But that's starting to change. As dance music continues to boom in North America, its presence at SXSW has grown in tandem. This year the festival looked towards electronic music in a bigger way than ever before. More often than not it was crossover sounds that were prominently featured, but pockets of house and techno weren't too hard to find either. We staged our own showcase this year, joining other music sites like XLR8R, Pitchfork and Spin. And while dance music at SXSW might still be in its infancy, I found that there was more than enough going on to keep me busy to the point of exhaustion over the course of the week.
On first contact, SXSW seems so daunting for a newcomer to navigate that you can get overwhelmed just thinking about it. "It's like you choose your own adventure," Windish Agency's Evan Hancock said to me. "It's like Burning Man: everyone's experience is different. There are no rules, no one is telling you what to do." He's not wrong: I managed to create my own weeklong adventure, and it was almost entirely devoted to dance music.
Austin was just like you'd picture it: sunny, hot and flat. Aside from the corporate types milling about the convention centre, the streets of downtown felt empty due to a lack of daytime parties. A pre-party tour of the VICELAND compound, housed in a gigantic storage facility, provided the first taste of the madness to come, with elaborate rooms plastered in corporate branding, and merchandise including a "pill clinic" decked out in antiseptic white. (Not a respite for over stimulated revelers, rather a slick storefront for overpriced Beats By Dre products, staffed by provocatively dressed "nurses.") I was given a VICELAND pass for the night's show, and began to wonder how exactly all of this worked.
As it's a largely industry event, connections help a lot at SXSW, simply because it often avoids standing in line as insiders skip the queue. There are more than enough unofficial and free events to keep you busy over the week, though, which means you don't necessarily need a badge to have a great time, provided you have some patience.
Many of this year's music panels focused on electronic music, mainly through the mainstream lens of EDM. A discussion between Richie Hawtin and Deadmau5 was the star attraction. "Who's that guy beside Deadmau5?" one attendee asked his friend, while another whispered, "Oh, that's Richie Hawtin. He looks kind of gay." The talk itself was dull as the two megastars reminisced about the pre-internet age and talked about introducing young EDM fans to "underground" sounds. They also joked about their back-to-back set that would take place later that night—just the kind of strange performance SXSW has become known for.
Heading back to the now-kicking VICELAND, I was confronted with a dark room full of chattering people who seemed ambivalent to the music, an open bar and servers walking around with trays of sausage wraps. The VICELAND lineups typified the kind of electronic music most popular at SXSW: hip-hop inflected club sounds mixed with playful house and disco. DJs often played alongside popular hip-hop acts. "Harlem Shake" producer Baauer finally jolted the crowd to attention with a rapid-fire set. The whole thing was over in 25 minutes and we were whisked off to the next party.
LA label Body High's rooftop gathering took place in a lush, purple-lit lounge and was packed with scenesters before the doors even opened. Though it had a great lounge vibe, it was another party where very few people seemed to care about the music.
A few blocks down at the Arthouse they were handing out drink tickets for questionable tequila concoctions (a sponsor, naturally) for a Brainfeeder showcase at warehouse-style space equipped with Funktion One speakers that rattled to the sounds of Teebs. Now beginning to feel the effects of the endless supply of free alcohol, I decided the Surefire showcase at Barcelona would be the fourth and final stop of the night. It was the first time I felt like I was in a nightclub. As JETS played, people actually danced—probably because it was a free event rather than an industry affair. Realizing I had forgotten to eat anything all day (an easy mistake at SXSW) I grabbed some greasy pizza and called it a night. I would later learn how invaluable it was to have a good spot downtown, with many of my colleagues struggling to flag down cabs for expensive rides back into the suburbs.
In sharp contrast, Hype Machine was behind one of the biggest corporate blowouts (brought to by you Taco Bell), outfitting the bottom floor warehouse of the Whitley Hotel with a massive stage and impressive light show. The free drinks were limited to a local-made vodka and a nasty maple whiskey, and a food station sat beside the open bar persistently handing out free Doritos Cool Ranch tacos to everyone who walked by. Biting into the strange (and terrible) taco, it became clear just how deep corporate branding penetrated SXSW. The redeeming factor here was the music. Curated by blogs Gorilla vs. Bear and Yours Truly, the lineup mixed live performances with DJs, but the sets by Jerome LOL (who seemed to be at every show I went to) and John Talabot were treated more like functional intermission music than anything worth paying attention to. Given the full stage, Disclosure drew excited cheers with live vocals, guitar and drums over their slick pop-house tracks.
