This year, the list of veteran bands aiming to start a social-media frenzy at SXSW includes Green Day, Vampire Weekend, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Dave Grohl, and Snoop Lion (formerly Snoop Dogg). Justin Timberlake also is expected, though unconfirmed.
Besides the marquee acts, musicians with hopes of making bigger names for themselves will be arriving from across the globe. Those from Philadelphia include the much buzzed-about songwriter Katie Crutchfield (who records as Waxahatchee), West Philadelphia orchestral-pop band Grandchildren, indie rockers Bleeding Rainbow, pop-rock quintet Free Energy, electronic dance-music DJ Starkey, streetwise rapper Freeway, and psychedelic pop band Cheers Elephant.
All of them will be competing for the eyes and ears of tastemakers from record labels and sneaker companies, bloggers and booking agents, streaming music services, and media outlets. And they'll be doing so in a hyper-commercialized environment in which a DIY approach to music-making (and marketing) bumps up against corporate branding in its brashest forms.
And that's how the rising rappers Seth Sentry, Snow tha Product, and Devin Miles come to be competing to open for LL Cool J and Public Enemy on the Doritos #BoldStage - while standing in front of a 62-foot-tall backdrop made to look like a giant snack-chip vending machine.
But despite branding saturation and bellyaching from longtime SXSW-goers who long for the less-crowded days of yore, the festival remains a must-stop destination for up-and-coming acts, and a chance to binge on new bands as if they were, well, Doritos.
"South by Southwest is ground zero for music discovery," says Bruce Warren, program director for the nationally influential public radio station WXPN (88.5 FM). "The over-branding and the way it's become a corporate monolith doesn't bother me."
He's headed to SXSW to do business: XPN will pool resources with five other adult-alternative public-radio stations to broadcast a show from the Austin Convention Center on Friday, featuring Vampire Weekend, Iron & Wine, Charles Bradley, Emmylou Harris, and Rodney Crowell, among others. "We want to create a higher profile for us, and a higher profile for public radio. We want to send a message to the music industry that we are here, and music discovery is what we're about."
Warren has a short list of bands he's aiming to catch up with in Austin, including the Kentucky folk-rock quartet Houndmouth, Los Angeles pop trio Sir Sly, and Canadian dream-pop band Young Galaxy.
SXSW, though, is more about serendipity than planning. "Every year," Warren says, "you run into somebody on the street who tells you about some amazing band you've never heard of. Last year, I saw Haim and Wild Belle that way."
By playing SXSW, a band gives itself a chance to be discovered. It's better, though, to go with incremental goals, says Aleks Martray, the front man of Grandchildren, which will play an official showcase Friday as well as a day party.
"South by Southwest is an industry festival," says Martray, over lunch at a West Philly cafe last week. "Exposing ourselves to industry people who are interested, having a good time, connecting with other bands: That's what it's really about."
Martray, 31, is a self-described Army brat who grew up in Germany and then the Washington area. He studied art in Baltimore, moved to Philadelphia in 2005, and founded Grandchildren when living in the underground, alt-music venue known as Danger Danger House, when it was on 48th Street and Warrington Avenue. (The venue, now Danger Danger Gallery and owned by two members of Grandchildren, has since gone legit and moved to 5013 Baltimore Ave., where it serves as headquarters for the six-piece band.)
By the time Grandchildren's debut album, Everlasting, came out in 2010, its members were already SXSW veterans. With a new album, Golden Age, due on the indie Ernest Jenning label in May, the band will head to Austin for the fourth or fifth time - Martray isn't sure which. For Grandchildren, the SXSW dates come at the end of a mini-tour that will precede a full-scale jaunt timed to the album release. Ideally, they'll land a booking agent while in Texas.
"Finding a new agent is part of why we want to go," says Martray, who teaches art at Motivation High School in West Philadelphia. "The agents from Chicago, New York, L.A. will all be there. That's definitely a goal for us, to make that connection."
More important, Martray says, Grandchildren needs to head out on the road to tighten up its live act. An energetic, well-received set last weekend at Underground Arts in Philadelphia was the first time it played the new songs live.
"I'm music-deprived right now," says the songwriter and guitarist, who has been tied up making videos, working on album artwork, and the like. He bemoans the fact that to be a successful band "you have to be as good at social media as you are at music-making, which I am not.
"I'm really excited to make music and get out and play," he says. "This tour is really a test run for our new set. . . . We've got a press campaign going on, so [in Austin] we'll do some interviews, and a few acoustic-video performances for blogs. We're just trying to create some hype and buzz and interest in the album."
Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.