Picking Apart the SXSW Music Schwag Bag

(Looking at the third of 3 SXSW Gift Bags – One for each festival.)

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The music bag is always the heaviest when it comes to schwag. This year’s was no different. And much of it was just clutter, plain and simple. For instance: tons of tons of CD samplers. I personally am not a fan of them, unless they’re mixed by friends. But I do love the annual Japan Nite CD sampler, which is a great sampling of the Japanese bands that showcase every Friday night of SXSW at the club Elysium.

There was some gum from ubiquitous advertiser Dentyne, who I think covered every possible medium and location during the festival to get their gum out. There was also a sample snack size of Zone Perfect nutrition bars. The pack of playing cards from DirectTV was a nice gesture, but anyone who plays cards religiously could tell right away that they were really cheap.Perhaps the strangest item was from BestofBands.com: some kind of plastic “Casper the Friendly Ghost”-like thing with a blood splatter on its “head.” None of my friends or I could figure out what this thing was. It looks like it has a “tail.” Or is it a cape? Is it supposed to clip on something? Oh well, too vague to maintain any interest. And since it’s an election year there was a Rock the Vote button, but no other call to action on it. No voter registration stations or even a website. Local Austin diner favorite Kerbey Lane included a surprisingly thin pad of Post-It notes, with their website address only. Kerbey is great: it’s one of the few places in town open 24 hours. I feel like this was an opportunity missed.

I liked the intention of Last.fm‘s offering: a small guide to all the bands playing at SXSW. The reason I like the intention is because it’s obvious they wanted to make something kind of useful, but still branded. It’s not a bad strain of logic, but the follow-through really doesn’t hold up at all. A dozen websites do this better (and also link to calendars).

For straight up design aesthetic, no one is doing it better than British Music at SXSW. Under the banner name “British Music Embassy,” the printed guide to all music British was impeccably produced, even down to the details like rounded corners. They did an equally impressive brochure last year as well and once again they’ve done the seemingly impossible- they’ve made a brochure I actually want to read. Cheers to that.The final piece of schwag was the favorite of my group of friends. “Sgt. Solo” from Armed Forces Entertainment. I’m not exactly sure why, because it’s just a green army man figurine with an acoustic guitar instead of, say, a flame thrower. I suppose my friends just liked throwing it at each other or stacking it on top of dishes at restaurants. But a small, completely portable piece of schwag that can break up a few minutes of monotony is always a good idea.

Vampire Weekend

The convergence of bands, record execs, media watchers and tastemakers have turned SXSW into a perfect, yet bizarre, laboratory for the study of rock band promotion. In this maelstrom it seems like every year a handful of bands rise above the background noise and get singled out as the next big thing. As you’ve probably heard by now, Vampire Weekend, an indie pop band comprised of fresh-faced college kids who wear boat shoes, is this year’s must- see act. This band’s rise to SXSW superstardom displays an incredibly calculated awareness of music trends. In many ways they are the most purposfully, intelligently and agressively marketed bands of the last few years.

This band is almost aggressively uncool. Sure, there is some irony, but they proudly flaunt the fact they’re a bunch of foppish ivy leaguers. They are utterly non-threatening; their press photos show clean-cut, unremarkable dudes with tucked-in shirts and flip-flops. It’s preppie-pop with some world music influences. They sound a little like a few dorky Paul Simon fans who got way into a stack of bizarre, late-period Sting albums. This is not edgy rock. My mom likes this band. So why are they selling out clubs?

Knowing this, I got in line about an hour early, which it turns out wasn’t close to early enough, since the line was already 200 deep. My place on 4th street was near enough the stage door to see the band load in: beardless nerds in pink pants and blazers. Resigned to the fact I wasn’t getting into Antone’s, I played roving reporter and talked to the other doomed show goers to try to find out why they were cool. An alarming number of people in line had never heard this band, and came just to see what the hype was about. Also notable was people who mentioned that they enjoyed this band “because of who they are” or “because they’re Ivy Leaguers.” When I pointed out that an Ivy League education was not very rock and roll, no one seemed to mind.

