Who’s been the biggest “get” of SXSW thus far? Johnny Cash in ’94 and Tom Waits in ’99 really helped put the Austin conference on the map. Norah Jones had the No. 1 album in the country when she played SXSW in 2002, Metallica at Stubb’s in ’09 was huge, as was Bruce Springsteen in 2012. Eminem, Lady Gaga, Foo Fighters, Lil’ Wayne, Jay Z, Smokey Robinson, Kanye West, Tony Bennett, Justin Timberlake and many more big names have played Southby in recent years. Adele was on the schedule in 2008, but cancelled.
But in terms of fame, talent, respect and influence, no SXSW booking has been more spectacular than Prince at La Zona Rosa in 2013. Samsung brought in the genius of sophistifunk for a fee rumored to be a million dollars to play their party, but plenty of badgeholders also got in. “Samsung worked with us and did a really great job with the set-up,” says Roland Swenson of SXSW. The smartphone giants build a new stage for Prince and his 18-piece band.
“As long as I can remember, every year we have a gaping hole in the schedule in February,” Swenson recalls. In 2013, La Hole was at Zona Rosa. “That year we just couldn’t confirm Saturday night at La Zona Rosa.” The venue’s manager informed SXSW that they had an offer to host a private party that night, if the festival would release the date. All he knew was that Samsung was the sponsor.
Since Samsung was involved in other sponsorship at SXSW that year, the point person was called and asked what was the deal. “They said it was a special artist and they wanted to make sure it was confirmed (before they notified SXSW), so we said ‘Who is it?’ And when they said ‘Prince,’ we said, ‘you’re kidding, right?’” Nope, they got Prince. When that show was announced, just a few days before it happened, the news cut across generations. The guest list included Michael K. Williams, best known as Omar from The Wire.
“Someone on our staff was saying ‘he’s just going to play an hour,’ and so we weren’t really expecting what we got,” says Swenson, “which was an incredible three-hour concert.” Prince didn’t pick up a guitar all night, just playing keyboards, but as he told the crowd after his second or three encore, “Don’t make me hurt you Austin. I have a lot of hits.”
Sometimes a hole becomes a beautiful thing.