If you haven’t read Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, you should — because he perfectly explains why SXSW doesn’t really work as an event for discovering new music:
A recent series of studies, titled “When Choice is Demotivating,” provide the evidence [that more choice is not better]. One study was set in a gourmet food store in an upscale community where, on weekends, the owners commonly set up sample tables of new items. When researchers set up a display featuring a line of exotic, high-quality jams, customers who came by could taste samples, and they were given a coupon for a dollar off if they bought a jar. In one condition of the study, 6 varieties of the jam were available for tasting. In another, 24 varieties were available. In either case, the entire set of 24 varieties was available for purchase. The large array of jams attracted more people to the table than the small array, though in both cases people tasted about the same number of jams on average. When it came to buying, however, a huge difference became evident. Thirty percent of the people exposed to the small array of jams actually bought a jar; only 3 percent of those exposed to the large array of jams did so (19-20).
SXSW too has a large number of exotic, high-quality jams — 1300 to be precise. And most of these bands plays multiple times.
In three days, faced with somewhere around 900 options, I saw two bands total.
The Mae Shi, For Example
On Friday night, I went to see The Mae Shi‘s showcase gig. They played for only about 25 minutes, but it verged on life-changing. The boys started the gig spread into the crowd, and since the venue had a poor man’s version of stadium-seating, they started chanting their first song in unison all around us. Finally descending upon the stage, they rocked and socked — with brief costume changes but without annoying inter-song banter — until we were all rocked out.
Besides the fact that the Mae Shi is a totally swell band, once had 6000 MySpace friends before MySpace conspired to destroy their MySpace page, and had their unbelievably great new track “Run to Your Grave” on Pitchfork’s Forkcast recently, there could not have been more than 75 to 100 people at the show.
Austin is the “live music capital of the world,” and I am assuming “live music” to connote “rock bands with guitars” that play four-minute rock songs. I never got the feeling that art-rock is really a good match to the proceedings.
Which leads us to assessing the value of bringing Kiiiiiii to SXSW — a band who in my completely subjective, horribly biased, and subsequently worthless opinion are one of the shining stars of the Japanese indie music scene. They played first at Todd P.’s backyard party in the drizzle for an energetic gaggle of hipsters local and glocal (Brooklyn, represent), which went generally well and made a nice intro for Juiceboxxx to come on and start knocking over plastic chairs. (Did he get off from school to perform or was he playing hooky? Truant they’ll all say, quoth Milhouse.)
The Beauty Bar gig later that night was a mixed affair. Short on time, no sound checks allowed, maybe 100 people or so, but a strange mix of patrons. Some guy immediately stole a kazoo off the stage, tried to blow on it for 10 mins, failing to make any sort of noise, then pocketed it and started walking away, before I asked him whether “I could get that back.” I got it back. This is what managers are for.
Reviews were mixed.
“I got a chance to see “Kiiiiiii” on said birthday. It was very energetic and fun. I have thier DVD so I can get really drunk with friends and re-live the halcyon.” – “Edward”
“Yes, those two Japanese girls are energetic mad, and they sure do make a spectacle of themselves. But with one singer and one drummer and no support musicians, the performance was, at the very least, thin. The old fart in me appreciates method where madness is concerned, and Kiiiiiii pretty much tells method to fuck off. I left after 15 minutes.” – Musicwhore.org
“KIIIII: I can’t believe there was hype for this band. This was one of the worst performances I’ve ever seen. Japan’s gotta bring more than this.” – Bandwagon
Nothing, however, beats this pithy summary:
“We kicked off the festival by seeing a crazy Japanese band called Kiiiiii who were 2 harajuku girls that performed with guitar and drumas a-la White Stripes, and included strange covers of Boney M’s Brown Girl In The Ring and We Are The World in a style that was only slightly recognisable, but totally hysterical.” – Jude Adam
Kiiiiiii does not have a guitar player.
With 1300 bands, hype is critical as it is the sole guide for navigating the surplus of gig choices. Hype at SXSW, however, is not expanded through performance as much as aggregated and consolidated. In a sea of so many choices, there is nowhere to accidentally see a band and start loving them. You either love or hate whom you have already set out to see.
Before I left for Austin, my friend Nick S. mentioned it was “great” that Kiiiiiii had managed to get on the Crystal Castles bill, but shows at SXSW aren’t “shows” in any traditional sense, where patrons stick around and see the other bands. If a gig ends at x:40, you’ve got 20 mins to make it to the next venue to see the next band on your list or have a slice of pizza. I doubt anybody stayed around at Beauty Bar after Kiiiiiii, and even if the crowd sized stayed the same or increased, the Venn diagram would show a very small overlap between the crowds.
All in all, Kiiiiiii got a blip on the radar by showing up to SXSW — mainly from placement in the massive list of 1300 bands and subsequent discovery by myriad bloggers. Whether the actual performances did anything for macro-promotion, I have no idea.
JETRO — the Japan External Trade Organization and government organ — threw a party on Thursday of SXSW week called the “Matsuri-Japan Bash” to nominally support the exportation of Japanese music to the rest of the world. I certainly salute the idea, but they sided with the Japan Nite event, which is a non-curated, pay-to-play showcase. Any Japanese band with $6000 to spend (on top of the $1000 in airfare for each member), can be a part of the famous Japan Nite.
Since nobody behind this operation seems to have any idea to bring Japanese bands with some semblance of appeal to American indie rock audiences and instead let big labels throw them some bands, we got a weird mix of newcomers, old-timers, and garage bands on holiday. HY are light poppers from Okinawa and favorites of 18 year-old Japanese female college students who “like” “music.” Go!Go!7188 are kind of a sub-Shiina Ringo rock band from Toshiba/EMI about whose existence I had completely forgotten. No one Japanese I know will consider Sony’s six-girl teenage ska band Oreskaband an actual band and not an elaborate marketing scheme. In case you didn’t get enough horns, Pistol Valve — an all-girl teenage brass band — came along as well.
I know I am being snobby and selfish here, wanting Japan to present a well-curated hipster cool instead of putting forward “pay-to-play” as a national cultural trait. And hell, some guy who actually took the trouble to see Kiiiiiii — a non-Japan Nite band — thought that “Japan’s gotta bring more than this,” so I doubt I can speak for all American fans of the Japanese music. But with this national-sponsorship of Japanese gross national cool, I am still troubled that the aesthetic mismanagement of selecting the “representatives” has no led to a degeneration of the “Japan” brand — maybe not for the audiences, who I am sure enjoyed the young teenage sound of an all-girl ska band — but for Japanese artists themselves. If anybody had bothered to say, how do we promote Japanese bands in the US, they would have called Shugo Tokumaru, who probably would have gone to SXSW and ignored Japan Nite for a better showcase with no national-affiliation and support from the official trade bureau. Dear Bureaucracy, maybe the best way to promote Japanese music abroad is to not get involved at all.