Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson (center) with Josh Antonuccio (right) and Groove U's Dwight Heckleman
Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson (center) with Josh Antonuccio (right) and Groove U’s Dwight Heckleman

From Athens to Austin: SXSW 2015, Day Four

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This week, Ohio University School of Media Arts and Studies instructor Josh Antonuccio is leading a class of 24 OU students on a week-long trip to the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.

Follow Antonuccio’s adventures at or via Twitter @woubarts.

Another day at SXSW and a hectic start at that. Each day the attendees get down to the Convention Center early to get an SXpress pass, basically granting an attendee the ability to jump to the front of the line at any one venue of their choice.

As such, we’ve tried to arrive each day at the opening of the express booth to ensure we can see each evening’s top shows.

I started out the day with guitar maestro/musical legend Adrian Belew, who spent time talking about his storied career with Frank Zappa, King Crimson, David Bowie and Talking Heads. Belew was on hand to discuss the new music production apps that he has developed in conjunction with his studio engineer.

Today’s interviews featured some heavyweights, including Wyclef Jean and members of Arcade Fire, who shared a panel with noted economist Paul Krugman, who talked about the economics of celebrity.

They discussed one of the big issues in the music industry right now: the role of corporate sponsorships and branding for artists to make a living in the market. Win Butler of Arcade Fire was quick to correct panelists that taking corporate money is indeed selling out, even if you choose to call it “branding.”

It’s an issue that has come up frequently, given the current backlash of corporate SXSW sponsors such as Doritos and McDonald’s.

Just before the panel, I had a chance to talk with Win and we shared our memories of their performance at Stuart’s Opera House during the 2008 Obama campaign. “I think I got a guy with a mohawk to vote,” he quipped.

Another big topic is the growing role of music licensing, especially licensing opportunities for U.S. entertainment from foreign artists. Thomas Golubic, the music supervisor for such shows at The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, was a part of a panel that discussed how songs from artists are chosen and placed.

A big concern is being able to actually track down copyright holders when inherent artist and label information is not properly found in the digital files. Thomas is part of a growing group of supervisors who are reshaping modern storytelling with their ability to place songs that help tell stories in long narrative form, frequently being found now in cable storytelling.

The last panel I attended dealt with the importance and influence of radio in breaking artists, specifically the role of DJs and local radio.

Curation has been a buzz word this year. With so many songs, now numbering in the millions, available at the touch of a smartphone, the question is: How can we best help consumers find the songs that are the most important to them?

The CEOs of Rdio and Cumulus Media, as well as Daniel Glass, head of Glassnote Records (Mumford & Sons, Childish Gambino, Phoenix) made up the panel and spent a lot of time discussing the growing and necessary collaborations between labels, artists and terrestrial radio.

Interestingly, they are finding that the current generation of music lovers admit that, more and more, they are looking to radio to continue their discovery of new music.

I then made my way across town to pick up some credentials for the Spin Picnic on Friday. On the way, I ran into Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent of The Zombies, who are back at SXSW this year for a few sets and panels. They continue to be a perennial favorite here, as the appreciation for their work in the ’60s seems to deepen with each passing year.

Before hitting showcases for the night, I spent time at the annual Grammy party, which routinely welcomes a slew of renowned musicians, producers and engineers. My colleague Dwight Heckleman and I met up and chatted for a bit with Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel. It’s always a nice breather (with loads of good food) before venturing out for another night of showcases.

I grabbed a rickshaw after the party and made my way to the Cedar Street Courtyard for an amazing showcase of new talent. The layout of the show allows for a VIP area–essentially a balcony above the stage to watch performances. From that vantage point, I enjoyed three shows, the first from The Vaccines, an U.K. group who have been blowing up with guitar-driven Brit rock explorations that draw from the likes of The Jam and early Elvis Costello. After the show, one of my students got a chance to spend some with the lead singer to talk about the band’s current tour and new album.

Next up was Viet Cong, a band which has generated both critical acclaim (Pitchfork) and controversy (Oberlin College canceled a show due to the group’s name). Unfortunately, their drummer broke his arm just before SXSW. In spite of that, he has been able to play through every set with one arm, having a guest drummer to play drum fills on a few songs. Their combination of dark sonics and supercharged guitar climaxes were nothing short of stunning.

The last act I caught was MEZ, who sounded like a reincarnation of the MC5 and Hüsker Dü. The sheer volume and propulsiveness of this band was remarkable.

Following that show, I caught an acoustic set by the hyper-literate songsmith Frank Turner, who played to an adoring and rowdy crowd. Literally word for word, the crowd shouted lyrics back to Turner–songs of love, loss and a lot of booze.

With the midnight hour approaching, I sprinted across to 6th Street to catch a rising singer/songwriter named Natalie Prass, whose set was made up of tender, soulful and finely honed songs. Prass will be on hand at this year’s Nelsonville Music Festival and she’s one performer you won’t want to miss. Her self-titled debut has been gaining momentum as she continues to win the hearts of listeners.

The last show for the night was a set by Of Montreal. These psychedelic pop revivalists brought out their trademark sound and angular arrangements to a packed house. The band dessed in individualized costumes and were surrounded by twin dancers who donned a rotating assortment of surreal outfits.

They churned through an epic set, featuring songs from their past decade of work. Of Montreal is a band I’ve wanted to catch for some time, so it was great way to end a very late night.