At some level, they seem to be a reaction to the insider rock culture that dominates the Internet and SXSW. For example: the continuing trend to write music reviews in obscure, subcultural jargon; SXSW’s increasingly exclusive parties and high-velocity buzz bands are all relatively recent developments. These trends arose, at least in part, from the mainstreaming of the “hipster” archetype that dominated so much pop culture the last several years. The image of the scenester Adonis was carved out of bad haircuts and silly bandanas that are marketed so aggressively (yet cheesily) that a few years from now it’s going to have the same kitsch as an 80’s movie.

Like all bands, blowing up is part luck. Vampire Weekend having their producer on the Pitchfork Media staff (as disclosed in their 8.8/10 review) doesn’t hurt. But even more than their predescessors, Vampire Weekend is a carefully calculated product manufactured by people acutely aware of the type of marketing and branding required to stand out from the crowd. Their squeaky clean image is a big part of it. Lyrics about sitting around the quad and summering on the Cape are subtly confrontational. Rock kids get riled up to imagine the yuppie beach-house set invading the gritty world of indie college rock. Also, there has long been much talk about the materialistic hip-hop scene, but there is an aspirational quality to Vampire Weekend’s music. Their lyrics paint a picture of an easy, comfortable life that is specifically not that of a rock star. One music video shows them sailing on a yacht! But beyond that, I think fans aren’t looking for music to be dangerous anymore. Vampire Weekend is safe, scrubbed rock and roll, that feels subversive enough to get the indie stamp of approval. Whether or not they live up to the hype remains an open question for me, and the other 400 people shut out of the showcase last night. But honestly? Seems unlikely.

Saturday, March 15

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Quote of the Day : Leigh-Anne Brown
No one could walk down 6th St. without seeing one of these guys, the Segway Fleet advertising themselves by silently zooming down the street. Before she got away, I was able to catch up to Leigh-Anne for her opinions about branding at SXSW.

What are you excited about this year?

I’m excited about a lot of music, and I’m also really happy for the city of Austin. SXSW is a booming week for the city. It’s great to see visitors enjoying our great food, real estate, and music scene.

What products have you seen so far?

Nothing has really caught my eye, but I’ve seen posters for Bud Light and the Flatstock Conference. But that’s not to say it doesn’t work to advertise downtown. It let’s people get really creative and get to the right people.

Do you think street marketing works?

I do think it works. It lets marketers do almost anything to get their product out there. I think the street teams handing out free stuff are great!

If you attend a branded party, are you more likely to use the product?

If I go to a branded party and I don’t already know about the brand, then I’m more likely to do research to find out more about it. Our Segways also allow companies to put a small ad on the front of it, that way the brand gets a lot of exposure from the person driving it around town.

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Daily Namedrop: Pownce

Here’s another online tool that I hadn’t heard of before (and if these postcards hadn’t been on top of the promo materials mountain I might not have heard of it). This is Pownce, a program you can download to your computer (Windows and Mac) that functions a little like AOL’s Instant Messenger. Rather than focusing on a chat feature though, Pownce enables users to send files, events, messages, and links to their friends through the downloadable (and theme customizable) program. While I normally would use email for sending files and what not, Pownce is something I might consider, if not for the clean and simple design of it.

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Daily T Shirt

This must have been the one of the crazier things I saw at SXSW. Looking up from my Lego pile in the Interactive Playpen at the Convention Center, I saw a group of 5 or 6 young girls dressed as punk rock ballerinas (I didn’t get a photo, but check out the Videography from Friday to see what I mean). Investigation was required, especially after they began chanting something which I still can’t decipher at the moment. This New Wave street team was “advertising” for a band. Yes, a band. I’m not sure if this is genius or just plain weird, but it was definitely a conversation starter, if not a spectacle. What sort of ruins the entire effort is, after getting a t-shirt, I can’t make out what the homemade thing even says. As for grading, I’d say A for effort and C for comprehension, girls.

