SXSW 2010: The music stories to watch
An industry conference with a borderline spring-break-type atmosphere, the annual South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, opens this weekend with interactive and film events. The music business and the media won't descend upon the Texas capital until Tuesday and Wednesday, and with close to 2,000 bands, expect plenty of hype-inducing blog posts and stories tossing out names of largely heretofore unknown artists -- although the word "neon" seems to be in vogue in 2010.
In terms of pure star power, SXSW leans toward cult heroes on the comeback trail (Courtney Love), and indie acts on a victory lap (Spoon, Metric). The hotly tipped new collaboration between soulful cut-and-paste artist Danger Mouse and Shins lead singer James Mercer, Broken Bells, will have a grand coming-out party in Austin. Those of us in L.A., however, can get a glimpse this Sunday with their show at the Troubadour.
SXSW has spawned a number of famous breakouts, ranging from R&B revivalist Amy Winehouse to the disco-fueled rock of LCD Soundsystem. Artists such as M.I.A. and Santigold came out of Austin riding a wave of buzz onto the charts, and two years ago the Ting Tings announced themselves to the world of torrent of electro-pop shows. In 2009, the fest felt safely confined to its more indie, underground roots, with acts such as St. Vincent, Grizzly Bear and the Silversun Pickups setting the tone for what would be breakout years.
Stay tuned to Pop & Hiss throughout next week for multiple reports covering the industry panels, afternoon parties and nightly showcases. What follows is a look at some of the story lines and bands to watch, but it should be noted that it's all subject to change. I had no idea who the Ting Tings were heading to Austin in 2008, and saw them only after receiving numerous frantic text messages ordering me to do so, resulting in this rave. An early preview of SXSW 2010 follows:
What's the holdup with Spotify? Before the music portion of SXSW even gets underway, the man behind what has long been tipped as one of the industry's biggest stories will deliver a keynote on Tuesday, the final day of the interactive portion of SXSW. Daniel Ek is the 26-year-old leader of Spotify, the music subscription service that is a hit overseas, and has long been seen as a viable challenger to iTunes -- when or if it launches in the U.S. SXSW was initially targeted as the launch for an U.S. edition of the service, but word is the all-in-one-streaming network is still receiving push-back from publishers, and a stateside Spotify is no longer starting to feel imminent. But how long can Spotify and the labels afford to wait before the momentum is lost?
A St. Vincent-like breakout for the Besnard Lakes? With a third album released just before the festival in "The Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night," the long-underappreciated Canadian band heads to Austin with a bevy of fresh material, and a growing amount of critical acclaim. This is big-picture music, alternating gorgeous, folksy harmonies with grand, rushing psychedelic guitars. As part of the Secretly Canadian/Jagjaguwar family, the label home to Yeasayer and last year's breakouts the Blk Jks, Besnard Lakes will no doubt get a big audience. Expect to hear more from them soon.
Listen to Cheap Trick. No, seriously, listen to Cheap Trick. Midwestern power-pop kings Cheap Trick have recovered quite nicely from their '80s schmaltz, and have been making some of the most vital albums of their career. Last year's album, "The Latest," was unfairly overlooked, boasting plenty of simple, easy-to-shout-out lyrics and fierce, hook-filled guitar work. The band will perform at SXSW, but also take part in a Wednesday afternoon discussion with two of our favorite journalists, the Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot and the Chicago Sun-Times' Jim DeRogatis, who together host the Sound Opinions radio show and podcast.
A next big thing from across the pond? SXSW has gradually taken on more of an international flair, as British rockers the Arctic Monkeys and globe-trotting electro-hip-hop artist M.I.A. are among the crop of overseas artists who had important appearances in Austin. Last year, Pop & Hiss took in much-hyped Brit dance artist Little Boots, and there will be plenty of contenders for next-big-thing status in 2010. Keep an eye on the clever and fashionable pop of Marina and the Diamonds, as well as the Afro-German R&B/hip-hop of Nneka.
Courtney Love! Can she make us care again? Performing again as Hole -- although, like the Smashing Pumpkins, the only familiar name is the band's leader -- Love will debut her new songs in the U.S. at SXSW on Friday. Will they be strong enough to make the world look past the daily online crazy show that is Love's Twitter feed?
And the next great business model ... Is probably not going to be revealed at SXSW, but there will be plenty of hints as to where the future is heading. Though the industry is in a year-to-year downturn, SXSW continues to expand, increasing its roster of artists each year, as well as broadening its scope to include more new-media initiatives. Those tracking business trends should tune in to Pop & Hiss on Friday, when topics up for debate include the solvency of independent labels, and whether there's a revenue in streaming video online. Perhaps we'll also get some answers as to why the much-ballyhooed major label initiative Vevo continues to A) lack content and B) operate on dial-up-type speed.
Another She & Him in the making? The vintage pop of Zooey Deschanel's collaboration with M. Ward will be returning to SXSW with a new album, but there's a lesser-known singer-actress with a rootsy musical project making an appearance at SXSW this year. Worth investigating is Ghost Songs, featuring Austin's Stephanie Hunt (from "Friday Night Lights"). The songs available on the band's MySpace page are tripped-out folk, but more recent cuts with Hunt taking the lead vocals show the band straightening out the weirdness, and settling into a retro curtsey.
Locals on the national stage: The city of Los Angeles has a number of bands primed to be discovered at SXSW in 2010. Getting a top-billed KCRW-branded gig is the soulful Fitz and the Tantrums, an act that comes complete with Motown-era hooks, but look for more of the world to wake up to adventurous indie rockers the Local Natives, and good things should be in store for fuzzed-up rockers the Best Coast. And don't forget, of course, Sub Pop's the Dum Dum Girls and their droning, '60s-tinged rebellion.
-- Todd Martens
Photos: From left, Nneka , Courtney Love and Marina and the Diamonds. Credits: From left, Yo Mama's Recording, Getty Images and Atlantic Records.