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Is SXSW Worth it for the World Music Professional Crowd?

by Dmitri Vietze, founder, rock paper scissors

Dmitri_at_sxsw_After attending SXSW five times, and having mixed feelings each year, I felt that SXSW 2013 reached a new level of usefulness. However, this may not be true for everyone in the world music field.

My PR company rock paper scissors and my career overall is in the process of diversifying. The company tagline has been "music of global significance" and we have become known by many as the premier publicity firm for "world music" in its broadest definition. We are in the process of re-branding and our new tagline is "deeply eclectic."

Why go eclectic?

The concept of world music for marketing has proven to be useful sometimes but not always. In addition, personally and as a team, we are still huge enthusiasts for global music, roots music, cross-cultural musical experiences, and hybrid music forms that combine seemingly disparate elements from all of the above. We love telling the stories of the musicians, festivals, and record labels involved in these forms. We are excited by the rapid diversification of musical taste throughout the world. Borders are continuing to break down both in terms of music industry infrastructure and in terms of genres. The crossing of borders is not just happening in "world music" but in all genres. Classically-trained musicians are expressing themselves through indie-rock inflected song forms and combining non-classical instruments with cellos and bassoons. Pop songs in other languages are finding audiences like never before. Campfire stomp-and-clap folk tunes are merging with melodic radio anthems. The Internet-enabled mosh pit of music discovery is allowing more and more niches to rise. The Great Wall of Music Promotion is deteriorating little by little as more pockets of fans and musicians develop their own tribes and then grow them outside of the old way. These are exciting times and this is a chance for us as a company to re-calibrate our musical taste in an eclectic soundscape.

A-tribe-called-red-globalfestWe will not stop working with global musicians and organizations. In fact, I am sure that will continue to be the bulk of what we do for a long time. But by diversifying beyond that we get to take our expertise in storytelling and apply it to the many music forms and bands that are thriving, regardless of whether they fit into the genre formerly known as "world music." In addition, you may have noticed but what little "world music press" there ever was is shrinking, while our press list is constantly growing. Clients sometimes come to us saying they want to hire us because of our "world music press" list. The truth is, there are only a small number of world music press outlets; and that is really not a new thing. Most of who we always pitched have been mainstream news press or music press, not world music press. We just happen to know which people at those outlets have ears more open to global music forms. And we have developed a way to make a lot of "foreign" sounding stuff compelling in our pitches. But the intent behind this and our approach works just as well with other eclectic forms of music. Many of the journalists we pitch every day cover a lot of types of music, "world music" being just one of many ways they slices their coverage areas.

Infiltration Means Fewer Silos

I also predict that as our roster diversifies, it will actually HELP our "world music" clients as we continue to convert non-"world music" fans in the media into more regular reviewers of global music. And as more artists continue to "color outside the lines" of rigid genres, our lifelong expertise in tweaking media target lists and pitches gives us a leg up for them. After all, world music is not a genre. It's hundreds of genres, so we have always been forced to explain the quirky, the lesser-known... and to seek out additional outlets beyond our core media friends as we customize a PR target list for each new client. That's what we do.

WorldhoodSo I used SXSW 2013 to immerse myself in a wider swath of genres than I have in the past. One of our interns took the NPR 100 SXSW picks and turned it into a Spotify playlist for me. I listened to as much of it as I could and when I heard something I liked, I put it on my calendar. In addition, I connected with various friends who book shows at Joe's Pub (NYC), Lincoln Center (NYC), Stern Grove (San Francisco), and Kennedy Center (Washington, DC), who had done a ton of their own research, and tagged along with them. It was a little bit weird because in the past I had tried to help the world music (OK, I am going to stop with the quotation marks for now) field in identifying where the world music hotspots were at SXSW, either through listing showcases here on the DubMC blog or Facebook, organizing meals together to compare notes, or even once with a group texting phone app. And this time it was a whole different world.

