Kiwi acts get a big reception at SXSW. If only they had a bigger venue
At 5.30pm on a warm Austin night, music fans swarm the streets ready to devour some of the 1,900 bands on offer at South By Southwest, the world’s largest music industry conference. Despite the chaos, an ordered line forms outside a large makeshift marquee opposite the convention centre. The line is gathering attention. In a town where every bar and piece of pavement is a stage, there are few things people wait in line for.
5.36pm. Kiwi bands Cut Off Your Hands and Midnight Youth are soaking in a bit of pre-gig sun, while inside Gary Fortune and Alan Holt of the New Zealand Commission calmly plant New Zealand Music Commission signage around the venue. I ask Fortune how everything is going and he tells me they’ve had 3,000 RSVPs and the space holds 300. I look back at the line, which has grown considerably; for some, it's going to be a long wait.
By six o’clock the venue is at capacity, ready for Cut Off Your Hands to go onstage. There’s an excited buzz in the air. Two guys from a large record management company next to me explain that they are huge fans of the band, particularly the song ‘Expectations’. They’ve also begun playing the game Spot The Kiwi as the crowd mostly consists of international festival bookers, labels, publishers and promotions companies.
While the bands are the product, New Zealand Music is the brand. Over the last seven years the New Zealand Music Commission has developed an enviable database of industry players who consider the event a ‘must attend’. Two thousand people currently keep up-to-date with the commission’s Twitter updates. Showcasing bands are searched daily and reviews and images are posted back to followers.
This year, the commission has also adopted a new innovation called Bandtag. These credit card-sized promotional cards allow people to download samplers of showcased artists. The website also hosts comprehensive bios and images, details often looked by companies and bands unaware of the practicalities of music promotion.
I ask Fortune why the event is so important. “South By Southwest is the largest music conference in the world and virtually every country has a presence,” he says “If we are to keep music from New Zealand in front of the industry we need to be there to support our artists.” The commission hosts a trade stand at the conference centre during the day, as well as building valuable networks and contacts for the 12 New Zealand bands that have made the journey over.
The first three bands perform without a hitch. Cut Off Your Hands give the kind of high energy performance they’ve built their reputation on, and Midnight Youth’s accessible rock is a pleaser for much of the crowd, who were first time listeners. Christchurch dance/punk band Bang Bang Eche may have been the youngest at the showcase, but were my personal favourite with a set which was entertaining to watch, completely unpredictable and unique to anything else I have seen at the festival.
As headliner Ladyhawke takes to the stage, I look around to see the venue surrounded by a crowd, three deep, peeping through the fence to catch a glimpse of the action. The atmosphere is something no MySpace site could create and proof alone of the strong reputation New Zealand music has in the international community. Ladyhawke does not disappoint, with two singles on high rotation in the UK and the US, watching the crowd sing along to her hits is the perfect end to the evening.
While rock ‘n’ roll folklore suggests the bands would disperse into the night with copious alcohol in hand and trouble on the brain, most are off to get a good night’s sleep, or have left to play another showcase. Fortune and Holt return to their hotel to select shots with the photographer. What follows in the coming days are meetings with perspective bookers and record companies, as the success of each individual band serves to grow stronger New Zealand music exports and our reputation within the international music community. Here’s hoping for a bigger venue and an even larger RSVP list next year.