Belmont University recently selected a group of 15 lucky Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business students to attend SXSW in Austin, March 13-18. The trip was part of an experiential learning course offering, and participating students earned an hour of class credit.
Belmont instructor Dan Keen, along with Belmont staffers Tish Stewart and Sarah Cates, put the program together. Interested students had to go through an application process, and the chosen will soon have to finish a big paper and presentation about their experience in Austin.
“We were looking for a mindset—being active on campus, or being involved in the music business outside the classroom,” said Keen. “We were looking for 15 students that would take advantage—for kids that were mature, intelligent, passionate and excited enough to really get the most out of the opportunity.”
Among the 15 chosen were Belmont Juniors Ale Delgado and Dylon Walker as well as Senior Bianca Edwards. Participating students were instructed to tailor their schedules so they could see the artists they wanted to see, and cultivate their particular interests with panel sessions.
Walker has been thinking about attending the event for years, having first heard about SXSW through a subscription to Alternative Press. “It seemed so exciting and now to finally be able to go was like having a dream come true,” he said.
For Edwards, the trip was an opportunity to put her name in the job search hat in addition to hearing some great music.
“I knew it would be an opportunity to network with not only people and bands I’ve never met before but also people I’ve interned with. I saw it as an opportunity to reconnect with those people and kind of remind them that I was graduating soon,” she said with a laugh.
SXSW has earned a reputation for being an over the top, sensory overload kind of experience. The students were quick to confirm this is still the case, and all agreed there was no way to see everything.
“It’s absolutely crazy,” admitted Delgado, who also co-owns local milkshake truck Moovers and Shakers. “We got there Wednesday night [3/14] and things were already going. People running into shows, grabbing a quick bite to eat. It was really over-stimulating and overwhelming but in a really good way because it’s people who really love music. It’s a good kind of frenzy.”
“I have to give Belmont credit for asking us to make a schedule before we got there,” added Edwards. “SXSW had an amazing app and you could use that to make a schedule and search artists, bands, panels, the whole nine. It helped in the planning process.”
In practice however the schedule sometimes became more of a wish list, and serendipity led the students to see things they might not have.
“I gravitate toward garage rock and dance-y electronic pop so I made a schedule along those lines,” said Delgado. “You’ll see some bands because you’ll make time to see some of them. But a lot of them I found because my friend was at a showcase and I went to meet up there or because I was tired and didn’t want to walk anywhere. I saw a lot of good bands that way.”
“Your schedule creates a foundation and you kind of build from that when you’re there,” chimed in Walker. “Sometimes you’re on one side of the city but what you planned is over there. It’s easier to go to something closer.”
Walker devoured sets by a wide range of artists from Horsefeathers, to Lil Wayne, to Eve6. Delgado took in shows by The Drums, The Big Pink, and Best Coast among others. She is also a diehard fan of The Smiths, and got to see former Smiths bassist Andy Rourke perform a DJ set. “Afterward I went up and said, ‘I’m a big Smiths fan. Your DJ set was awesome.’ And he gave me a kiss on the cheek,” she recalled. “That was my shining moment!”
Edwards is an avid hip-hop head who got to see Nas performing his classic album Illmatic, as well as surprise performances by Kanye West and Jay-Z among others. She’s also a rapper who records under the name Miss B, and jumped when she had the chance to perform onstage with producer-artist Timbaland.
“He asked if anyone had any talent and I’m very vocal about what I do,” she said. “So I said ‘I’m a poet and I rap.’ He said ‘No you don’t.’ And I said ‘Yes.’ He invited me onstage and asked the crowd if they wanted to hear something, and we performed. He beatboxed and I rapped.”
Star-making turns with Timbaland aside, another important component of the trip was for the students to check out panels and network during the educational sessions at SXSW. Artist development in the digital age was a hot topic.
“The one where I learned the most was a BET Music Matters panel,” said Edwards. “The quote that stood out the most was a lady who said, ‘Paying an artist today, buying the CD, is like tipping them. We can get it for free but because we love the artist so much, we tip them. Your goal as an artist is to make your music so enjoyable that your fans want to tip you because everything is free.’”
“My favorite panel was ‘Reblog Culture: Tumblr and Social Music Fandom,’” offered Delgado. “About how fan culture works and how fans naturally build their own communities and how Tumblr kind of mirrors that activity. I use Tumblr and it was different to see it in a scholarly view, about how fans want to discover new things and share with their friends, and how the site is built around those things.”
Sharing and community were important lessons of the week, as were the mixture of talent and work necessary to make it as an artist.
“It was all about community building,” said Delgado, a notion which Walker seconded. “All the panels and showcases, it was about community—building it up and sharing it with other people. That’s where the business is headed.”
“I learned the importance of work and talent,” added Edwards. “At Belmont I had an idea that you just had to be talented. Being at SXSW around so many successful creative people, I learned it’s a combination. You have to work very hard to be successful and overcome everyone else who wants to do what you’re doing. It’s not solely based on talent.”
Edwards also found some inspiration in Bruce Sprinsteen’s keynote speech, when the iconic rocker talked about what artists need to be successful.
“He said these artists need to learn how to put on a great show,” she noted. “Not a good show, but a great show. And once they learn how to do it, then they need how to learn how to do it night after night. That’s where that talent thing and that work thing comes into play.”
Once these students caught up on sleep, they had some considerable work ahead of them. In just a few weeks, they’ll be delivering their big SXSW presentation to Belmont faculty.
“The idea was to make the students the teachers,” said Keen. “We had this in mind when we screened for selection: who do we think has the capability of blowing the faculty’s mind? The students are going to make presentations at the end of April, so they’ve got some time. Their responsibility was to go and learn, and come back and share with their community.”
SXSW is also about discovering new bands, and getting a sense of who will have a big year. Delgado predicted success for noise pop duo Sleigh Bells, and Walker is seeing good things for Cincinnati band Walk the Moon. Delgado and Walker both agreed that Miss B looks primed for a big year after her appearance with Timbaland. Edwards is capitalizing on that momentum with plans to move to New York after graduation, as well as assembling her team and recording an album.
When the announcement was originally made, the project was met with some skepticism that it would just be a university-sanctioned Spring Break party. Excess is a common part of the SXSW environment, but these students appeared to make the most of a golden opportunity to see, discover, and learn.
“We’re so proud of them,” said Keen. “We expected a lot and they’ve really delivered. I have a lot of confidence they’ll be leaders one day.”