Southwest and up
For fans, the annual South by Southwest music conference and festival in Austin, Texas, is a chance to catch the hottest up-and-coming bands from around the world in unlikely settings: parking lots, pizza shops, tiny dive bars. For bands, it's an opportunity to show off their music in front of the world's most powerful industry executives.
And then there are the folks who just want to nerd out. 'It's kind of like going to a Star Trek convention for a Trek-head,' says musician Helen Feng, frontwoman of Beijing electro-pop act Nova Heart. 'For indie music, it's the same concept. Basically I'm going to go there and speak Klingon for seven days.'
Feng can be considered a veteran of the young Chinese indie music scene. She's a show host for MTV China and, with her partner Philipp Grefer, co-founded music services group FakeMusicMedia. Until last year, she fronted Pet Conspiracy, another Beijing-based electro-pop outfit, and in December she took Nova Heart to Hong Kong's Clockenflap festival for one of the band's first outings.
For Feng, South by Southwest (SXSW), which features 2,000 bands playing in 90 venues, is not only a chance to play to an important audience, it's also an excuse to hang out with friends and eat BBQ. 'If you want to be super commercial, you can be super commercial there, but if you want to be a drunken rock star, you can just roll around town, watch other people's shows, get free beer everywhere, and get some T-shirts made,' she says.
This year's festival, which began on Friday and runs until next Sunday, will see at least seven mainland bands, including mainstays of the Beijing scene Carsick Cars, Re-TROS, Snapline, Rustic, and Deadly Cradle Death, plus Shanghai's Duck Fight Goose. (No bands from Hong Kong are attending.) Most will play at a China showcase, and some at a party hosted by new music video website Caoker.com.
FakeMusicMedia and Nova Heart, who are independent, have been co-operating with Beijing-based labels Maybe Mars and Modern Sky to maximise visibility at SXSW. 'Probably the best thing about being a Chinese band is that the community here is still small enough that we can all work together and collaborate to try to generate more publicity for all of us,' says Feng. 'If you were just another solo little act in the US you wouldn't get very much attention.'
The question of whether to attend SXSW is a tricky one for bands. The festival has a great record of breaking new artists, with such names as The White Stripes, MIA, Franz Ferdinand and MGMT catching the attention of key industry figures at SXSW early in their careers. For fans, the industry and, increasingly, sponsors, the event is probably the most important of its type in the world.
But for bands it is costly, and, given the competition between 2,000 acts, there's no guarantee anyone will pay them any attention. Bands have to cover their own expenses, including travel and accommodation; in return they get a festival pass that allows them to watch other groups perform. DP, the only Hong Kong act to have played at SXSW, spent HK$60,000 to get to the 2010 festival and left with some memories and bellies full of BBQ.
As it grows, the festival is also getting bloated and commercialised, with big brands such as Pepsi, Fiat, and Red Bull swooping in to capitalise on the huge crowds and hipster demographic. For some critics, it has sullied what they say was once purely a showcase for emerging acts. In response to those cries - which reached a crescendo last year when thousands of fans couldn't get into over-crowded free shows put on by The Strokes and Kanye West - organisers say the festival has always presented headline commercial acts while providing an important platform for unsigned bands. The main problem, they say, is one of changing perceptions.
Still, for the smaller, cash-poor artists, it often makes sense to skip the festival in favour of reaching out to fans directly through the internet.
FakeMusicMedia's Grefer, however, says Chinese bands need to see the standard set by international acts. That's especially true in the context of Beijing's music scene, which in the past has benefited from regional hype, only to fail to deliver on an international stage. Only a handful of Beijing bands- Carsick Cars, Hedgehog, Queen Sea Big Shark, Pet Conspiracy, Brain Failure, and New Pants- have managed to tour outside China, let alone capture a wide international audience.
'It's very important for Chinese bands to go out there and see... how other bands are, how good they are, and to compare yourself to these bands and [to ask] yourself, how good am I? Am I good enough to compete internationally?,' Grefer says.
He says mainland bands can no longer rely on the novelty of being a band from China. 'In the beginning it was a little bit like, 'Here's a band from China!',' he says, 'and for newcomers it was like, 'Oh crazy, a band from China!' I think we're a bit over that point. Everybody goes, 'We don't care if the band comes from China or not. If they're good they're good and if they're not good, bad for them, they're not going to go anywhere'.'
Feng agrees and says being from China can sometimes be a disadvantage in the music industry- assuming they're even recognised as being from China in the first place.
'Everywhere we play in the world, people are coming up backstage saying, konnichiwa,' she says. 'The international perception of China is not that great - in a way it's almost detrimental if we say we're a Chinese band, because they're assuming a lot of different things. Very few people know the history of rock'n'roll in China. A lot of people assume China doesn't have a modern music scene.'
She's approaching SXSW with realistic expectations, hoping to grab the attention of label executives but happy just to hang out with friends, play a couple of shows, and develop Nova Heart's live presence. The band is only six months old, so the SXSW experience, which they will combine with five other North American and two European tour dates, will help them determine their direction by trying different things and testing for what works best.
'Hopefully, if it goes well, we're going to come back from the US a mature band, ready to kick ass all over the world,' she says.
The Chinese touring party will also be bringing with them a 'BBQ master', a friend who dresses up in costume and cooks Chinese BBQ on a portable grill for fans - a rather audacious move in Austin, which has a proud history of its own style of BBQ. But then, what better way to bring a Chinese flavour to such an American festival? Aside from music, of course.