South by Southwest (SXSW) is an industry tradeshow that descends upon Austin, Texas every March. This is a critique of that tradeshow, not a review of the bands that performed last week.
Often mistaken for a music festival, SXSW literally floods the small city of Austin with almost half a million outsiders. Hotels sell out at quadruple normal rates while restaurants overflow into the foodtruck-lined streets. The parks are infested with plastic people and their plastic trash. Corporate-sponsored, festival-size stages rise up all over downtown, built to house the corporate, festival-size artists that flock to the event. Those who haven’t ‘made it big’ yet can be seen unloading gear from a van in front of a dive bar, only to load it right back in to get to the next gig 20 minutes later. And they are the lucky ones, they actually have a van. The bottom of the food chain (and sadly, some of those with the most talent) are the musicians who have to carry their equipment, literally fighting through the shit show that is 6th St. with a guitar on their back and an amp in their hand — just trying their best to get to a bar to play for a crowd that will review their set in 140 characters or less, and then walk out before the third song is over, essentially breaking all that hard work down to a simple hashtag.
The tradeshow attracts the industry people, the industry people attract the artists, the artists attract the fans, the fans bring the money, the money attracts the corporations, and the corporations fund the parties. And when there are thousands of parties and thousands of performances by thousands of artists, it becomes somewhat of a clusterfuck. Throw St. Patrick’s Day in the middle of this, and you’ll know why artists have explained SXSW as ‘a living, breathing MySpace, with the spam and all‘.
Patience is the key to having any chance of enjoying the SXSW experience, but patience is the one thing that is lacking in an event of excess. Bands are expected to get on stage and play with zero sound check and often times with borrowed equipment, and they are expected to do this on time! The sets are stacked so closely together that if a band is 5 minutes past their set time, the crowd will get restless — not to mention the promoter, sponsor and venue. And even if you are on time, the majority in the crowd will have their heads buried in some type of scheduling app, trying to figure out where to get next, or what they are missing out on by being where they are. There is always something better going on somewhere else. So it’s no wonder that artists like Chelsea Wolfe or Nika Roza Danilova can be found slamming doors or sitting alone in a corner feeling ‘vacant’ after performing for an audience that includes loud, obnoxious, drunken frat boys.
When Action Bronson threatened “I’m not going to tell you to make some noise one more time, I’m working my ass off up here” to a less than appreciative crowd, it wasn’t your usual hip-hop “put your hands in the air” type shit. The dude meant it! And is anyone really all that shocked that the A$AP Mob took to physical violence when people were throwing PBR cans at them at 3am on Sunday morning? These kids are not professionals. Have you seen them? They couldn’t even afford to get themselves to SXSW last year, and now they are playing countless sets over a couple days, not to mention all the partying and sleeping on floors in between. Sure, it’s no excuse, plenty of bands do it without assaulting their audience, but it’s not surprising. In some ways, for the artists, SXSW is much worse than any music festival. At least at a festival they can play their set and then enjoy the rest of the event. My guess is most of these artists play an average of 2-3 shows a day at SXSW, so there really is no time to relax. A lot of them are also doing this on their own dime, which makes things even more stressful.
Now, that’s not to say it’s all bad. A lot of artists really do get the recognition they deserve, and a lot of connections are made — connections that help bands get to the next level in their career. And the conference itself introduces exciting advancements in industry technology and forward-thinking ways of getting these bands heard. Bruce Springsteen’s keynote actually seemed relevant this year and will hopefully open people’s minds to what modern musical experimentation can produce. There are a lot of good things that come out of SXSW, you just have to listen past the Skrillex-powered party buses to hear them. It was after SXSW 2010 that I said I would never attend this event again, but it has been a couple years and I thought I had learned from my mistakes. It turns out I had, but I hadn’t.
