Faster Than Sound: Cracking the SXSW Music Algorithm

If my phone broke and clickbait subsided, where would bring me joy at SXSW?

Father John Misty made a surprise appearance on Rainey Street last weekend during SXSW Interactive. (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Streaming, which represented 75% of music industry revenue last year, stifles listener potential for finding new music. Spotify-generated playlists open up a black hole of endlessly "Chill Hits," while personalized recommendations regurgitate our listening habits. At South by Southwest, Music Festival head James Minor revealed that this year's in-house emphasis pivoted on exposing new talent – as opposed to flying in big-name headliners – with community caucus following up on Festival intent.

Wharf Cat Records co-founder Doug Warner says Minor invited the label to put on its first official showcase this year, scheduled for Friday at the Hotel Vegas Annex and headlined by No Wave NYC post-punks the Bush Tetras. The Brooklyn imprint joins an array of newly officiated outlets, including Stockholm labels Year0001 – proprietors of viral rapper Yung Lean – and PNKSLM Recordings.

"It seemed like they were pumping the brakes and wanted their identity to still be about breaking new acts," says Warner, whose label debuted unofficially at SXSW in 2018. "[Attending] isn't cheap for a small label, but the Festival definitely earns their keep by helping make things as smooth as possible."

Inspired by such reveals, I set out to beat the algorithm. If my phone died, what would spark joy and how would I find out about it? Ad-generating mic in my iPhone, please stop listening now.

Rap Local, Think Global

Big business still holds court at SXSW for legacy hip-hop acts, especially during SXSW Interactive. Last Friday hosted Biz Markie and Run DMC proselytizer Reverend Run for DJ sets at the CNN Clubhouse. The following day, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello and Roots drummer Questlove headlined an ACLU party down on Red River.

During Music week, star-studded SXSW Takeover – now in its 11th year – hosts a who's who of hip-hop talent, occupying Stubb's for Guatemalan producer Carnage (Friday) and Atlanta takeoff JID (Saturday). Meanwhile, StubHub Sound Stage hosts De La Soul (Wednesday, Banger's) and the free SX Auditorium Shores shows stack up Atlanta collective Dungeon Family, featuring recent Super Bowl halftime rapper Big Boi, plus Goodie Mob and Organized Noize's Sleepy Brown on Friday. While any such nostalgia grabs social media bandwidth, I set my off-the-grid sights on the crop of Texan hip-hop talent.

Following last year's Chronicle cover story, Quin NFN and the Teeta earned a Pitchfork feature on Austin's emerging scene. The latter joins a showcase by KUTX radio show the Breaks (Saturday, Barracuda), along with Chronicle Day Party selection Harry Edohoukwa (Friday, Hotel Vegas). Houston personas Megan Thee Stallion and Yung Baby Tate join a strong standing of women rappers such as Flohio and Leikeli47.

That's Novel

2019 Twitter brainwashed me to love terrifying meme lord/Philadelphia Flyers mascot Gritty, who helped Amplify Philly last weekend on Sixth Street with Rich Medina and DJ Jazzy Jeff. Last Sunday also delivered a sunset meditation with Michelob Ultra Pure Gold, branded as the alcoholic choice to "help people reconnect with nature and find balance in their lives."

Wednesday, March 13, debuts Delta Spirit frontman and sometimes-Austinite Matthew Logan Vasquez's first-ever Revival Festival in Dripping Springs. Nearly $600, tickets for the "basic experience pass" prompted Fyre Fest jokes, but the hosting Hill Country resort Camp Lucy looks genuinely lovely.

Thursday, outside of the SXSW paradigm, Insane Clown Posse performs acoustically at metal/rap stopover Come & Take It Live in the East Riverside Drive complex that also houses Emo's.

In the Beto O'Rourke category, Texans also love 24-year-old Amarillo City Council candidate Hayden Pedigo, who performs Friday at the Hideout.

