AUSTIN — Two images linger from this year’s South by Southwest Music festival, which ended last Sunday after five nights and days with hundreds of performances. One has been the major part of SXSW for all of its 27 years: sharing the crowded sidewalks with sleep-deprived but bright-eyed musicians toting their own equipment to the next gig. The other is more recent: a 62-foot-high outdoor stage built to resemble a snack-chip vending machine that turned into a six-story video billboard when it wasn’t showing live performances.
It’s the mixture of the venerable SXSW of baby bands looking to advance — to find an agent, manager, tour mates, licensing deal, or label — and the newer SXSW of sponsorship, of branding, and of marketing spring releases by well-known headliners. They’re almost, but not quite, two different festivals, since many of the baby bands would be delighted to profit from the kind of commercial exploitation they can see all around them.
SXSW, which also runs a film festival and a tech-oriented “interactive” festival in the days before SXSW Music, serves and reflects the businesses it convenes. And it is now thoroughly geared to the music business as disrupted by the Internet: where sales of recordings have fallen but avenues of exposure have multiplied, where selling a song for a commercial or soundtrack can be a rare windfall for an unknown band, and where all acts, new or established, are constantly scrambling for attention.
A band at South by Southwest can perform literally day and night, from an eye-rubbing morning radio show broadcast to a midnight club show; all that effort lingers in shows archived online by sponsors, radio stations, and stray YouTube contributors.
But about that vending machine. A version of it arrived at last year’s SXSW and was roundly reviled as the most obnoxiously commercial manifestation of the festival. The sponsor obviously doubled down, with an added fillip. The stage’s prime lineup this year was a gathering of hip-hop luminaries: LL Cool J, Doug E. Fresh, Public Enemy, and Ice Cube. In the 1980s Public Enemy and Ice Cube made their reputations with angry, socially conscious lyrics that showed hip-hop how to be political. Now, cashing in on chips, they seemed to prove that absolutely everything is for sale.
That was one thread of SXSW: big names and big productions with corporate tie-ins. There were also large sponsored shows — secret until nearly the last minute — by Prince and Justin Timberlake. And there were official SXSW showcases for well-known acts introducing new material or riding current hits, among them Green Day, Depeche Mode, Iggy Pop, Iron and Wine, Vampire Weekend, Nick Cave, Richard Thompson, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, the Mexican band Cafe Tacvba (performing for thousands of fans on the outdoor Auditorium Shores stage), Natalie Maines (of the Dixie Chicks, going solo), and the duo of Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell.
Disc jockeys from the upper echelons of electronic dance music were willing to play smaller rooms and shorter sets than usual to make a SXSW appearance. Rappers brought their posses on their coattails, as did Trae tha Truth, or expanded their solo ambitions, as Earl Sweatshirt from Odd Future did. Musicians can also pick up improbable collaborators at SXSW: The R&B singer Usher appeared halfway through an afternoon set by the Afghan Whigs, an indie-rock band fascinated by romantic strife, and suavely proved that his croon could sail over churning rock versions of his songs.
Yet there were also more than 2,000 lesser-known acts struggling to get noticed. They offer glimpses of whatever ideas are spreading across pop — which, this year, meant more electronics. It was clear that the big pomp-rock anthem, anchored by a march beat, is still thriving; some baby bands are seeking arena-scale sounds. Electronic dance music is also slipping into rock in both obvious and subtle ways.
Synthesizers and programmed drumbeats percolate through the introspection and tentative self-affirmation of songs by Indians, from Copenhagen. Even with guitar-centered bands (like Girls Names, from Belfast, Northern Ireland), I heard longer instrumental passages that pushed songs toward the length and hypnotic repetition of dance tracks. The abstract blips and throbs of dance music are also making inroads in hip-hop for rappers like Mykki Blanco and Earl Sweatshirt.
The festival’s critical mass draws in musicians who are well-established abroad and willing to play tiny clubs for a chance to get noticed in the United States: musicians like Gepe from Chile, who played jovial pop songs with undercurrents of Andean styles, and Emicida, a quick-tongued, forthright Brazilian rapper who mingled funk with Brazilian beats.
Yet there were also musicians whose aspirations are decidedly more underground, like the young psychedelic die-hards Outer Minds, a Chicago band merging Jefferson Airplane harmonies with garage-rock organ, and Follakzoid, a Chilean band that played pulsing, eruptive, drone-centered jams. Punk and its variations provided the impact of live and loud guitars, whether it was Fidlar from Los Angeles, singing about booze and drug-addled slacker lives with music that was precisely honed, or Parquet Courts from Brooklyn, playing a punk variation with talk-sung lyrics and room for guitar solos.
Baby bands or not, I wasn’t going to miss one big event: Prince’s club show, at La Zona Rosa. With sponsorship money from Samsung, it was an elaborate production — he had a wraparound LED screen for a backdrop and a large band including a full horn section — and a euphoric show of professionalism that was funky down to the last backbeat.
Prince didn’t take the easy choice of playing an entire set of hits. He clearly wanted the audience to savor the physical effort and preparation that went into the music, from elaborately arranged horn-section interludes to the way the band followed every cue.
But the corporate context also had an effect. Before the set started, a member of his entourage mysteriously announced, “Company Play.” And part of the way through his set he paused to thank the sponsor. Prince — who was photographed in the 1990s with the word “slave” written on his face when he was battling his label — added: “I love being a musician. It feels like being a servant — being a servant for you.”