This year, I set out with a goal. Instead of chasing bands around the city, I was going to focus on 1-2 parties/showcases a day. That way I could really relax and enjoy the performances without worrying about where I needed to be next. The showcase selection would be diverse enough that I felt like I had taken full advantage of what SXSW had to offer. I would also do my best to stay away from the 6th and Red River area after dark, in order to avoid people who seriously piss me off. I also had a goal of only spending time on smaller acts I had not seen before, so I would skip Alabama Shakes, Magnetic Fields, The Shins, Lucero, Sleigh Bells, etc. Wednesday night would be some dark, druggy, psychedelia at the Sacred Bones Showcase at Elysium. Thursday would be a buzz-band day at the Pitchfork Day Party at the Mohawk. Friday would be some hip-hop and pop at the Fader Fort. And Saturday would be my metal day at Lovejoys. This would cover all the acts I wanted to see, with the exception of Big K.R.I.T., Grimes, Purity Ring and Fiona Apple’s return.
Against all odds, I was almost 100% successful in the execution of this plan. I attended every event I set out to attend. I stayed at every event until the end. I saw all the acts I set out to see (with the exception of K.R.I.T., Grimes, Purity Ring and Fiona Apple), and even caught my friends Chelsea Wolfe and Deafheaven at the Sargent House Showcase, as well as The Cult play the big stage at Auditorium Shores. In the course of less than 100 hours, I witnessed almost 50 live acts (some more than once) at 7 events in 8 venues across Austin, all while managing to keep my distance from the chaos of 6th St. about 90% of the time. And I did have a lot of fun at least 50% of the time.
So why is it that I still have this vacant feeling? Like I was just a part of something dirty?
When I closed my eyes to fall asleep in the comfort of my own bed last night, the kaleidoscope of images and sounds going through my head gave me the answer to what I found to be lacking at SXSW. Image after image, clip after clip — a fractured conversation, a couple lines from a song, the taste of another watered down complimentary cocktail, the feel of the wristbands on my arms and the accusations from my bruised feet — an explosion of senses with no real feeling. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t focus in on any one outstanding moment. It was almost like I had been watching movie trailers for 4 days straight, never getting around to a feature length film. It’s all a blur. And now it’s over. And I still feel a little empty about the whole experience.
If you are the type who prefer New Orleans during Mardi Gras or Brazil during Carnival, or just want to be able to experience a lot of free music in a short period of time, SXSW just might be your thing. I prefer my live music in a single venue format. I prefer my Austin experience on a normal weeknight. I prefer seeing artists doing something they love, not something they feel they HAVE to do. And even though I’m sure there are better ways of doing SXSW, I will not be back to figure those out. 2012 will act as my last South By experience. Sorry for the negativity, maybe it’s just #sxswfatigue…
And with that being said, here is my week by the numbers:
Brooklyn Vegan Presents, Lovejoys, 03.17.12
Sacred Bones Offical Showcase, Elysium, 03.14.12
Favorite 10 Performances: (in order of when I saw them)
Black Hippy (Schoolboy Q, Kendrick Lamar)
Man’s Gin w/ Bruce Lamont
Top (Worst) 8 Things Overheard:
“Portlandia comes from a place of hate”
“Jack White and Jack Black hate each other”
“Florida is like the Hollywood of death metal”
“This pianoist is awesome! I love jazz!”
“I’m thinking about starting a blast-jazz band”
“My lymph nodes are swollen”
“I hear people from Austin hate SXSW” (while kicking an empty bottle down street)
“Dude, that’s Lil Jon, only Lil Jon says ‘what!’ That’s totally him!”
Most irritating moment, followed by funniest moment:
Idiot holding up an iPad to take pictures of The-Dream and someone working at a booth coming into the crowd, standing in front of the idiot and recording the set with his MacBook.
Moment of peace:
Sitting down at the bar next to the stage, drinking a Wade Redd Ale, watching Man’s Gin and Bruce Lamont do an acoustic set at Lovejoys while Blake Judd served them Bloody Marys.
# of Bands:
# of Sets:
# of Hours of Sleep:
# of Slices of Pizza:
# of Bratwurst / Hot Dog / Kielbasa:
# of Real Meals:
Apache Dropout (in passing)
Led Er Est
Chad Valley (in passing)
Bleached (in passing)
The War On Drugs
Black Hippy (Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q, Jay Roc, Kendrick Lamar)
And So I Watch You From After
MNDR (in passing)
The Atlas Moth
Artists Seen More Than Once:
The War On Drugs