It's Wednesday afternoon. My body has been recoiling from South by Southwest since sometime Friday morning.
That's when I woke up and discovered I was hurting. Not in the debilitating, stay-in-bed sort of way, but in the way that reminded me that SXSW 2007 was but half over. "Slow down, man," my right shoulder grumbled. It was the shoulder that had been supporting my bag for the first 48 hours of the annual, four-day Austin music conference that ended last Saturday, March 17. That bag held a laptop, a power cable, a 75-page SXSW schedule, and—by the end of each day—a bunch of free magazines and records from people who wanted to be taken home (figuratively, of course). The shoulder that held it versus gravity and Texas sunlight had every right to complain.
My ears suggested that maybe catching 27 bands—including predictably loud sets by metal titans Boris, The Melvins, Jesu and Big Business—in the first two days was overkill. Quietly and politely, my stomach asked for a little less barbecue, even if it was free. In everyday life, these seem like simple demands. But you know the one about everything being bigger in Texas? Then SXSW—the largest, most saturated music conference in the world, when a few thousand bands pour into a three-mile radius to ply their goods for industry types for four days—is the hyperbole of that aphorism.
This seems to have gotten worse (or better, given your propensity for all-out abandon), even since last year. SXSW has continued to explode in scope, size and selfishness. Now, it's all first-person: What can we give, what can we get. What once was a focused music industry conference has turned into a Dionysian display of last rites for a business sect that doesn't know how it's going to make money in 10 years. Bring the party hats.
Indeed, if this is the time of instant gratification, SXSW is the place for instant over-gratification. SXSW is the music industry gone wild, and every member of the crazed shooting match is out for the flavor of his liking in Austin. It's a fantasy camp for the greedy. Everywhere you looked in Austin, someone was blogging about what they'd just seen or heard. Conference attendees downloaded the complete roster to their iPod. One party offered free Saucony shoes as bait, and bands playing the stage of a massive maze sponsored by Levi's and fashion-and-music glossy Fader walked away with a bag of top-shelf Levi's products. Mountain Dew lured people to a series of free shows (including Public Enemy, Mastodon, Ozomatli and Hawthorne Heights) with coolers of free Mountain Dew. And there's always the closing party on Saturday night, held by the infamous shock provocateurs at Vice Magazine: People asking for free beer at the bar were given six packs of Lone Star, not single cans. If music sales are dying, this is some pyre-side celebration.
So, of course, Friday morning, I did exactly what any 23-year-old, badge-holding, eager member of the press in Austin should have done: I changed shoes, strapped on my bag, got in a car, rode downtown and ate two plates of barbecue at a party sponsored by Paste. I drank a Lone Star beer in a 12-ounce can and set out to fill the next 12 hours watching 16 bands. Brilliant, I know. If only I could make my body agree five days later.
The first thing you need to know about SXSW is that there is nothing to know about SXSW. Go ahead, learn the names of every rock club in Austin, print the conference's schedule, highlight and annotate it until it's pink and yellow and blue, and send an RSVP for every party happening in the city. But, at ground zero, know that knowledge—and everything else you assume about rock shows, human standards and body fatigue—is secondary to one thing: There are more bands in this city right now than you will see the rest of the year, even if you see six bands a day through Jan. 1. With a little work, most of them can be seen for free, even if you're not registered for the conference. Take advantage. And not only are the accoutrements of rock shows (beer and CDs) here, but more often than not, they're free, too. Jump right in. Just remember your corporate sponsor later.
Back in Austin on Wednesday night, the man driving my taxi starts to wonder what I'm doing in Austin. In fact, he's curious about what everyone is doing here: "So, there are a lot of bands playing? And you're going to write about them?" he asks in a West African accent that couldn't be less interested in differentiating Marnie Stern from Devin the Dude.
"Yeah, that's right," I say. "That's my job."
But that's not enough. There has to be some other bait luring us all here, or at least keeping everyone downtown for 13 hours a day. Eventually, I mention that there is something beside the music: There's more free beer, food and goods in Austin this week than he or me or you could imagine. That's when he breaks the cabby rule: He stares—not glances—in his rear-view mirror to be sure that I'm not playing him for a fool, to know that I'm not chuckling in the dark.
"Really? Why? Why would anyone give that away for free?" he wonders. "Beer? Barbecue? Why would you do that?"
I only laugh and tell him it's because people want you to like them. His allegiance is for the offering, apparently: "Well, where do you get the free stuff?"
