This week marks the start of the musical portion of South By Southwest, the annual event that's drawn bands, fans and music-industry insiders to Austin, Texas, since 1987. Many corners of the Madison music community have been represented there, with acts like Zola Jesus, Droids Attack, F.Stokes and Peaking Lights attending in years past.
Then in 2013, the Majestic Theatre put an even brighter spotlight on Madison by hosting a showcase of Wisconsin and Minnesota musicians in partnership with Minneapolis venue First Avenue and event-ticketing company eTix. The show featured local acts like pop-punk band Masked Intruder, indie-pop act PHOX and Americana group Count This Penny.
Majestic co-owner Matt Gerding has fond memories of last year's trek to Austin. But more importantly, the showcase helped Midwestern musicians make connections with people in the industry.
"A lot of industry people go down there, agents and everything," Gerding explains, noting that one goal was "inviting [them] to come check out some of these bands that you might have seen 17 times at shows in Madison.... It's a great thing for Wisconsin music."
This year, the Majestic partnered with First Avenue, eTix and the Chicago venue Metro for a free event creatively titled SXSW Day Party. Okay, maybe that's not so creative, but this showcase at Holy Mountain sounds like a great place to get noticed while having a good time. Beginning at 2 p.m. on Friday, March 14, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois acts will play on two stages, one indoor and one outdoor.
Gerding calls eTix "the glue that holds us all together" since the Majestic, Metro and First Avenue are all eTix venues. Gerding and Scott Leslie, the Majestic's other co-owner, consider First Avenue's employees kindred spirits.
"We've been friends with the people from First Avenue for a while," Gerding says. "We go to conferences, and we always hang out with them. We're both independent Midwest music venues, so we'll communicate with them about what shows they're working on."
The idea for the 2013 showcase came together at one of these conferences. Once Metro signed on for 2014, Gerding and Leslie chose artists to represent Madison. The fun and funky Youngblood Brass Band and indie folksinger Anna Vogelzang made the final cut. Vogelzang will also perform at several other gigs in Austin, including an "unofficial" festival event at Shotguns on Sixth on Wednesday, March 12. Shortly after their set at the Majestic's Friday event, Youngblood will appear in a Swinghouse Studios showcase at Rusty's. Then they'll hit Esther's Follies for a set that begins after midnight.
Minnesota and Illinois acts are prominently featured at the South by Southwest Day Party, too. Astronautalis and Lizzo will put the Twin Cities hip-hop scene in the spotlight, while Pink Frost will show off some sludgy, Chicago-made indie rock.
"We discussed collectively the bands in Madison we worked with, really like musically, or that we think are generating a lot of local buzz," Gerding says of how his team picked Youngblood and Vogelzang. "There are some [acts] we asked that couldn't afford to go or weren't planning to.... But hopefully it's a representation of Madison and Wisconsin as a whole."
Of course, Youngblood and Vogelzang aren't the only Madisonians at SXSW. One of the most visible local groups is PHOX, who've been tapped for a slew of SXSW events, including two high-profile gigs on Thursday, March 13: an 8 a.m. performance at the Four Seasons for Austin-area radio station KUTX and a set just after 11 a.m. at Austin City Limits' "Bloody Mary Morning" show at GDS&M. They also landed on NPR's "Austin 100," a list of must-see acts at this year's fest.
The national media attention should draw lots of music-industry reps -- plus fellow musicians and prospective fans -- to PHOX's shows. There have also been some valuable networking opportunities outside the venues. Before hitting the stage, the band had lunch at iTunes and visited some old friends at Google, according to singer Monica Martin, who has been documenting the band's adventures on Facebook.
Meanwhile, Madisonians visiting the fest can take advantage of some unique perks. For instance, members of Madison B-cycle can use SXcycles bikes for no extra charge. Like beer better than bikes? Ignore Miller Lite's sponsorship of the festival and dig a little deeper. There are craft-beer bars and breweries all over town, and they're bound to have specials for thirsty fest-goers. Don't be surprised if you bump into Gerding and Leslie, either. They're likely to be putting the Majestic's motto -- "Beer tastes better in the front row" -- into action.