I spent the rest of the day at the Hype Hotel but began to wonder if I was doing it all wrong. Was I trying to see too much? Was I seeing too little? Should I be drunker? Was I drinking too much? The rest of the night was already decided for me, however, with the RA showcase. The Elysium bar was more of a rock venue than a club, but it showed how electronic music could work outside of a slick nightclub, an idea particularly important in the context of SXSW, where dance music still felt like a novelty. NYC trio Archie Pelago began the night to a mostly empty room with their eclectic brand of house, playing cello and saxophone over tracks triggered in Ableton.
As the band drew to a close and Montreal duo Blue Hawaii prepared for their show (applying glittery face makeup so they could "feel like different souls"), a strange selection of between-set music, including Flo Rida's "Right Round," underlined the unfamiliar territory we were in. Blue Hawaii nailed it with a frenzied techno climax, and by the time Andy Stott took the stage he had a full club enraptured by his slow-motion techno. And then the place cleared. It was obvious that many people had come to see Stott, and were less enamored by the idea of a DJ set than his live performance. Huerco S mixed rough and ready house to an almost empty dance floor. By the time John Talabot and Optimo laid down disco-inflected house and peak-time techno, respectively, Elysium had started to fill back up, but it said something about the way people regiment their time at the festival.
The inevitable question then reared its head: where was the afterparty? Dirtybird had an alcohol-free afterhours at Kingdom, but a venue way out of downtown called the Illmore became the surprise destination for a showcase hosted by Skrillex's OWSLA label. The spot turned out to be a lavish mansion with throngs of people clamoring to get in. Mysterious black cars pulled in and out. Alvin Risk's generic electro house thumped in the background. We didn't hang around for too long, though. Despite the promise of an illegal bar and a pool inside, there were a few too many unsavory types hanging around. My partner-in-crime/photographer was told to leave or else he would likely "get robbed."
My first SXSW hangover. And an important lesson in pacing. Not every event has an open bar, but the sheer amount of free booze is staggering. You'll be a bloody mess by the end of the week if you aren't careful, and here I was already feeling like death two days in. The Friends Of Friends day party at Barcelona nevertheless awaited (where someone had apparently purchased bottle service at 2:30 PM). Montreal group Grown Folk played an originals-heavy set that showed off promising new material with a distinct neo-trance glow. It was then off to the Fader Fort for the first time.
Ninja Tune's showcase was one of Thursday night's essentials. An embarrassingly large portion of decadently fatty Ironworks BBQ—an Austin staple—provided necessary fuel for the evening. At the party, Evy Jane placed sultry electronics against sultry vocals, and the indie-friendly Bonobo serenaded the room with delicate lullabies, receiving rapturous applause after every song. The secret guest turned out to be Machinedrum, who laid down high-octane heaviness after announcing his addition to the label's roster for a four-album deal. Feeling antsy, we headed to an unnamed venue across the freeway for Face To Face, originally a small acid-house themed party from LA, which had started as an offshoot of A Club Called Rhonda.
The venue was what one might call a crack house—a derelict taco shack turned into a residence for a homeless junkie, turned into a space for impromptu parties. There was even a guestlist, albeit handwritten on a tiny index card. Three kids with glowsticks were inside dancing to vintage house, banged out by LA selector Delivery. Exposed faucets stuck out from the walls and fragments of mismatched wallpaper clung to walls. A huge pile of trash sat in the corner and a mattress was laid up in the back. The building's occupant walked around incoherently yelling at no one in particular. Pitchfork's showcase two blocks away began to seem like a safer bet.
Intense lighting, multiple bars and an incredible sound system at their warehouse venue made for quite a contrast. The huge room was dwindling by the minute, however, as Rustie closed the night with one of the best sets I saw at SXSW. The grateful remainder of the crowd danced hard, while a couple sloppily made out to his new single, "Slasherr," an already ubiquitous SXSW anthem. White-hot rapper Kendrick Lamar was rumoured to perform at Illmore (he did, and several people described it a as "shitshow") but I decided to head home after 18 hours on my feet.
Friday is SXSW's big day. The weekenders are ready to go, the most anticipated events take place and rumours of ambitious afterparties begin to circulate. ICEE HOT, Percussion Lab, Friends of Friends, Night Slugs and Fade To Mind all staged showcases, and word got around about LuckyMe's downtown warehouse party. 6th Street was in full bloom—deafening and difficult to navigate. A man stood in the street holding a sign warning that homosexuals and partiers would face hell if they did not repent. In true Austin fashion, he was quickly surrounded by guys holding signs saying "fuck this guy" and "Satan is the only way." Another man was selling flimsy-looking neon hats for $10, which was greeted with similar disgust. People expect everything at SXSW to be free.
