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Music Man Takes His Leave

Nobody was concerned that Phil Oswald was away from his Main Hall office during spring break. For the ninth straight year, St. Norbert College’s vice president of college advancement was busy fretting over frets, amps, sound, lights and musicians as a volunteer stage manager at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Festival in Austin, Texas.

“This is how I take my vacation,” Oswald says. “I work during my vacation, but it’s something totally different than what I’m used to doing. It’s cool because it’s out of my normal day-to-day routine.”

South by Southwest – or simply “South By,” as the regulars call it – is the world’s leading music industry event. In addition to panel discussions, trade show, music gear expo and other conference activities, the event features six nights of musical performances at more than 100 official stages.

This year’s 29th annual event took place March 17-22. Oswald worked four days from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., in addition to the hundreds of hours of advance work he logged in the months leading up to the festival. He made sure the bands had their equipment in place or arranged to share equipment, especially in the case of international acts. He also communicated logistics such as arrival and performance times for at least six different acts each night. Each act gets a 40-minute set.

“I get to work with some of the best people year after year,” Oswald says. “It’s almost like going to summer camp.”

St. David’s Historic Sanctuary in Austin has been the home venue for Oswald and his team the past six years. Alcohol is not allowed in the church sanctuary, meaning the 350 people who can fill the room typically are well behaved. “It can get full and then it can get rowdy,” Oswald says. “Sometimes I’m the one to let people in and out because of the fire marshal restrictions.”

Oswald’s working vacation puts him in touch with some significant talent. He has had the opportunity to see a number of acts on the rise, including Nashville artist Sturgill Simpson and other singer-songwriters like Josh Ritter, Carrie Rodriguez and Jakob Dylan. And he gets to work with backstage stars like Bernd Knemoeller, too. “He’s the sound engineer, one of the best in Texas. We met in 2010 and he and I are the original team there. He travels the country with national productions but always comes back to St. David’s for our evenings at SXSW.” Oswald says, “For me, the best moments are a combination of making the crowd happy and the artist happy. All I need to hear is that somebody enjoyed their time there and that it was cool for the artist.”

A midlife musician
A late bloomer in terms of his association with the music business, Oswald served as music director at KMSC Radio at Morehead State College in Minnesota during his college days, but didn’t become a musician until learning to play bass guitar at the age of 49. He played his first gig on his 50th birthday.

Oswald played in a rock band called Largemouth during his years on staff at the University of Missouri, and enjoyed a handful of gigs in Austin after he moved south to serve as the associate vice president at the University of Texas.

“They would put out a call for volunteers for various things around Austin, and one year I volunteered at the Austin City Limits Music Festival,” Oswald recalls. “Then I decided to volunteer for South by Southwest. I was just going to do stage crew, but they needed stage managers. Little did I know I’d be working the whole conference.”

April 17, 2015