Instead of watching Andrew Bird record within a transparent plastic box on Sixth (sponsored by phone service provider Visible), I'll opt to hear Melbourne singer Jo Schornikow in the back of a 26-foot box truck.

Local folkies Keeled Scales put on Tuesday and Thursday parties at 2511 Diaz St., including local "regret pop" risers Sun June. Label co-founder and truck provider Seth Whaland also runs MASH Movers. It's still brand promotion, but there's really nothing hype-y about a local moving company.

Lil Peep documentary Everybody's Everything

IRL Film Offerings

As my push notifications remind me, 2019 is a big year for music documentaries. Terrence Malick-produced Lil Peep remembrance Everybody's Everything premiered Sunday, joining local Saxon Pub history Nothing Stays the Same, legendary music photographer Jim Marshall capture Show Me the Picture, and The Boy Band Con, detailing Backstreet Boys and NSYNC manager Lou Pearlman.

In my chase for human interaction, I plan for Film/Music crossover performances promised by Mr. Jimmy and Bluebird. The first follows Japanese Jimmy Page, impersonator Akio Sakurai, whose band provides a historically detailed, two-hour concert replica Wednesday at Dirty Dog Bar. The second details famed Nashville venue the Bluebird Cafe, with Wednesday sets from Tennessee songwriters including Nashville actor Charles Esten at Esther's Follies.

Lock Up Your iPhone

Tech, a constant permeating presence at SXSW, presents some veritable musical mash-ups.

Algoraves, live-coded electronic music displays, proved more intriguingly algorithmic than rave-worthy early in the week, while dream boy Joseph Gordon-Levitt pushes collaborative media platform HitRecord at a Friday film premiere. Nice try, app overlords.

I'll instead be locking my phone away in a secured pouch provided by Yondr, previously tried out at major comedy events. The phone-free concept now hits a Wednesday Barracuda lineup by local bookers Howdy Gals, stacked with Brooklyn thrashers Surfbort, post-punk trio Palberta, and Chicago pop illusionist Paul Cherry.

International AI Memories

Promises of memories beyond my photostream hide in first-time gems on the SXSW schedule.

Richmond label Spacebomb Records set up its trademark house band at a Tuesday revue behind labelmates Lola Kirke and Bedouine. The evening also delivered SX's first showcase of all Thai and Mongolian talent at Valhalla.

Wednesday's Korea Spotlight grows into the Moody Theater, repping K-pop's international explosion with reality-show-winning boy band Ikon and singer Chung Ha. Across Congress Avenue, the annual German Haus takes over luxury residence Graeber House, nestled on Dirty Sixth proper, with an indoor pool. According to my handheld geotracker, the small space hosts music Thursday night.

Oh God, I just got an RSVP reminder that Blaze Foley's hologram and Spotifycore inventor Billie Eilish are duetting at the Broken Spoke. It's open to Yelp Elite reviewers and try-hard newspaper music columnists only. Unable to resist, I lean into the algorithm, and let it take me.


The Black Pumas, soulful R&B partnership of singer Eric Burton and Grammy-winning local guitarist and super producer Adrian Quesada, signed to ATO Records. New single "Fire" follows killer Austin Music Awards Song of the Year "Black Moon Rising." The local group makes the rounds at SXSW, including Thursday's Caroline x ATO Records showcase at Barracuda.

Austin's new BMI outpost kicks off during SXSW. The major performance rights organization and Governor Greg Abbott announced the expansion in November, a move supported by Austin Music Movement co-founder Gary Keller. Texas native Mitch Ballard serves as senior director for the new location, intended to work directly with emerging local talent.

SX STAR sightings: Father John Misty surprised at Netflix's speakeasy-themed Highwaymen House last Saturday, following local pop romantic Molly Burch. Capital One brought in an acoustic special by Chvrches at Antone's. Sunday evening delivered Toro y Moi at Native Hostel and Kacey Musgraves' second sold-out night at Stubb's. The Texas country diva's tour schedule stays open for the rest of SXSW.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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