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Daily Signage: Dentyne Ice.
While not the most impressive poster of the bunch, I lauded Dentyne for having a campaign effort with synergy. If you missed getting a couple packs of gum from a street team member, too bad. I saw them enough to get 4 or 5 packages of the gum. They also had a heavy presence at The Levi’s Fort (boxes of Dentyne Ice were placed inside the maze of the Fort). So in terms of covering the downtown spread, Dentyne is probably one of the more successful brands this year.

FXFU: Do Not Advertise Here

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There aren’t too many places left at SXSW that are genuinely marketing free. Most events are pretty blatant promotional vehicles. Others work hard to seem authentic and non-corporate and mostly fail. Some, though attached to a brand, really aren’t trying to sell you anything except a good time. But for the last decade there is one party in Austin, still going strong, that is guaranteed to be an oasis of marketing-free, old-fashioned punk rock ethos: F*ck by F*ck You. And how can I tell? Because its the only SXSW party in town that has a goat.

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Once upon a time, though it’s getting harder and harder to remember, all you needed to throw a show here was a P.A. You didn’t need Fader and Red Bull to build massive complexes full of flat screen TVs and Guitar Hero. You didn’t need to give away your email address and phone number to get a laminate. FXFU is a SXSW tradition of throwing shows the old fashioned way. The venue is basically a sandpit with a rickety porch and a homebuilt stage. It’s also the home of Bryan Nelson’s Australian Cattle God record label, a fiercely independent local imprint that promotes bands and sells albums the grassroots way. It’s also home to an adorable pygmy goat. And on Saturday, it was home to 300+ old punks, babies, hipsters, drunks, stoners, record excs, moms, dads, out-of-towners and anyone else who heard about it having the time of their lives.

So here is the problem. The organizers of FXFU (and many of the attendees) are the genuine freaks, weirdos and lunatics. People who are not ruled by fashion or trends. The artists. The risk-takers. The true tastemakers. These are the people SXSW advertisers dream about selling to. And people like this exist in every scene and in every city. Obviously this doesn’t mean advertisers should bring their promotional koozies and bottle openers and candleholders to FXFU. The only way for an advertiser to reach this profoundly influential group is to stop thinking about advertising and start thinking about what makes events like this work: a sense of community. Large corporations are not necessarily the problem, but as someone smart at Google once said: “Don’t be evil.” Think about local markets. Think about communities. Think about being green. Don’t do it just to move product, but do it because it makes sense, for both your business and your customers. These are the tenets that have always been vital to the “DIY scene,” be it the punks or the hippies or the hackers or whoever. And the DIY scene has been steadily gaining momentum and is not going away. When businesses as a whole reflect these values, advertising becomes less of a one way street and more of a dialouge. And successful, quality products and sucessful quality marketing build sound companies and loyal customers.

FXFU started as a response to the increasingly corporate feel of SXSW, but it survives as perhaps the most relevant SXSW event there could ever be. It’s the one party that’s not about brands or dollars or the record industry. It’s just a bunch of people who love rock music and who love bringing people together and actually care enough to make it happen. It’s refreshing, as it is every year, to see something so genuine at this festival.

Friday, March 14

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Quote of the Day : Rico

Rico is an Austinite and street team member for SoundCheck magazine. His second year at SXSW, he is here for both music and film. Here’s what Rico had to say about the branding of SXSW.

What are you excited about this year?

I’m excited about the bands (Devotcha, Lisps, and Blows) and also all the movies that are showing.

What products have you seen so far?

I’ve seen a lot of Vice posters and posters for energy/fruit drinks, too.

Do you think street marketing works?

Yeah, I think so. So many people are out in the street that it makes for a good place to get out there and really show what you’re promoting.

If you attend a branded party, are you more likely to use the product?

I’m more likely to use the product, yeah. If it’s a good experience, then I definitely am likely to use it.

