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SXSW Music 2016: The artists, speakers and breakout performances

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There's a shift that happens midway through SXSW madness here in Austin — the streets get a little drunker, the jeans get a little skinnier, and the median age goes down by about a decade. Music, the original beating heart of SXSW, takes over, and the result is the largest festival of its kind in the world. With an endless parade of sponsored showcases and off-site day parties, what was originally a major hub of music discovery has become the bewildering IRL version of a streaming service: every artist ever, available more or less on demand. The Verge is on the ground trying seeing as much of it as we can — and yes, mom, staying very hydrated.

  • Jamieson Cox

    Mar 23, 2016

    Jamieson Cox

    Talking to singer-songwriter Julien Baker about art, pain, and Dashboard Confessional

    Amelia Krales

    How do you quiet a crowd packing one of the many venues on Austin’s raucous 6th Street? You give Julien Baker a guitar and a loop pedal, and you let her go to work. While I watched Baker’s inspired set last Thursday night in a standing-room-only bar, I found myself picking out all of the sounds I shouldn’t have been able to hear: the ice and liquor the bartenders were shaking a few dozen feet away, the whirr of the building’s ventilation, the odd ping of somebody’s smartphone. The room was otherwise silent, giving up every inch of space to Baker’s clean guitar melodies and her incandescent voice. She’d played at a church the night before, her guests sitting in pews beneath a yawning ceiling. Her Thursday set was proof she can turn any nondescript establishment into a place for reverence, for quiet focus and reflection.

    I was even more impressed when she managed to achieve the same quietude under much more challenging conditions at an outdoor show on Saturday afternoon. A metal band roared just up the hill, threatening to drown her out; hornets buzzed around her microphone and hands. Food was being served, drinks were being poured — distractions were everywhere, but people still listened. I watched a husky young man in a beanie ask the three men behind him to be quiet. He did it in a way that suggested a kind of moral obligation, ensuring some unspoken bond remained intact. This is Baker’s power: she makes you want to fight for silence.

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  • Jamieson Cox

    Mar 22, 2016

    Jamieson Cox

    Faces of 6th Street: a series of SXSW portraits

    Amelia Krales

    If SXSW has a heart, it’s somewhere on 6th Street. The historic Austin avenue becomes a 24/7 pedestrian playground during the festival’s second half, one stuffed to bursting with street musicians, enterprising vendors, and curious civilians. There’s a band inside every bar lining either side of the street, and their performances bleed together as you shuffle down the street like you’re breathing musical smog. It’s a chaotic, weird scene, one that feels distinct from the quieter parts of the city studded with showcases or the sterile bubble around the convention center to the south.

    We spent a few hours among the 6th Street crowds on Saturday afternoon, shooting portraits and asking people about their SXSW experience. Some people were just visiting for the day before trucking back to nearby homes and colleges, getting a taste of the energy on the street. Just as many people had spent the week working, taking the opportunity to volunteer or promote businesses on behalf of their friends and partners. We came away with a list of new artists to check out, a month’s worth of Austin restaurant recommendations, and a consensus that it’s foolhardy to approach SXSW without a decent smartphone battery. And after spending a week sprinting from panel to panel and wrangling busy musicians, talking to music fans who were happy enjoying a 6th Street sunset made for a nice change of pace.

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  • Lizzie Plaugic

    Mar 22, 2016

    Lizzie Plaugic

    Wall-to-wall carpeting and the glory of God: the weird side of hip-hop at SXSW

    Amelia Krales

    On Thursday night at SXSW, Taiwanese rapper Dwagie performed "Refuse to Listen" to a few dozen people in a mostly empty room. It’s probably Dwagie’s most well-known song, despite the fact that only a handful of people seemed to recognize it, because it features a verse from Nas. When Dwagie hit the point in the song where Nas appears, he paused and let a backing track take over — the irony being that the New York rapper was in Austin that night, too. Later that night, Nas himself performed just a few blocks away, to a crowd that was there to see him, unlike Dwagie’s audience, many of whom seemed to stumble in from 6th Street just for the air conditioning.