Music I Discovered at SXSW

Charan_po_rantanI do think that SXSW 2012 had more of a critical mass of world music showcases as well as more visibility of Latin music showcases. Though I am not totally sure because of my change in SXSW mission. globalFEST, WOMEX, ONErpm, and National Geographic all staged showcases again this year. I also noticed Terakaft, Ozomatli, and other international acts played on the Day Stages in the convention center, which was something new as far as I could tell. The sound in the convention center stages was very good (especially compared to the overkill high-volume-no-mix shitty sound of many of the clubs during SXSW). globalFEST introduced one of the best global artists of my SXSW: La Chiva Gantiva, a multilingual Brussels-based group fueled by Colombian percussion rounded out with a fearless rock meets funk aesthetic. Red Baraat and A Tribe Called Red were probably the hardest working global bands at SXSW with multiple showcases each. If you have not seen pow wow-meets-electronica DJ crew A Tribe Called Red yet, get on that program ASAP as they are one of the hottest newer bands of the scene right now. Meanwhile, Red Baraat has only gotten more and more on fire since the first time I saw them at Lotus Festival here in Bloomington. And they were able to turn out crowd after crowd at their SXSW showcases. A couple of performers I only caught a little bit, but were new discoveries and I would like to see more of: Chic Gamine (Winnipeg's modern answer to Zap Mama) and Charan Po Rantan (a stunningly dressed Japanese duo plus drummer doing Chanson, Gypsy music, and popular Japanese music from the '50s-'60s). And get World Hood on your radar as they are at the center of a globally conscious roots-meets-beats scene out of Sacramento that is heating up, up, up.

Some of the non worldy bands that I fell in love with are: Mother Falcon; Boy; He's My Brother, She's My Sister; The Staves, and Alt-J. Plus I got to see Chuck D (on the big Dorito's stage screen), Vampire Weekend (in a conference ballroom, weird), The Specials (give it up, guys) and George Clinton (buttoned up in a dark suit calling from stage that he smelled some weed and he wanted some).

For Whom Does SXSW Work Best?

Through all of this, I actually found that I got a lot of business done as well. Thanks to membership in the indie label trade group A2IM and what turned out to be an effective meeting pitch that could not be resisted, I had well over 40 sit-down business meetings. The big question is: is it worth it if you are clearly in the center of the world music scene, is SXSW worth it? I would say: if you want to rub off into non-world music places, to get up to speed on the latest vibe and news as it relates to the new digital marketplace, if you want to have fun and not feel that every band you see has to be a world music band, if you are willing to put up with noise, crowds, lines, inebriation, a lack of taxis (we rented bikes!), and it's as much fun as it is work: yes! For those going for the performing arts center and world music festival vibe, WOMEX and APAP will give you more value for your money. But if you have indie rock and world music in your mix, SXSW is a requirement. Interestingly, I just read 5 Reasons You Should Have Gone to Canadian Music Week Instead of SXSW and it made me wonder if it was time for the world music posse to aim its infiltration sights there instead, since we might be able to get more notice in the mix there.

By the way, I went to SXSW Interactive in 2012 and found it to be pretty useless from a music perspective. There were insurmountable lines to get into panels (!), lots of panels with corporate talking heads towing the line, a snotty geeks-rule-the-world vibe (I guess they do not remember when athletes were kicking their asses in elementary school), and half the new people I met said, "Oh I am just here because I could get my boring corporate employee to pay for it and as a break from boring job." I am glad I skipped it in 2013.

Overall, I would say that SXSW Music's outrageousness has reached a whole new level. And it's actually worth it to be there just to see almost everyone in the music field having fun together, to get a read on where the non-pop music scene is, and to do some networking with people you already know and maybe meet a few new people. Don't expect to further your career there in any kind of quantifiable way though.

rock paper scissors is a publicity firm known for getting deeply eclectic music into the press, including a strong track record with several National Public Radio programs, PRI's The World, the New York Times, Wall St. Journal, and hundreds of other media outlets. We are now accepting client applications for June and July albums, tours, and festivals. Please contact us here to discuss a publicity campaign proposal for you.