SXSW 2014: The winners and losers at the Texas music festival

Willie Nelson performs during the SXSW Music Festival on March 15, 2014, in Austin, Texas.

Willie Nelson performs during the SXSW Music Festival on March 15, 2014, in Austin, Texas.

(Jack Plunkett / Invision )

AUSTIN, Texas — Here’s to bad vibes, colored vomit and off-years. Go ahead and toast those who prevailed at South by Southwest by getting signed, licensed or folded into a future marketing plan, but the losers in this vicious cycle earned more respect.

This was a year in which Apple infiltrated the event to put on its own “festival” within the festival, and the year that party sponsors required that before entering, attendees sign away their rights for possible commercial use. The keynote speaker, Lady Gaga, trivialized bulimia with a shocking stunt, and the salted snack brand that funded her bull-in-a-china-shop arrival at South by Southwest further insulted the festival’s spirit of creation with ham-fisted ploys to link music and munchies.

On Friday, Gaga actually said with a straight face, “The truth is, without sponsorships, without these companies coming together to help us, we won’t have any more artists in Austin. We won’t have any festivals, because record labels don’t have any ... money.”

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Gag me with a Samsung. Notwithstanding the volume of artists who create and live in Austin without the aid of Doritos money — many of them were earning their rent money by working the pedicabs of the privileged — the notion that such an influx of corporate dollars enables creativity or allows this festival to occur is an affront to the volume of DIY bands, promoters, bloggers and random music lovers who helped build South by Southwest. Dozens of record labels, indie booking agents and indie blogs — Merge,, 100% Silk, New West, Panache, Carpark, A Club Called Rhonda and others — offered fantastic showcases this year.


If corporate money disappeared altogether, the effect would be less marquee talent — Lady Gaga, Kanye West, Jay Z and Coldplay among them — parachuting into Austin. At this point, that would be a wonderful turn. It would help calm an extravaganza that at times Saturday night was as much a 6th Street puke fest as it was a musical gathering. (Bars started hawking $3 Long Island iced teas early Saturday afternoon.)

This year will be partly defined by the two people killed and 23 injured when a suspected drunk driver plowed into revelers; the year rapper Tyler, the Creator, whose fans were among those injured by the car, was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of inciting a riot after police say he urged his fans to push down a barricade and storm a day party.

Gaga’s keynote was a different brand of misguided incitement. It felt like a lecture on the history of performance art by Ronald McDonald, delivered with condescension, suggesting that she has no idea how lucky she is or how random fame can be. Her lyric “I live for the applause” indicates an artist able to explain even the most unseemly attention-grabs with the pompous “I am an artist and demand your ears” rationalization.

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In fact, in a concert that featured staged vomit and mechanical pigs, you know the one thing that few talked about? Gaga’s music.

That’s OK, no big loss. I was somewhere else entirely. And maybe that was for the best. The whole “better music through marketing” vibe led me to more darkened clubs and more dissonant vibes.

Some of the best music I saw was often aggressive, grim, frustrated but ultimately joyful, offered by artists including desperate garage-punk band Pampers, blue-eyed electronic soulster Chet Faker, Toronto hard-core punk band Greys, hard funk rockers Cody Chesnutt (joined by guitarist Gary Clark Jr.), Canadian dub chanteuse Jessy Lanza, vocalist SZA and Los Angeles beat producer Nadastrom.

The Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” was massacred in grand fashion by the Baseball Project, a loose consortium of musician friends who normally make songs centered on baseball themes. Performing as part of a four-hour tribute to Lou Reed, the band featured R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills and its longtime touring guitarist Scott McCaughey, singer-guitarist Steve Wynn and Boston Red Sox organist Josh Kantor.

They were teamed with a house band starring two members of the Patti Smith Group and the former guitarist for Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Four guitarists using four kinds of distortion repeated the “Sister Ray” riff while Kantor went crazy on the song’s fuzzy organ mantra. It was an amazing version of the song and as close as I’ll ever come to experiencing the thrill of hearing the Velvet Underground perform it live.

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Young Detroit post-punk band Protomartyr didn’t land on any hot-ticket lists. In an industry that thrives on image, buzz and pretty singers, the four-piece stared directly at ugly topics that most fame-seeking acts avoid.

“That’s how we lived after he died,” offered Joe Casey, the coolest uncool singer I saw this year. Wearing an average-dad outfit of someone twice his age and singing with his hand in his pocket, like he was queued for beer at a hockey game, he had the stage presence of a grump. It was like Harvey Pekar or Al Bundy leading a group schooled on a mix of Joy Division, Pere Ubu and Interpol.

“Don’t feel no love for anyone,” he sang on “Maidenhead,” a depressing line exacerbated by Casey wearing a wedding band and at times seeming kind of unlovable. Protomartyr’s new record, “Under Color of Official Right” (out April 7), features titles including “I Stare at Floors,” “Bad Advice” and “What the Wall Said.” This band will not be playing the Doritos stage. “Scum, Rise!” isn’t going to be licensed for a Beats Music commercial any time soon.

And that was beautiful. It felt like a relief to hear someone singing not about hope but declaring with pure misanthropy, “If it’s violent — good.”

Contrast that with the festival’s most flatulent display of ridiculousness, delivered by (who else?) Lady Gaga during her keynote when addressing the highlight of her post-performance:

“The best thing that happened last night was I came off the stage. I was covered in paint vomit — we did live art at the show — and the CEO of Frito-Lay came in with all her kids and was like, ‘That was so brilliant,’ and she was crying.”

If that’s what winning is in Austin anymore, I’ll side with the losers.