There's no easy answer to this. In Austin for four days, the free stuff is everywhere—in rock clubs, on street corners, in parking lots. It would be redundant and impossible to point it all out. "Walk down the street and look for long lines when the sun's shining," I eventually tell him. During SXSW, there's an intense anti-logic in motion. What was once intended as a way for emerging bands to break the big-industry barriers before them has now become, largely, a showcase for industry flexing. SXSW is about every small fish in the music industry saying "I have this" while finding a co-sponsor who can make it easier to show it off and sell it. Trouble is, some of these small fish are now quite big.
Still, hundreds of bands with no record deals, booking agents or managers flock to the city to play shows in the hopes that anyone will care. They're hoping to find an "in" at the most basic level. When they leave, they've probably learned that no one cares.
It's not that no one cares about their music or them, really: It's that they care more about their own enterprises, others' huge distractions and their own desire to get what they can out of the festival. The distractions come from big-budget, professional marketing companies. During the entire conference, for instance, I saw only one of the posters for Chapel Hill's Breakfast Mascot Records, which presented a showcase with locals The Honored Guests and Tennis & the Mennonites in Austin. That was on Saturday afternoon, the day of the show. I have no doubt that the label hung more of Matt Hart's elaborate drawings in the city. It's just that, like most of the other upstarts, they were overshadowed by clouds of propaganda from bands big enough to afford such. Get your fill—and someone else's.
But I learned and saw several things thanks to those massive movers and shakers, and they're all things that have nothing to do with music or small, independent rock bands: How great Scion cars are (and that the Melvins are playing a Scion-sponsored free show at 3 p.m. today, followed by Ghostface Killah and Rakim on Saturday! No need to see small bands that may suck!); how pretty Fader is (and how much fun Redman will have promoting his new album at our free show with free booze tomorrow night!); and how great DirecTV's reception is (and that we're broadcasting live from Sixth Street with Matt Pinfield all week!). Those Mountain Dews weren't being handed out by school children on holiday, after all.
But don't we already know who Public Enemy and Mastodon are? Certainly, but maybe you don't know how much you love MDX, Mountain Dew's newest energy drink. And that's the point entirely. Just remember that you'll need lots of MDX—which tastes like fructose-enhanced laundry detergent, by the way—to survive SXSW.
It's Wednesday afternoon again. The e-mails from SXSW haven't stopped rolling in yet, and they won't for days. The e-mails all look different and different people keep sending them, but they all say the exact same thing: "Hey, my clients were awesome in Austin [people love this phrase], and you should make them famous."
Just look for messages with subject lines like this: "[Insert band name here] steals SXSW spotlight!" "[My baby band] becomes SXSW buzz band!" "Did you see [my label's] bands in Austin? They were unbelievable, right?"
Given the sheer volume of these post-conference dispatches, they're pretty useless. Even if only 1 percent of the bands playing in Austin manage to tell you through e-mail five days later that they were the best thing in Texas, that's still 14 too many bands. SXSW makes for too many teams to play, too many causes to be selfish and too much alcohol to care about either.
There's a different kind of madness in Texas, and it can be either the most empowering or depleting atmosphere in the world. Sure, it may be next to impossible to get noticed as a young band, but—if you're going to get noticed—what better place to do it than here, where all of your peers are watching amongst the nation's collective of critics and industry heavyweights. People like Rolling Stone's David Fricke and the MC5's Wayne Kramer are actually just walking around. Hell, go for it.
For some bands, it works. Kramer joined Raleigh's Valient Thorr onstage Friday for a song, and Raleigh's The Rosebuds walked away with a handful of major press kudos, inspiring noted blog Gorilla vs. Bear (gorillavsbear.blogspot.com) to write, "It dawned on me that these guys are the most underrated band in America."
Or what about relatively unknown Wilmington metal trio Weedeater, who played one of the best sets I saw at the entire conference Friday night in a small club on the corner? It was so good that Brent Hinds, lead guitarist in Atlanta's Mastodon, pumped his fists and slammed his beer bottle against the concrete floor beneath him as the last song came crashing to a close. Mastodon is perched atop the metal world right now, so their endorsement is sort of a big deal.
And good for Weedeater. Good for any band, really, that still makes use of SXSW as a platform for offering what they have without a sponsorship or a marketing company. And good for the cab driver who realized that everyone on Sixth Street in Austin last week was a little crazy. Some 58 bands later, my body agrees.