The South By Southwest (SXSW) music conference and festival in Austin, Texas, has long been a destination for Japanese acts looking to get noticed in the U.S. market. This year’s gathering, which runs March 12-18, presents more options than ever for Japanese acts to find their crowd.
In previous years, Japanese acts usually had one big show to count on at SXSW: Japan Nite. Founded in the mid 1990s, it served as the showcase event for Japan’s visiting performers, ranging from major-label artists to more left-field performers. Japan Nite captured the original spirit of the Austin event perfectly — it was a chance for music industry folks and local fans to discover bands from the other side of the world.
In the late 2000s, though, SXSW’s atmosphere changed. Brands and companies became omnipresent and many shows that were formerly about introducing artists turned into giant commercials. In an effort to stand out, said corporations started bringing more famous names to Austin. Those acts vacuumed up all the attention at the event and lesser-known bands that used SXSW as a stepping stone were left with dwindling audiences. I was there to witness this hyper-capitalist phase reach its peak as Lady Gaga danced in front of a stage shaped like a massive Doritos vending machine.
Japanese acts really suffered from this change. The last Japanese act to really grab general interest in recent years was Perfume, a major-label trio. Japan Nite continues to bring in a dedicated crowd, but the event is less of a hot ticket — especially with the arrival of flashy K-pop showcases that use big-name acts to pack the house.
But SXSW seems to be changing once again. The branding blitz has softened and fewer Billboard-level names are popping up at the marquees. Viewed generously, SXSW looks a little closer to what it started out as — a place for musical discovery.
That’s great news for Japanese acts, who now have an unprecedented range of opportunities to shine in Austin. Besides Japan Nite, a second Japan-centric showcase — Sounds From Japan — goes down on March 15, featuring rock trio Tawings, feedback-tinged band DYGL and shadowy electronic act yahyel, among others. Most of the groups also try to play events with no direct Japan angle. Frantic quartet Chai, visiting for its second-straight year, will play the majority of its shows at events organized by American label Burger Records, which the band told me offered them a chance to reach a new audience.
Counterintuitively, all this choice only serves to underline the continued importance of Japan Nite. SXSW has become a fragmented experience offering a bewildering array of options. But faced with a glut of choice, consumers have a habit of returning to or sticking with known brands — The New York Times has seen subscriptions rise, and Beyonce can’t seem to do any wrong, to take just two examples.
Japanese bands need a reliable event that’s a long-running name and has pleased punters in the past. All of which should make Japan Nite a crucial springboard for launching new artists in 2018.