Perhaps the biggest complaint I hear about SXSW Music is “Ugh, it has become so corporate. Remember when it was just about discovering new music?” Well newsflash. SXSW is about ALL music. It’s a real treat to randomly walk into a bar and discover a band that you’ve never heard of that will now have a home on your iPod’s most played for the next few years. But it’s also a treat to see some of your favorite artists in intimate settings performing in a new and unexpected way. This year, SXSW had some of its biggest acts to-date and many of them were secret (well sort of) treats.
MySpace was a big player in the secret shows game. The music website hosted not one, but three secret shows and the only way to guarantee entree was to join the network and watch out for the secret RSVP button to pop-up on site. If you were one of the first to RSVP, you were rewarded with an email and a secret (surprise, surprise) location to go pick up your wristband for the show. The first of these shows featured Kid Cudi with Diplo. The next night Sleigh Bells blew up the house and then for the final performance at SXSW, MySpace investor Justin Timberlake graced the stage. The performances weren’t announced until the day before, but fans were smart enough to guess who all would be there. For the fans lucky enough to get in to the tiny box venue, they were rewarded with incredibly intimate sets from stars that would be playing arenas and stadiums for a normal, much more expensive gig.
If you’re looking for surprise performers at SXSW, look no further than SXSW closing night parties. Half the brands had special shows that brand users could earn their way into what otherwise had pretty exclusive access. Samsung probably had one of the most buzzed about closing parties. They had booked the newly remodeled La Zona Rosa for their “secret show” though rumors abounded over who would be playing. Since SXSWers are pretty savvy, the guesses were pretty spot on, but the real surprise came not just with the headliner, but with that headliner combined with this opening act. Turns out Samsung had really sprung for the “it” show and had booked Prince with A Tribe Called Quest opening. To get in, you needed to have one of the newer Samsung devices with NFC technology. Using this device, you could unlock specials all around Austin, which included things like free cupcakes and pizza. Once you unlocked all the giveaways, it earned you the grand prize: Prince passes which came in the form of a purple wristband. Of course, if you weren’t lucky enough to be a Samsung owner there were a few other, much more difficult ways to get in to this intimate show and it wasn’t that shocking that a few uber fans went out and bought new phones just for the guaranteed entry. Smart move, Samsung.
If you couldn’t get in for Prince, there were plenty of other closing parties with surprise headliners. There was the aforementioned Justin Timberlake party over at the Myspace show, but of course, you needed a special wristband for that as well. A little bit more accessible were the Smashing Pumpkins by the convention center or Fall Out Boy’s surprise appearance at Perez Hilton’s party. Then if you wanted a guaranteed performer, there were plenty of non-secret acts playing as well such as Vampire Weekend at Stubbs.
Rap & Hip Hop Acts Bring the Real Surprises
Most parties and showcases billing “special guests” or “secret acts,” didn’t do that great of a job at keeping things secret. Justin Timberlake was pretty well known a week before SXSW even started and Fall Out Boy was openly walking around the streets. If you wanted the opportunity to catch a real surprise at SXSW, your best bet was to attend a rising rap or hip hop performer’s set. Why? Because these performers often have friends in high places. So while, Kanye West didn’t appear to support the rising star that he endorsed, Travi$ $cott, plenty of other people did. At the MTVU Woodie awards, T.I. shocked when he jumped out on stage midway through the set. Then over at the Fader Fort, French Montana invited Macklemore out (which wasn’t that surprising), but Diddy also joining was a shock. Speaking of Fader Fort, that seems to be the venue to be at if you’re looking for surprises. There were rumors that Lil Wayne was going to join Afghan Whigs at their set, but his sudden hospitalization meant that those rumors weren’t going to work out. So instead, Usher filled in instead and turned the performance into a nice little tribute filled with well wishes for Lil Wayne.
While most of the rumors were spot on this year, it doesn’t always work out that way. So in 2014, keep an eye on your Twitter feed for surprise artists, but don’t let that dictate your entire SXSW experience. The best surprises are the ones you never got wind of and just found on your own.