News & Politics

I Ran a DC Showcase at SXSW for Seven Years. Here’s How the Government Did It.

DC music at South by Southwest used to be a DIY affair. Now city officials are in charge.

Rare Essence became the first go-go act to play an official South by Southwest show. Photograph by Valerie Paschall.

The idea of a South by Southwest party filled with DC bands was born in November 2007 over some crummy Ruby Tuesday’s taquitos after an all-ages show in Alexandria. Four local musicians invited me out to interview them, and the conversation eventually veered toward perceptions that outsiders have of DC’s music scene. This was only two years after the break-ups of Dischord acts Q and not U and Black Eyes, so most external opinion was still that the District’s musical landscape was full of dance-inflected post-punk. One of the musicians at the bar, Merideth Munoz of Pash, suggested putting on a set at South by Southwest to show the rest of the country’s musical tastemakers what DC had to offer. I offered to find a venue, others found a company to bankroll the show, and DC Does Texas was born.

Tuesday night’s official We DC showcase in Austin was always going to be a different experience than DC Does Texas. Everything from the motivation to the booking process to the amount of money behind the event was vastly different. The idea for DC Does Texas came after a DIY concert, and the event remained a staunchly DIY affair.

Our team has always been a loose collection of musicians, bloggers, and other dedicated fans interested in promoting the that music we love from the city where we live. We DC is the work of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration, which wants to market the city; the official concert was only one part of a weeklong production that included free brunches and meetups geared toward potential business investors. It was timed for SXSW Interactive—a confab of tech companies and angel investors—not the more famous music extravaganza.

DC Does Texas was also never an official event. Not that we were against the idea, but besides the considerably lower cost—we never spent more than $3,000 on our shows and it usually came out of our own pockets—running a one-day party allowed some freedoms that the Washington DC Economic Partnership (WDCEP) did not enjoy. We were able to book the bands we wanted, whether they had been accepted by the festival proper or not. Badge-toting acts like These United States, Kid Congo Powers, and Deleted Scenes shared a bill with unsanctioned bands like Hume, Typefighter, and noon:30. WDCEP hired Sasha Lord to curate last night’s lineup, but those bands also had to cleared by the SXSW overlords.

Another key difference: We were also able to provide things like free beer and breakfast tacos, incentives that WDCEP provided at its house during the day, but could not during an official SXSW event like last night’s.

But with more money and resources at their disposal—more than $350,000, according to the Washington Post—one would hope that WDCEP would put on a bigger and better show. In some ways it did. Rare Essence made history by becoming the first go-go band to play an official show at SXSW and, unsurprisingly, put on the kind of performance that will likely be unmatched by anyone over the course of the festival. How many people were introduced to go-go last night was unclear. There was plenty of apparel branded with Washington sports teams, but there’s no way that all of the 200 or so people in the club pumping their fists and dancing hailed from the District or even entirely knew what they were getting into. They probably also had no idea DJ Kool would make an appearance.

The We DC showcase also made the point of showing off the city’s diverse music palate. Progressive rockers Paperhaus played the same bill as hip-hop tribute conglomerate DC Loves Dilla. DC Does Texas has always unabashedly been a rock show. While we’ve had soul acts like Lowercase Letters in past years, we’ve been primarily a representation of the punk and indie rock communities with which we are intimately connected. We DC would have been doing it wrong had it focused on a single genre.

Still, the two shows have one thing in common: a desire to remind the rest of the music-loving country that its oft-forgotten capital still creates great music decades after Fugazi and Bad Brains. This is a city known for its political activity, but also for its strong funk, punk, and soul roots. DIY house shows and concerts on the Mall co-exist in this city and, I expect that in the future, DC Does Texas will co-exist with any forays the city makes at SXSW. But like our show did every year, We DC packed the venue, forced people to line up outside, and gave them a taste of what goes on inside our borders.

Valerie Paschall, the former music editor of DCist, is a writer in Washington.