AUSTIN — In his keynote speech, informally anointed King of Music, Sir Bruce Springsteen, gave some uncle-ly advice to all the young'uns with their deathmetals and their trollgazes who made up the complicated and chaotic mass that was this year's SXSW talent pool/conference of musical commodity farmers: he pointed out that a ticket to a show is "a handshake between the artist and the fan." It's great advice — if you want to be Bruce Springsteen. For everyone else trying to get their art across in a field more accurately described as "flooded" than "crowded," fuck advice, and fuck handshakes — if this festival is any indication, you need to start branding, and make yourself as ubiquitous as possible.
Now don't misunderstand me, there's nothing wrong with musical branding. After all, the goal is to make your music, your sound, become the defining audio clip of the times. For example, at this year's festival, that defining audio clip was the senses-defying freefall into a sonic chasm that is the trademark Skrillex bass drop. The asymmetrically haired one popped up everywhere at this year's SXSW to scatter mushroom-cloud vibes Johnny Appleseed-style. An audience would be standing around moping in their own humid misery, Skrillex would bound onto the stage, and poof! — everyone would magically transform into glowstick-wielding dance maniacs euphorically vibing to each bass bomb as though they had seen the Magic Eye 3D illusion for the first time.
In the post-Gaga pop world of 2012, it was female solo artists who had the edge not only in terms of branding, but in terms of unique and focused musical vision. Line-up after line-up at this year's festival read like a who's who of rising female solo stars, from the Samantha-Fox-goes-goth of Charli XCX to the downtown electro snap of MNDR to the brassy pop bounce of Dev. At the tip of everyone's tongues was Grimes, the fantastic project of Montrealer Claire Boucher, and her racks of samplers. Her jittery, wired energy coupled with an arsenal of solid pop jams walks the fine line between weird and accessible that could potentially make her a household name.
Or not. I mean, really, there are no superstars anymore, and being at this festival kind of proves it, since the biggest names in rock, pop, and rap shill and shuck and jive for attention (Exhibit A: the shameless Lil Wayne/Mountain Dew concert-as-two-hour-product-placement), and everyone else is desperately handing out flyers, tote bags, anything to get you to notice their band. If you're feeling cynical, then a visit to SXSW is a four-day eyeroll fest, chock full of moments to meme over and see as signifiers of the death of everything from rock and roll to the concept of integrity, to Western civilization itself.
Hordes of music biz types swarmed into Austin, as they do every year, to spend their days in the Convention Center fretting through panel after panel about the alleged death of the global musical moneymaking machine. But those pessimists and the irony-laden cynics both miss out on the fact that, in the absence of new stars, it's the cavalcade of new sounds that is the true value of this gathering. Whether you are getting your mind fried by the electro danse macabre of Mexico City's Ritualz, the new-wave bounce of YACHT, the black-metal-meets-Interpol-chug of Nachtmystium, or the help-I'm-caught-in-a-warzone-of-awesome-beats shrapnelfest of AraabMUZIK, SXSW lets the common plebe sample thousands of new and exciting musical hors d'oeuvres, all smushed together in a cauldron of undulating open-minded revelry.