Angela Perley & The Howlin' Moons at SXSW
Angela Perley & The Howlin’ Moons at SXSW (Mitchell Multimedia)

From Athens to Austin: SXSW 2015, Day Five

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

Read about the rest of Antonuccio’s adventures at or via Twitter @woubarts.

Friday at SXSW kicked off the beginning of a rainy weekend, with downpours at points, making outdoor venues a wet and muddy venture in most cases.

The official programming started in a packed Conference Center ballroom where hip-hop legend Snoop Dogg gave a “keynote interview” led by his manager (who was apparently tapped for the job at the last minute). Side note: A phenomenal act called Hypnotic Brass Ensemble opened the event with a 30-minute blend of hip-hop and funk that helped wake up an extremely tired crowd.

Snoop’s interview focused on the story of his career: How he first connected with Dr. Dre to make hip-hop history, and his subsequent career in TV and film. A considerable amount of time focused on his passion for the youth football league he started.

However, the highlight of the interview was his extended anecdote about his collaboration with Willie Nelson, which found them having a common love for each other’s music as well as…grass. So much so, that according to Snoop, Nelson tried to “out-smoke” him during a game of dominoes, which ended with the pair making a stoned run to a KFC drive-through for buckets of chicken.

While the content was interesting, and inspiring at points (when asked about his proudest moment, his response was seeing his son go to college), this is now the second year in which the Music keynote has been an interview as opposed to a talk. To that end, the effectiveness of the keynote for casting vision or providing reflection on the current and future state of the industry for artists has suffered.

Next up for the day was a terrific songwriter’s panel with Marshall Crenshaw, Matthew Caws of Nada Surf, Will Butler of Arcade Fire, Britt Daniel of Spoon and Mac McCaughan of Superchunk. The panel has become an annual favorite, where notable songwriters exchange songs in a round-robin format and discuss what went in to making the songs work. Panelists offer insights into one another’s material, and the audience gets stripped-down versions of songs from some of their favorite writers.

Elsewhere, more notable panels and interviews took place, including a retrospective on 50 years of The Who with Steven Van Zandt and an interview with country legend Wynona Judd.

Friday’s Day Stage lineup was incredible, with the return of Best Coast in a prominent afternoon slot. The set was followed by Madisen Ward and The Mama Bear, a mother and son duo recently signed to Glassnote Records. Soulful, with tinges of blues, folk and gospel, the two brought a hushed and engaging set, building on the buzz that has been forming around their forthcoming debut.

The last set of the day was Courtney Barnett; her 8th and final set for the week. Barnett is one of this year’s SXSW breakout acts, coming off a huge re-release last year, an upcoming release this month and numerous headlining spots here in Austin. The Convention Center hall was packed with droves of people working their way in to get one last glimpse of this rising artist.

One of my favorite things about SXSW is the uniqueness and variety of venues that are available to badgeholders. Indoor and outdoor venues, large and small, dingy and chic; the choices seem endless. Of all of these, my favorites are two churches in the downtown area: Central Presbyterian and St. David’s Episcopal Church. The intimate environment and the acoustics of both venues make for truly magical experiences.

Of the two, St. David’s boasted a formidable lineup for the evening including Laura Marling, Leon Bridges and newcomers Tove Styrke. Marling’s set was incredible, veering between full band and acoustic, with the majority of the material coming from her newest release, Short Movie.

Elsewhere in town, Columbus, Ohio, favorites Angela Perley and The Howlin’ Moons finished up their last showcase for the week at SXSW. They’ve been here as a part of their current tour and played two showcases before heading back for multiple shows in Ohio.

The Saturday panel offerings were plentiful with multiple discussions continuing on the role of curation, the power of technology to reach the consumer and the growing need for music that can break through to new audiences.

The first panel I attended dealt with artist branding, with Dez Dickerson (former guitarist for Prince and The Revolution) talking with Nick Jonas, Sr. about his strategies in branding music and using social media to reach fans in a genuine way.

It’s fascinating to hear the history of social media unfolding in real time, with sites that mattered three years ago now becoming defunct, while others that are less than a year old gaining momentum and users beyond everyone’s expectations. Jonas spoke about his role in shaping the career of the Jonas Brothers and how fan connections through social media helped them to achieve massive success.

The next panel was a fascinating exploration of art, change and the power of imagery in association with music. Public Enemy’s Chuck D joined an esteemed group of artists, including Shepard Fairey to discuss the power of visual art, with numerous examples from Public Enemy’s career presented as case studies.

The conversation centered on the need for powerful images to accompany today’s digitized music and the role that good visual art plays into the aesthetic of music itself. Fairey shared at length about how his now-famous portrait of President (then-candidate) Obama came to light, while Chuck D focused on the need for social change through visionary graphics.

My final panel for the day was made up of representatives from NPR’s All Things Considered, All Songs Considered and Morning Edition. Discussions centered around the role of music in public radio and the ways in which they select music content for programming, story features and “buttons” that fall between show segments.

Bob Boilen of All Songs Considered offered insight into how he selects material for his show and talked about how NPR attempts to present songs “for people who are starved for new music.” The panelists gave practical tips on music submissions for NPR programming and talked about the mechanics, personnel decisions and processes for production behind the scenes of each show. This panel was easily one of the best discussions I attended this week.

The evening and week closed out with a few early showcases for me (including one by U.K. group Ultimate Painting), mostly because of a 4 a.m. airport departure time. Once again, the Ohio University students had an extraordinary time connecting with the leaders and entrepreneurs of today’s music industry, while also getting to enjoy evening music showcases.

This year’s programming and scheduling reflected the growing concern of the explosive growth of the conference, with some notable changes as a result, including less explicit corporate Main Stages, fewer unofficial parties and a much more controlled environment downtown. It’s a step in the right direction. This year’s SXSW proved once again why it’s the premiere intersection for exploring how film, music and technology are impacting the greater culture, both in the U.S. and throughout the world.