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On Assignment: Keeping Austin Weird at South by Southwest

By Kate Snow
Rock Center

Kate Snow and the Rock Center team pose for a picture with Rick Springfield

I left the last show sometime around 1:30 a.m.—still wide awake from the rush that comes from seeing live music, really great live music. A couple of hours later my alarm went off. I’ve been living in an alternate universe known as South by Southwest or SXSW. Now, it’s time for re-entry, time to fly back to New York and tell a story.

But how can I explain what this whirlwind has been like? At its core, SXSW is an arts and technology festival -- simple as that. Except it’s not simple at all.

South by Southwest is an assault on the senses. You can walk down the street and hear a new band playing literally every 50 feet. You can smell the Korean BBQ tacos. And you can see… well, you name it: celebrities, musicians, fans, and a whole lot of people trying to get your attention because they are convinced they have the “next big thing” and you need to know about it. It might be a new app, a film, or a band. Doesn't matter. They want you to know about it.

"Keep Austin Weird," the slogan adopted by the Austin Independent Business Alliance to promote small businesses in the city, couldn't be more accurate.

Example: On Sixth Street, I see guys dressed up as NASA astronauts in orange spacesuits. They’re in a band.

Example: A guy put a bed in the middle of the street and is lying in it bare-chested, inviting others to join him. He’s plugging a film.

Example: At the concierge desk at the Driskill Hotel I see two giant furry creatures, neon green and purple, trying to book a room. It was a publicity stunt for some new idea. I never did find out what.

And no, we weren’t actually staying at the famous Driskill. We were lucky to get a hotel far away from Sixth Street, the artery where crowds amass every night. 

But that, too, was part of the experience. In the morning, we’d leave our hotel knowing there’d be no way to return before 2 a.m. I hauled around bags filled with phones, chargers, notebooks and lip gloss. We rarely stopped to eat. Yesterday, I got by on a bag of mixed nuts and a Snickers bar. 

And yet I’d do it all again – and I probably will.

We spent a lot of time following 26-year-old Ryan Bort. What a good sport he was to let us tail him with cameras! Ryan writes for Paste Magazine. If he writes about a new band, it just might push others to check them out, which might lead to some record exec sitting in the crowd at a particular show.

Kate Snow / NBC News

Stubbs parking lot is sensory overload- smells and sounds.

Ryan is trying to see as much music as humanly possible in these seven days. There are more than 2,000 bands officially at the festival, and that doesn’t include the unofficial day parties, and showcases, and guys in hot food trucks who roll up the takeout window and start performing (no, seriously, we saw that).

At any given hour, there are hundreds of things you could be doing at SXSW. There are 84 bands playing at 8 p.m. on Thursday in 84 different places. So, Ryan makes a list of the bands he thinks he might want to catch and then runs from venue to venue trying to catch a few minutes of each. 

The bands know that visibility matters here. Yes, they’d love to catch a big break here and get booked on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. But most of the musicians we spoke with were just happy to be a part of a giant gathering of like-minded music fans. 

VIDEO: See Kate Snow sing "Jessie's Girl" with Rick Springfield after the jump.

As the lead singer of the Lone Bellow, Zach Williams, told us after a show on a wooden stage in the backyard of an old bungalow home: “We have hopes of just being a part of moments that matter, just trying to polish and just see the beauty going on in the night.”

“We don't consider it like a competition or anything,” Zak Appleby from Houndmouth said. “If there's that much good music out there, then it's good for everybody's ears.”

Amen to that. My favorite part of the experience was getting to see bands I’d never heard of in my life and being blown away by their sound. Houndmouth and Lone Bellow are good examples. Phosphorescent, Atlas Genius and Von Grey are others. If I hadn’t had to leave to do my Rock Center work, I would’ve also seen Black Taxi --- a band I already know and love.

“To say you saw this band before they got really big. You saw them when they first broke through at SXSW. To say you saw a film before it got picked up by a studio and became a big film. It's kind of getting in on the ground floor,” Ryan Bort said.

At 26, South by Southwest is as old as Ryan is. The event has evolved over the years to include more big-name headliners.

This year, the show getting the most buzz features Dave Grohl (of Nirvana and Foo Fighters fame) pairing up with other big names like Stevie Nicks, John Fogarty and (my teenage crush) Rick Springfield.

“The thing is, we all come from the same garage. We were all 15 years old trying to bang the same songs out. And we took different paths, but we're all from the same roots,” Springfield told me.

Whether you’re listening to someone established or brand new, there’s a vibe at South by Southwest, a feeling that goes along with all that eager hope, all those younger bands dreaming of a big future. Maybe it’s anticipation. Maybe it’s that we’re all delirious from lack of sleep. 

But there’s something that makes you take a deep breath, look around, and feel alive.


Kate Snow / NBC News

Atlas Genius plays at South by Southwest

Read Ryan Bort's reporting from SXSW:

Day 1: Sunday at SXSW Interactive: Jeffrey Tambor is a Spiritual Healer
Day 2: Following the Comedy on Monday at SXSW: Jesse Ventura Will Haunt Your Dreams
Day 3: A Film Study on Tuesday at SXSW: The Mythology of Muscle Shoals
Day 4: Music on Wednesday at SXSW: Nick Cave Owns the Night
Day 5: Psych, Wayne Coyne and the Screamin' Eagle of Soul