What do you need if you're hosting an annual music festival that brings 1,500 bands and 10,000 concertgoers into the downtown area of a city with all of a 3-mile radius? Tents. Lots of tents. And, apparently, more bands.
When thousands of people descend on Austin this week for South by Southwest, the city will reprise its annual block party full of musicians, label owners, booking agents, publicity czars, celebrities and people eager to be herded toward the "next big thing." But here's a problem: About 1,400 of those bands are hoping to be that next big thing. And the trip itself can put a strain on the ever-tenuous marriage dynamic of the band with high hopes. So, is it more stress than it's worth?
SXSW can be an exhausting and exhilarating experience. From the band perspective, it's about exhaustion. As the festival has grown, so has the sheer volume of acts, producing a musical traffic jam leading into Austin. Do the math: Last year, there were more than 1,400 bands performing at the festival itself, not including the hundreds of non-SXSW-sanctioned parties sponsored by magazines, labels and corporations. With that many bands attempting to tour toward Austin, some clubs in the Southeast and Midwest have to schedule two full bills a night.
Most of these acts aren't from Texas, so they have to get there somehow. There are three options: Join the glut of bands who attempt to set up a regional tour around the festival; drive straight there to play one or two shows and drive straight back; or shell out the money for plane tickets during the week when college students fly to spring break hotspots south of the Texas border. A band I know from Boston couldn't get a tour together, so they powered through two 30-hour drives. They played a showcase for their label and one small party for 30 people in the back of a tiny bar in the middle of the day. And they all got sick in the process. Again, is it worth it?
My own band, The Nein, has played SXSW twice. It's a workout. First, there's parking before the show in an area that has to hold 1,000 vans, even though it's already cordoned off by sawhorses and police. Then there's the thin compensation. But the worst part of playing SXSW is actually playing SXSW. The showcases resemble cattle farms. Inside the venue, your gear is marked with color-coded stickers before you're hustled on and off stage as quickly as possible to make room for the next act. Add lots of stairs, a doorman who insists on checking your ID every time you cross his path, and stages not built for rock bands. It's like band practice with hall monitors.
To make things more complicated, each year there are more and more (often free) satellite parties that begin early in the day at various venues around town. Magazines throw parties in tents in parking lots, and labels rent out farms for ice cream socials. Sometimes, these bills are better than the actual SXSW shows. In fact, some of the bands playing these parties don't actually play any of the showcases organized by the festival.
When The Nein checked in at the registration desk last year, the woman we dealt with referred to these events as "renegade parties." There were rumblings all weekend about how the parties were threatening to engulf the festival itself in the next few years. And for good reason: My best times at last year's SXSW were two free parties (an all-night hip-hop showcase sponsored by Stones Throw and a rooftop appearance at midnight by Gang of Four sponsored by Red Stripe, Fader magazine and Sauza tequila). They were off-the-radar, word-of-mouth and ridiculously fun.
Still, for the bands and labels that spend money both to apply to play SXSW and to travel down, these parties are disheartening. What's the point of throwing oneself into the sea of bands trying to get "noticed" if half the people coming to SXSW are going to all the free events, anyway?
For the music fan, though, these non-SXSW-sanctioned events can be the cheap and easy way to soak up free music and booze. Walkup registration fees for the music portion of SXSW—which provide one with a wristband or badge permitting entry to any and all official showcases (provided you get to the clubs early enough to stand in line for however long it takes to get in)—is $600. When faced with a ticket price that high, it's no wonder that more people are spending their time in Austin flitting from one free party to another. The festival organizers (and bands playing official showcases) have cause to be worried.
But it's hard to worry too much about anything at SXSW, surrounded by free beer and barbecue and loud music. The Roman excess creates a sort of "lost weekend," where it's perfectly acceptable to start drinking at noon. Free beer, noise and hipsters? It's pretty easy to justify keeping the party going—or getting it started. That's fun, but it can be a trainwreck waiting to happen, given the right ingredients. Last year, a band from Canada drove to Austin to play a party (mind you, not even one of the "renegade parties") at 4 p.m. By the time they started playing, the drummer was so drunk he couldn't realize when songs stopped or started. He just kept playing. Frustrated (and just as drunk), the guitarist, according to witnesses, hurled his guitar at the drummer like a spear, who retaliated with a full-blown, knock-down-the-drum-kit attack. But face it: Where else do you vent after being stuck in a van for four straight days to play to 20 people at 4 in the afternoon? For every fantastic tale from SXSW, there are a dozen similar horror stories.
All of that beer has to come from somewhere, namely somewhere with lots of money. A common analysis of the current SXSW is that it's not a place for bands to show their talents to labels, booking agents or the like anymore. It's the opposite—a way for those people to showcase what they already have. It's not worthless for a band to try and get attention, but it certainly is getting harder to "break out" down South.
"[The size of the festival] makes it harder to cut across the noise if you're a young band or label," says Isaac Green in an e-mail interview. Green is the owner of independent label StarTime Records (home to indie-rock powerhouses like The Futureheads, French Kicks and Tom Vek). "It's amazing if you're a festival-goer. SXSW doesn't owe any band or label a career. But it gives a lot of people a (modestly) level platform."
Emphasis on the modestly. So why play it? Honestly, it's a blast if you recognize that there's no fairy godmother of fame waiting at every venue. I wouldn't trade my times there for anything, but it's hard to gain anything but great anecdotes.
NC to SXSW
Even though SXSW continues to veer from breaking bands to bigger audiences, a number of North Carolina bands are making the trek to Austin this year. Here's the list:
Birds of Avalon
David Karsten Daniels
The Mountain Goats
Dexter Romweber Duo
Tennis & the Mennonites
Jon Wurster (comedy)