The exceptional is expected at South By South West (SXSW), the global technology, music, and film festival, which starts next week in Austin, Texas. Eighty thousand people attend South By, because important trends, like Twitter, surface at this event. HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports 35 Hawai‘i representatives and groups will be going this year, including only one musician.
SXSW started as a little music festival in 1987, and has grown a thousand times since then, adding film, comedy, interactive media, and gaming to become what many consider America’s premier market place for ideas. And it’s no cakewalk. Let’s just talk about the music, for example, with Phil Tripp, South By’s Senior Market Development Manager for Australia, New Zealand, and Hawai‘i.
Tripp: Most Hawaiian artists believe that they’re going to be chosen. That somehow we have this magic wand and telepathy that will tell us who’s great, who’s going to come. That’s not the case. They’ve got to apply. They’ve got to submit their music, their bio, their backgrounds, their commercial marketability and that so we can assess whether or not they will be successful or at least not fall on the face at SXSW.
What are you looking for?
Tripp: I’ll tell you what we’re not looking for. We’re not looking for slack key, and I love slack key. But that’s not going to go over there because that’s too soft. I hate to say that Hawaiian reggae or Jahwaiian would have tough time getting across there, because there’s so many reggae groups that come from Jamaica and Britain. It’s tough, but they’ve done it. The Green have played there, for example.
Tripp says hula, religious choirs, and opera would also likely not make it.
Tripp: Many bands can play good music, but it’s the exceptional ones that really know how to really perform and capture that audience in their hands that make it. Because imagine this, 2000 bands, 100 clubs, five nights. It’s very competitive. You only have one hour to set up, play, and break down before the next band plays.
Tripp: This is the problem we have with some Pacific artists, not just Hawaiian, but Pacific artists: they think they don’t have to apply, that we’ll just come and pick them, then we’ll transport them over there, which we don’t. They pay their own airfare. We’ll put them in a hotel, which we don’t because they have to cover that. And that we’ll pay them money, which they get $150 OR they get tickets to the whole SXSW which is worth about a thousand.
Let’s see, those South By tickets---started at $825 this year and will increase to $1650 for walk ups. Lodging is tight, and pricey for the ten day festival, which brings, remember, 80,000 people to Austin.
Elizabeth Kieszkowski is the Arts and Entertainment Editor at the Honolulu Star Advertiser. She’s been to SXSW several times since 2013.
Kieszkowski: It is a budgeting issue for the artist or the presenters, often, especially to get there from Hawai‘i. that’s why there haven’t been a lot of musicians from Hawai‘i going down there.
Kieszkowski: But I think Taimane, going this year, is an example of someone who is doing it right. She dos have a manager, she has honed a very entertaining, sometimes flamboyant show. That’s helpful when you’re up against maybe 2,000 other acts.
Kieszkowski: She’s also arranged some showcases that are going to get her in front of some interested parties. One of the public radio stations in Austin is featuring her and going to record her show. Those kinds of showcases get a lot of attention.
Taimane, an ‘ukulele virtuoso, has been touring the U.S. and performing her latest release, Elemental. She says, plugging Elemental’s introspective content into her very visual and high energy performance style, has brought new ways of working this year.
Taimane: It’s great because I can fully be an artist in SXSW. I can dress how I want, I can fully express my art, because that’s what they’re looking for.
Taimane: I’m an Aquarius, so I’m a little weird, a little eccentric, but I’m so happy there’s a place for me to express that.
Taimane’s rolling with a quartet: of course ‘ukulele, with guitar, percussion and violin. She says her recent influences have been a sort of Tahitian vibe, and exotica. At SXSW, Taimane will be sporting a dramatic look with head pieces she makes herself.
Taimane: I’m dressing up the way I want to, and I don’t have to censor myself in a way that’s commercial for Hawai‘i. It’s a big deal and a great honor.
Taimane is the only Hawai‘i musician heading up this year. (Note Taimane is holding a SXSW fundraiser in Honolulu March 7, 2019. See below.) UH Mānoa, the Omidyar Group, BYU and Kamehameha Schools have gone in the past---about 35 Hawai‘i groups are expected this year. Senator Mazie Hirono is a scheduled speaker at South By 2019.
Kieszkowski: Politics has crept into it. President Obama appeared at SX, and this year there’s going to be a panel of Republican politicians talking about the future of America. So it does bleed over. It’s all related. Tech, and entertainment and politics, and you start to get a feel for how that works.
Many have wondered at the politics/tech/media/entertainment mash up, and never realized the answer might be at South By.
Tripp: The fools come there to pimp their stuff and push product or services or brilliance into the faces of people who are there. Just like bands used to do—remember demos, of a few years ago?
Tripp: People who can make it work there are ones who have a 15 second elevator pitch. They can define why they’re there in 15 seconds but they basically say, Hi! I’m Phil from Australia…what are ya doin’ here?
Tripp: You want to ask them questions, make them feel they’re the focus of attention. You do that and gradually the conversation will come around from them, Well, what are you doing?
Tripp: Forging relationships. That is what is happening at SX. People are looking for and forging relationships. And you have to respect it. It’s not like going to a bar and trying to pick someone up.
That never happens at SXSW.
Taimane’s SXSW Hawai‘i Tour
3/30 Maui Taimane at the MACC, McCoy Studio Theater. The first time she's ever headlined her own show at the MACC.
4/13 Big Island at Kahilu Theatre: Elemental - A Musical & Theatrical Odyssey
Taimane presenting her grand, theatrical show for only the second time ever. Over 14 musicians & dancers and a wide range of costumes.