Montreal group Doldrums played their chaotic electro-funk at Mohawk for the Windish Agency showcase, before I dipped into the Barcelona dungeon to catch newcomer Druid Cloak at the Symbols Recordings party. Getting back into the Fader Fort was a struggle. By now, the impossibly long lines had become tiresome. Once I finally got in, the heat felt oppressive rather than friendly, and I was in an all-around bad mood, which was offset by one of my personal SXSW highlights: rising rapper Future and a surprise appearance by southern rap kingpin T.I.
Feeling overwhelmed by the night's options, club-hopping seemed like the best option. It wasn't. Walking had become a chore. Showing up to Night Slugs at 9 PM in the cramped pitch-black box of the Madison, Total Freedom's adventurous blends went unnoticed by the crowd. After forgetting to eat (again), food and Percussion Lab's showcase was the new plan, but every restaurant in sight was packed, all food trucks had huge lines, and locating the venue without 3G access was maddening. Frustrated and hungry, a cab across the bridge and deep into eastern Austin brought me to Emo's for the Friends 0f Friends showcase. The cabbie warned that a car for the way back would be almost impossible to find.
It actually only took ten minutes to get a cab back downtown. LuckyMe's hidden-away party seemed like the best idea. It was marked only by their logo on a warehouse wall. And boy, was it gross. Lacking any sort of ventilation aside from the doors, the venue was a sweatbox. The bathrooms looked like someone had taken a sledgehammer to them. Baauer played the headlining set, climaxing with "Slasherr" before Just Blaze yelled "make some noise if you like bass music" and dropped a disjointed mess of sounds. My night didn't go at all as planned—the Friends Of Friends showcase wasn't even originally on the radar—but it was easily the most fun I had all week.
At this point, the idea of getting out of bed to go see more music was unappealing to say the least. The entire city had a collective hangover. The day parties were fewer and the streets moved more slowly. Two rooftop parties (across the street from each other) served up the day's dance music. The first was hosted by Doorly, a swanky affair with Cîroc-branded bottle service and a faux-Miami vibe that was at odds with almost everything else that week. Oneman threw down UK bass and hip-hop after dubstep don Plastician's debut deep house set. There were no indie pretensions here, just straight dance, but the audience seemed indifferent. The Wedidit party proved much more lively, packed with a colourful cast of characters that included a injured man waving his crutch enthusiastically with each new drop.
The entire crew came out to play for this one, including Ryan Hemsworth and secret guest XXYYXX. "Trap on Acid" producer RL Grime flipped the script with house-leaning music, Shlohmo dropped The Bug's "Skeng" and Groundislava made a cheeky one-two punch with Dirty Vegas and ATB's "9PM (Till I Come)." It was an unapologetically cheesy and playful moment: a lounge full of twentysomethings freaking out to a dated trance anthem they probably didn't even recognize. The mood wasn't even darkened after a fight that culminated in a stabbing; instead, the music stopped and the crowd pushed out the offender as everyone watched his arrest from the balcony above.
Considerable hype and hearsay surrounded Boiler Room's big event that evening at the same warehouse Pitchfork used. Embattled rapper Chief Keef was set to headline. Unsurprisingly, the Chicago artist (who had just been released from jail two days prior) wasn't named on the set lists posted around the venue, and his appearance never materialized. But the party didn't really need him: from Skream to Death Grips to Shlohmo, the clever programming paid off as a queue stretched around the block.
For the first hour, technical issues looked like they might ruin the evening, especially when Shlohmo yelled "literally everything is fucked up" over the mic. After a monstrous set from Mount Kimbie and by the time Lunice came on (with an inspiring guest spot from Mykki Blanco), the system was fully harnessed. The low-end was so heavy that it visibly shook the huge screens displaying Ray-Ban logos all around the room. Noise-rap group Death Grips took to the stage with a couple of boat-sized inflatable pills and a jet engine roar that must have ruined the night for those unlucky people who forgot earplugs. RL Grime and Baauer washed the bloody tastes out of everyone's mouths (and ears) with a back-to-back big room house turn, before a noticeably wasted Skream struggled to mix disco records, harassing the audience about which afterparty he could go to. "If I don't wake up on someone's floor face down in a puddle of dog piss," he croaked, "then I've done something wrong," before throwing a CDJ into the audience.
After five days of constant standing, dancing, drinking and running between venues, I decided against an afterparty. Just standing up hurt. I walked through the filthy streets, watching at least four girls in heels take nasty spills, and stepping over oily pizza plates as cops tried to control the chaos erupting around them. I was exhausted, and felt like I had seen enough music for a good while, but as I reflected on the week, I was already thinking about my trip back to Austin next year.