronger every year,” Jay said. “This year, all of the Colorado bands that played were tight and energetic, giving a good name for Colorado. We had a packed house for almost every show at the showcase.”

While showcases are a great vehicle to put Colorado music on the national landscape, Dickerson says there is a larger conversation taking place about what else can be done to further expose Colorado bands. “The biggest question we ask is, are our Colorado acts getting attention from the music industry, or is it mostly Colorado folks going to the parties? I think there is a mix, but I always want to think about how we can get more industry folks seeing our Colorado acts.”

“All the industry people are there, not just musicians, and most are very willing to stop and chat with you.”

From an industry standpoint, musicians say SX does what it is supposed to. “All the industry people are there, not just musicians, and most are very willing to stop and chat with you. It’s really about making connections and meeting people, whether it is club owners, promoters, managers, producers or other bands,” said Thompson. “It’s just great to network and meet people from all over the world.”

Has Dickerson witnessed a noticeable impact on local artists after attending SX? “Yes and no,” he says. “Sadly, there are lots of acts that pay so much money to get down to Austin and to play shows that don’t pay and for lodging and other expenses and in the end, they don’t get many people seeing them. For example, one of [Greater Than Collective’s] acts, A. Tom Collins, had Kevin Lyman (of the Warped Tour) see them at the Colorado Music Party. He actually tweeted that they were one of his favorite performances of the festival. We reached out to him and he said he had a few ideas for them. With luck, this could open up some doors for the band. [With] SXSW, you just never know who is in that audience and what could come out of it. It is that investment that could make the biggest difference for your band — and that is why so many acts travel down to Austin each year.”

“I think with what happened this year with the Colorado Music Party definitely made people take notice of Colorado bands and the state in general,” said Thompson. “There was definitely a buzz around about the party. I think it is usually very humbling for bands when they get down to Austin just because of the crazy amount of musicians running around. It may not be a place to get ‘discovered,’ but you will definitely meet people that could help you on that path as a musician.”

“Whether or not we gain any solid bookings or other opportunities from our involvement with SXSW, we are sure to gain a better understanding of the music business and some contacts that might be valuable in the future,” explained Tyler Grant. “And we all had a great time!”

Fort Collins rock quartet Post Paradise has played SXSW three times in collaboration with SpokesBUZZ and the Colorado Music Party. “Two years ago, we met a whole bunch of Denver bands through our showcases in Austin, which really helped us break into the Denver market,” said band member Nick Duarte. “It could’ve taken way longer if we hadn’t had the chance to go to the festival and share a stage.”

“The Colorado music scene really set itself apart by coming together.”

Noah Cecil agreed that camaraderie among Colorado artists was strong, and said his band “certainly drove away with a sense that we are part of an impressive community of engaged and invested creatives.”

“The Colorado music scene really set itself apart by coming together,” said Bourgal. “I think it helped me realize that the music community I’ve always wanted to be a part of is here, right now, in Colorado.”

“My lasting impression of SXSW will be that feeling of wandering from venue to venue on 6th Street, standing in any given spot, and hearing five different bands playing indie rock with loud drummers all at once,” Tyler Grant concluded. “It’s like a pile of sound out in the street, and a crowded mess in all the venues. We go wherever there are people willing to listen to us and enjoy our show — so I’m sure we’ll be back.”

SXSW Victim Relief

Kirsten Cohen Photography