    Hip-hop at SXSW is a crowded, scattershot field. While more straightforward festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo usually opt for big names like J Cole, Macklemore, and ASAP Rocky to fill out their rap offerings, SXSW has the time and real estate to go deeper and weirder. This week, festival-goers could have posted up at Fader Fort to see a who’s who of hype rap, taken a (slightly dated) Top 40 route with sets by Flo Rida, French Montana, and Twista, or sought-out cool kid up-and-comers like Lil Yachty and Lil Durk. Or you could skip all those lines, and go to a bunch no-name events where even the headliners are unrecognizable. I aimed for the third option, because what is life if not a series of slightly uncomfortable new experiences?

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  • Emily Yoshida

    Mar 22, 2016

    Emily Yoshida

    I want it all: a conversation with Dawn Richard

    Amelia Krales

    If SXSW has become the age of Too Much Content manifested as a physical environment, you certainly don't go in looking for a single narrative and takeaways. This year's film program failed to produce one massive takeaway success story; one could hardly expect the music half of the festival —€” which features over 2,200 artists —€” to do what it couldn't. And yet, all last week, in food truck lines, the corral outside Fader, on smoky patios, I kept overhearing people talking about Dawn Richard.Part of this may have been just a question of exposure: Richard, who now goes by D∆WN, was playing a formidable amount of sets last week, from tiny bars to big outdoor venues. But there's also a huge amount of commitment on display at a D∆WN performance —€” at each of those venues she brought in her two muscle-bound backup dancers and a huge, strobing triangle-shaped stage light, and put on a goddamn show. Even if you hadn't already been tipped off to her critically-acclaimed albums GoldenHeart (2013) and last year's Blackheart, she left an impression strong enough to warrant a morning-after Spotify search — a rarity in an overstuffed environment like this.

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  • Lizzie Plaugic

    Mar 19, 2016

    Lizzie Plaugic

    Juiceboxxx, a rapper, made me care about guitar music again

    Amelia Krales

    Everyone eventually hits a point at which they stop caring about something they once loved. I don’t mean in a romantic sense, I mean in a practical sense: the well-worn sweater that doesn’t fit right anymore, the once-comforting movie you’ve gotten sick of watching. For me, that thing was rock music, or guitar music, or bands, in general. It sounds insane to say I’ve lost interest in bands, but in the past five years or so, the feeling of joy and adrenaline that used to bubble up during live shows has mostly faded to boredom. But last night, after watching Milwaukee musician Juiceboxxx scream and writhe through 13 minutes of grimy punk-rap (stick with me here), I got that feeling back.

    Juiceboxxx began his only set at SXSW by asking the audience if they wanted an energy drink. The 16 oz. can he clutched in his left hand was his own branded beverage, Thunder Zone Energy. Hawking an energy drink before your show sums up SXSW, a place where nothing escapes the tyranny of the logo. But once Juiceboxxx’s set began in earnest, the entire room felt like it had been transported out of the festival entirely. Juiceboxxx was joined by one guitarist and one drummer, there were maybe 50 people in the room, and the bar’s wood-paneled walls made it feel like a cramped, suburban VFW.

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  • Jamieson Cox

    Mar 19, 2016

    Jamieson Cox

    I danced myself clean at Ninja Tune's SXSW showcase

    Amelia Krales

    After spending the bulk of my week at SXSW Music watching panels, conducting interviews, and speed-walking from event to event, I crawled into Friday night hoping to embed myself in a series of performances without a looming distraction. I’ve been surrounded by music here in Austin, but it’s remarkable how little time I’ve actually spent listening to it. I know enough to understand that’s par for the course despite everyone’s best intentions, but I still had my fingers crossed. Would I stumble into a transcendent experience or end up in bed before midnight, laid low by decision paralysis and listening to old podcasts?

