South By Southwest Music Festival: Colossal, and getting bigger

Caroline Bubnis got Cheerleader (background) a gig at Rachael Ray's Feedback event.
Caroline Bubnis got Cheerleader (background) a gig at Rachael Ray's Feedback event. (RON CORTES / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 10, 2014

The South by Southwest Music Festival, which takes place in Austin, Texas, this week, is a colossal event.

Last year, more than 2,200 bands played official SXSW showcases. Hundreds more performed nonsanctioned gigs ranging from taco-shop parking-lot parties to corporate-branded megastar events.

In 2014, it's only getting bigger, with stars you'd think wouldn't need the exposure, such as Coldplay, Kendrick Lamar, and Lady Gaga playing at events sponsored by Apple and Doritos.

What are the chances of an up-and-coming act like Cheerleader, a Philadelphia power-pop band that played only their second gig in public last week at Kung Fu Necktie, gaining their share of buzz?

How can a little-known band making its first trip to Austin hope to rise above the din and get a fair hearing at this densely packed gathering of tastemakers (last year, they descended on the Lone Star State capital from 64 countries)?

One way is to land a spot at one of SXSW's prestige parties, like the Fader Fort fete. This year, it features Blur front man Damon Albarn, New Orleans bounce artist Big Freedia, and U.K. vocalist Sam Smith. The Spin magazine party has rapper Schoolboy Q, Baltimore synth-pop act Future Islands, and hyped English psych-rock act Temples.

That's where Philadelphian Caroline Bubnis, who works for the publicity and marketing company the Door, comes in. She's the gatekeeper who helps book one of the biggest brand-name SXSW parties: Rachael Ray's Feedback event, hosted by the TV cooking-talk show icon, who's also an enthusiastic music booster.

Since 2008, the Feedback parties at SXSW have helped bring acts like Gary Clark Jr., the 1975, and Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes to the attention of SXSW crowds. Ray says via e-mail that she and husband John Cusimano, who plays in the rock band the Cringe, "are devoted fans of both indie film and music." She started Feedback, she says, "to marry two things that I love: food and music."

This year's free Feedback at Stubb's BBQ (capacity: 2,000) features CeeLo Green, Blondie, and Foxboro Hot Tubs (the not-so-secret alias of Green Day), plus mid-level acts like Cody Chesnutt and Har Mar Superstar. More than 20,000 people have RSVP'd.

The Stubb's show is also accompanied by a three-night SXSW house party featuring 20 acts. Four bands that have snagged this coveted gig are from the Philadelphia area, including bluesy hip-hop troubadour G. Love, pop-rock quartet Cheers Elephant, and rising Lancaster County teenage rockers the Districts.

Cheerleader is a pop-savvy quintet fronted by Connecticut transplants Chris Duran, 27, and Joe Haller, 26, who moved to Philadelphia in 2012.

They relocated, Duran says, "because we wanted some kind of thriving music community where we could play a lot of shows and people care about going to shows, and we could tap into that community." Haller adds: "It honestly seemed like the coolest, most up-and-coming East Coast city. And we wanted to stay on the East Coast for touring."

The band has released only a demo with three songs, one of which, the winsome, beguiling "Daze," has garnered the attention of such tastemakers as My Old Kentucky Blog and Brit music mag New Musical Express.

Bubnis hadn't heard that buzz when she checked out the music sent by Jonathan Garrett, Cheerleader's manager, in hopes of landing a gig for the baby band.

"We easily get over 1,000 bands coming our way," says Bubnis. "Cheerleader was just a band that reached out to the Rachael organization. I knew they were from Philadelphia, and they just caught my attention. I just took a listen to them and I was like, 'Wow, I like this band.' "

Bubnis, 34, grew up in Reading and graduated from St. Joseph's University. She moved to Philadelphia in 2012 from New York after the Door took on Stephen Starr's Starr Restaurant Group as a client.

The Feedback parties exemplify the way synergistic brand-building works at SXSW, where marketers, just like the bands, aim to ignite word of mouth for their products.

People know Ray "is a real music fan and wants to give these bands she loves a platform," says Bubnis. She adds that CeeLo and Foxboro Hot Tubs were brought in through personal connections to Ray, who approves all bookings.

But the crowds also line up for free beer and food, which will include product rollouts from Blue Moon beer and Ball Park Franks.

Cheerleader manager Garrett, 33, is a music writer so enthusiastic about the songs the band sent him a year and a half ago that he got into the management business.

Strategizing about how to make the most impact in Austin, he talked to the band about Ray's parties. "It's got a tremendous reputation for breaking bands," he says. "You can't underestimate that she is a huge celebrity. And I love the fact that she's using her celebrity to highlight lesser-known bands early in their careers."

After Garrett sent Cheerleader's music in, he was "kind of flabbergasted" to hear back almost immediately from Bubnis. "I guess the music really spoke to her."

There's plenty of other Philadelphia activity in Austin. Visit Philadelphia will present an event at Cheer Up Charlie's Bar featuring indie quartet Bleeding Rainbow and rapper Chill Moody, as well as beer from the Victory Brewing Co.

Other Philadelphia-connected acts heading to Austin include Creepoid, Low Cut Connie, Nothing, and deejay Dave P. WXPN-FM will have a high profile. David Dye's World Cafe will broadcast its Sense of Place series from Austin, and the station is cosponsoring a bill on the Radio Day stage on Friday featuring Lucius, the Hold Steady, and Albarn.

The benefits of SXSW for Cheerleader, whose other members are Paul Impellizeri, Carl Bahner, and Josh Pannepacker, are clear to Garrett.

"It's a mecca for music fans from all over the globe," he says. "The band loves the music venues in Philadelphia, but they could play there from now to the end of eternity and it would be impossible to get the range of people you can get talking about them in Austin in the course of one week. It's just a huge opportunity to get your music in front of real dyed-in-the-wool music fans."

"We're a young band and a lot of people haven't heard about us yet, and SXSW seems like an awesome place to spread the word," says Haller. "We're just going to do our best to bring the best performance we can to the table."


Follow Dan DeLuca as he posts updates from South by Southwest at his blog, www.inquirer.com/inthemix

ddeluca@phillynews.com

215-854-5628

@delucadan

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