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Daily T Shirt

This was an interesting find. Over at the Convention Center, the movie Second Skin was showing, and I immediately found this guy promoting it. Initially I thought Second Skin might be a cell phone or laptop cover, but he satisfied my curiosity by responding it was just a movie and that he would be happy to have his photo taken with the director, Juan Carlos Piñeiro Escoriaza (left).

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Daily Namedrop : Yacht

While I’m pretty sure Yacht has received a ton of blog press already, I feel compelled to add a little bit more. I saw the electro/R&B duo at the Fort/Fader, and it blew my mind. Yacht is entertaining, a great spectacle to watch, and the music is incredible. I was dancing unabashedly. “See a Penny Pick It Up” is a perfect blend of electro beats and great melodies. If you missed their performances at SXSW, put picking up their CD on the top of your list.

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Daily Signage : Vitamin Water

What the? When I saw this, I took a couple of double takes. This is the exact same poster style seen a couple of days ago by Fuze beverages! I also saw NOS doing the same thing, but after some research I found that NOS is one of Fuze’s line of drinks. I still like the idea, but if everyone jumps on the band wagon, the tactic will just become boring.

Ray-Ban, Rachel Ray and Fader Forting

So I finally made it in, and the Fader/Levi’s Fort was as cool as everyone made it out to be. The Fort itself had a bunch of different rooms to check out, and that was smart because it encouraged lounging around with some of the Fader magazines laying about. Ray-Ban did a confession booth that also took your picture and printed them out with an access code to see your confession online—that was an excellent way to get people to access the Ray-Ban website.

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Before the Fader Fort, we went to the Rachael Ray Party at Beauty Bar, officially called the Feedback Party Hosted by Rachael Ray. They posted flyers everywhere for that party, but enforced their RSVP list, which made for a long, attention-getting line. Inside they were extremely well-organized and served amazing food while heavily promoting (and pouring) the new Rose’s Mojito mix.My camera was out of batteries, so I couldn’t take a picture, but one of the funniest things I’ve seen at SXSW was a sign outside of a bar advertising “free food, gift bags, and beer,” written in marker on a white paper plate, taped to a parking meter. What?! At least take the time to make a poster at home!Again, not as much schwag today. But here’s a look at the final tally of all the free stuff I received at SXSW:

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No Sidewalk Chalk?

When it comes to SXSW 2008, I’ve seen a lot of the typical brand promotion strategies. We’ve seen the posters. We’ve seen the bottle replicas serving as posters. Every type of beverage has a wrapped vehicle (the Monster energy truck I thought was a little different and appropriate for the brand), and if brands don’t have any of the aforementioned, they have street teams to hand out the product. Other than the interactive lounges, I’m a little bored.

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So where’s the sidewalk chalk? This is what I really wanted to know when I walked down 6th St. at noon today. Knowing that downtown largely becomes barricaded and patrons are able to walk in the street, I would think that sidewalk chalk would be an absolute hit! 6th is probably wide enough to fit three Weiner Mobiles at least, and that could be a lot of room for chalking your brand onto the ground. I can’t be positive of the cost differences between synthetic posters and an artist with great chalk skills, but I imagine they might not be too far off, making sidewalk works of art quite possible. And who knows, maybe chalk isn’t the only option. I actually saw one solitary piece of sidewalk advertising and that was a poster somehow attached to the ground. There’s nothing to say that posters can’t be put on the ground too, and maybe you could put a great creative spin on it. Maybe it’s just me, but I see a lot of cool potential. So all I can say is, when other brands are looking high, maybe next year other brands should look low.


SXSW is an Austin event. And Door Number 3 is an Austin advertising agency. We're interested in how new ideas in advertising, media and branding will be presented during these 9 quick days. From inside the lecture halls where top specialists present their thoughts, to out on the streets where advertising is put to the test on tens of thousands of festival-goers. We'll be there with the complete coverage, reports, photos, editorials, and perhaps some tricks on how to sneak into a few sweet afterparties.

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