    Reader, I’m happy to report that I danced my ass off. I spent the night at Ninja Tune’s showcase, an event that offered a sort of electronic music prix fixe menu: diverse, peculiar small plates that seem disconnected in isolation but make sense as part of a larger whole. If you wanted winking, fecund footwork, you could arrive early for a set by the enigmatic DJ Paypal. The Detroit legend Moodymann would work up a stew of disco, house, and funk a few hours later. Some of the tastes are familiar, and some of the tastes are surprising. You place your trust in the chef and find yourself reflecting on the meal as a whole.

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  • Lizzie Plaugic

    Mar 19, 2016

    Lizzie Plaugic

    Atlanta rapper Rome Fortune is just like you, only more famous

    Amelia Krales

    When you take photos of Rome Fortune on a busy street in Austin during SXSW, people are going to look at you. Or, more accurately, they’re going to look at him. The the 27-year-old Atlanta rapper, born Jerome Fortune, is over six feet tall, wearing a floppy hat, an aquamarine beard, and no shirt save for a denim jacket. He’s also wearing jeans, and his denim-on-denim look is done so well, one can’t help but worry the average passerby will convince himself he too can pull off a Canadian tuxedo.

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  • Jamieson Cox

    Mar 18, 2016

    Jamieson Cox

    What it's like to be a band on the SXSW grind, as told by Whitney

    Amelia Krales

    When I caught Whitney’s performance Wednesday afternoon here in Austin, it was under the worst possible conditions. A crammed schedule and a chance at a can’t-miss interview meant the band was rushing from gig to gig, and they didn’t make it to the venue until after their scheduled set time. That meant sacrificing their sound check and settling for a truncated performance, one that began with only half of the band’s six touring members ready to play.

    It sounds like a stereotypical SXSW nightmare, I admit: rookie buzz band stretches themselves too thin! But Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek are by no means at their first rodeo, even if Whitney is. After spending time in minor indie rock bands like Smith Westerns and Unknown Mortal Orchestra, the duo’s friendship and songwriting partnership is coming into its prime.

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  • Why does music make you lose control?

    Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

    You'll never believe it, but Emily is still at SXSW in Austin, where the events have shifted from the film festival and interactive conference to the sprawling, inconcievably huge music festival. And what better time to talk about the effect music has on our brains? We've all been in the car or at a show when a song comes on that provokes a seemingly involuntary physical reaction, whether it's goosebumps or a bout of extreme headbanging. Neuroscientist Valorie Salimpoor has been doing research on that very phenomenon, and Liz talks to her about the mysteries of chills, memory, and Tïësto.

    But first! Did the success of 2013 documentary Blackfish have something to do with SeaWorld's decision to stop orca breeding? Does genetic testing by companies like 23andme really change anyone's health habits? And has SXSW become the IRL manifestation of Too Much Content? We will ask all of these questions; we will answer ... some of them.

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  • Jamieson Cox

    Mar 18, 2016

    Jamieson Cox

    This is your next jam: our special SXSW selections

    Amelia Krales

    Welcome back to The Verge’s weekly musical roundup. I’m Jamieson, I’m still your host, and I’m bringing this week’s special group of jams to you from beneath a pile of breakfast tacos and discarded brisket bits in Austin, Texas. Our music team has spent the bulk of the week here attending panels and watching late-night showcases as part of this year’s SXSW festivities, and we’re going to keep at it through the weekend until we have to scrape our exhausted husks out of the Lone Star State.

    In that spirit, we’ve collected 10 recent tracks from the artists we’ve been most excited to see this week. (They’re being delivered without blurbs, a temporary change our more text-averse readers may welcome. Enjoy it while it lasts!) Like almost every other week, the musical selections are all over the place: we’re ping-ponging from piercing emo and wistful country-soul to art-R&B and abrasive Asian hip-hop. It’s a wild ride, one that reflects the insane breadth of the artists hanging out with us in Austin this week. We’ll get back to our regularly scheduled jamming next Friday.

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  • Mar 17, 2016

    Emily Yoshida and Jamieson Cox

    Everything you wanted to know about Tumblr's feminist party at SXSW

    Robin Marchant/Getty Images

    It was easy to miss, but there was a bit of a tempest in the SXSW Music teapot a few weeks back. When Tumblr announced its 79 Cents feminist-themed party during the festival, its lineup puzzlingly included Crystal Castles, a band with a not-so-feminist-friendly history. Their inclusion wasn't the offensive thing so much as the larger, ubiquitous trend of brands jumping onto the #feminist bandwagon as if it was dabbing or Damn Daniel or any other monetizable meme, without doing any research or truly investing in inclusivity or reproductive rights or anything specific at all. Tumblr eventually removed Crystal Castles from the lineup, but the party went on as planned, complete with an appearance by Texas senator Wendy Davis, who famously filibustered against a bill that would reduce abortion rights in the state. The Verge's Jamieson Cox was there. The Verge's Emily Yoshida was not, but she had a lot of questions.

    Jamieson, it felt only right that after breaking the weird ignorance around Tumblr's event, you followed up and went to the actual thing. You are more diligent than me, but I still want to live the branded dream vicariously through you. So what was the vibe? How were those feminist art installations? Were there any "free Ethan Kath" protestors gathered outside?

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  • Jamieson Cox

    Mar 17, 2016

    Jamieson Cox

    David Bowie's producer is terrified by the music industry's 'downward spiral'

    Legendary music producer Tony Visconti described a vision of the music industry's dystopian future at his SXSW keynote speech this morning, calling himself "The Ghost of Christmas Future" and reading an earnest, self-penned short story to make his point. After walking a roomful of attendees through his musical education and early work as a producer, Visconti made it clear that he believes the industry's in jeopardy.

    "I think we're living in a time when formulas are being repeated more than they ever were in the past... I didn't want to come out here saying this stuff, swinging two fists in the air," said Visconti. "If this was really working, record sales would be going through the roof." It was an impassioned, frustrated plea for change from someone who's spent half a century navigating the business of music.

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  • Lizzie Plaugic

    Mar 17, 2016

    Lizzie Plaugic

    A conversation with Wiwek, the Dutch producer who invented 'jungle terror'

    When I met Wiwek at a nondescript Holiday Inn off I-35 in Austin, Texas yesterday, the sun had already begun to set and Wiwek had just woken up. The Holland-based producer (born Wiwek Mahab) had flown in to play a single set at SXSW that night, and was leaving early the next morning, so sleep was a precious luxury. We sat down at the hotel restaurant (an empty, cafeteria-looking thing with LED waterfall displays), Mahab ordered a coffee, and the waitress brought him an entire pot of it. "You’re gonna be awake all night," I said. "Well, that’s good," he said. "I need to be."

    If Mahab was worried that several cups of hotel coffee wouldn’t keep him awake through the night, he shouldn’t have been. That night, I popped my head into a windowless, concrete-walled club called The Main where he was playing (my own feat of stamina, having woken up at 3:30 the night before to get on a plane), the room was packed, sweaty, and the walls were buzzing with bass. Mahab told me he wants his audiences to feel a rush of adrenaline when they see him live, so it’s a good thing his music seems to work like a medical-grade stimulant. Excluding my own, there was not a heavy eyelid in that room.

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  • Jamieson Cox

    Mar 16, 2016

    Jamieson Cox

    Michelle Obama tells men to ‘get it together’ during wide-ranging SXSW keynote

    Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

    First Lady Michelle Obama’s keynote at SXSW brought an all-star panel together for a broad discussion of music, activism, and diversity, one that also gave her a chance to encourage men in positions of power to bring other voices into the discussion. Obama was joined onstage by Missy Elliott, veteran songwriter Diane Warren, actress Sophia Bush, and moderator Queen Latifah. Their conversation focused on Obama's Let Girls Learn initiative, an effort to raise enrollment rates for adolescent girls around the world, but the topic wasn't restrictive by any means. Obama sang a little Boyz II Men; she sang the praises of Stevie Wonder's Talking Book and Songs in the Key of Life; she offered advice to would-be feminist allies. And if you were wondering, she's definitely not running for president.

    After a brief introduction and a performance by the young YouTube stars Chloe and Halle Bailey, Latifah opened the panel by asking the guests what instigated their passion for activism. For Latifah, it was seeing her friends, family, and community decimated by the twin horrors of AIDS and crack in the '80s; for Missy, it was watching her mother escape an abusive relationship. Obama said she was motivated by the people who doubted her ability to succeed. "Growing up as a black girl on the south side of Chicago, as I was trying to make my way and do good in school, there were always people telling me what I couldn't do," said Obama. "My reaction was to prove the doubters wrong."

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  • Jamieson Cox

    Mar 16, 2016

    Jamieson Cox

    YouTube confidential: a conversation with The Range

    James Bareham

    “By the end, I was a borderline digital detective.” I’m sitting in a bustling Williamsburg coffee shop with James Hinton, the electronic musician known as The Range. He’s telling me just how difficult it was to find the vocalists that appear on his new album Potential, not because they were pop stars with busy schedules and layers of management surrounding them, but because they were the opposite.

    Hinton’s intricate compositions are largely built on samples of unknown YouTube artists: civilians with sparsely viewed videos in which they sing or rap for non-existent audiences. To get the OK from them to use their music, he found himself trying to track down dozens of “normal” people. “With all of this security and privacy stuff, everyone tacitly assumes that everyone can find your stuff [online], while hoping that isn’t the case,” says Hinton. “I can make the case that it’s actually pretty hard to find people.”

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  • Jamieson Cox

    Mar 4, 2016

    Jamieson Cox

    Crystal Castles are being removed from Tumblr's feminism-themed SXSW party

    Tumblr is removing Crystal Castles from the lineup of its 79 Cents SXSW event after the band's history and suitability for the event was called into question. The feminism-themed event is named after the gender wage gap in the US, and it features an all-female lineup, feminist art installations, and a guest appearance from former Texas state senator Wendy Davis. The Verge reported on the event, as well as the band's tumultuous history, this afternoon. "As someone who knew [Crystal Castles frontman] Ethan Kath on a personal and professional level, it is my opinion that he is not an appropriate artist to be performing at a feminism-centric event," said former Crystal Castles member Alice Glass to The Verge.

    Below is the statement from Tumblr's representative:

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  • Jamieson Cox

    Mar 3, 2016

    Jamieson Cox

    Tumblr will celebrate feminism at SXSW with an event headlined by Crystal Castles

    One year after throwing a massive, multi-day party, Tumblr is returning to SXSW Music with a new focus. The 79 Cents event being held on March 16th — its name reflects the gender wage gap in the US in 2014 as per the Institute for Women’s Policy Research — will boast a lineup of almost entirely female musicians, "feminist art installations" from Tumblr user Animated Text and a group of collaborators, and a guest appearance from former Texas state senator Wendy Davis. (Davis shot to national renown in 2013 when she staged an 11-hour filibuster to block a bill heavily restricting abortion in the state.) Jhené Aiko, Tacocat, Little Simz, Empress Of, and Crystal Castles are all playing the event.

    Along with its Interactive showcase U Up? on March 12th, the 79 Cents event is one of only two parties the platform is throwing, a massive decrease in scale from its presence at SXSW last year. At the 2015 festival, Tumblr IRL occupied the Ironwood Hall for four full days of performances and collaborative visuals. "It was incredible, it was insane, and I don’t think it needed to be replicated," said Nate Auerbach, Tumblr’s head of music. "When we look at SXSW and figure out what we’re going to do, it’s not necessarily about how many people we can fit in the door… It’s about creating the best experience, [one] that makes people feel like they’re inside the Tumblr community." According to Auerbach, orienting one of this year’s events around Tumblr’s feminist voices emerged naturally when he started thinking about the bands he wanted to book. "The artists I was most excited about were pretty much all female-fronted bands," said Auerbach. "We’re celebrating the female voice in many contexts."

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