“We built this city, we built this city on rock and roll”
-Starship, We Built This City
It’s time again for my favorite part of the year. If you’re new to Austin, then prepare yourself either for a treat or a nightmare, depending on your disposition. South by Southwest (or SXSW) is a two week long event that doubles both as a trade show and festival for Music, Film, and Interactive Entertainment. This yearly occurrence is my Mardi Gras except instead of beads and boobs I get something much better: music! Since music is my drug of choice, SXSW is like Tony Montana’s mountain of cocaine from the end of Scarface. Not everyone loves SXSW the way I do though and even people who kinda dig it still tend to give it crap. I say love it or leave it.
I suppose the first bone of contention with SXSW that many have are the logistical problems it purportedly creates. With the music portion of the event commandeering much of downtown Austin this year from the 11th through the 16th of March, bands and music industry professionals from all over the world will descend on Austin. During the day things are (relatively speaking) quiet, with people taking part in the trade show seminars and so on at the convention center downtown. At night however everyone crowds onto Red River, 6th street, and beyond for the thousands of shows simultaneously playing our many music venues. Even venues that normally don’t host bands get into the act. The only real requirement seems to be the ability to cobble together a performance space and sound system. Imagine crowded 6th street on a Saturday night in the spring or summer, then multiply it by 100 and you’ll start to understand what a massive event SXSW really is.
Obviously this massive influx of non-Austinites crowding into our downtown for what basically amounts to a multi-block, all night party does have certain logistical impacts and I suppose I can understand how it tends to rub a certain segment of the more permanent population the wrong way. For instance, every year there are a number of people who rent their homes (pricey downtown condos and houses further out alike) to the visiting hordes. These folks make a wad of cash and high tail it to the suburbs or beyond for the week in order to not have to deal with the supposed headache. I’ll be honest, I have little pity for them. These people (the downtown folks especially) are paying a premium to live in the center of a growing, vibrant city and completely failing to appreciate one of its greatest annual traditions. If they can’t enjoy it then I honestly feel like they should move to the suburbs and make more space for the people who get it. For those of us who don’t live or work in the thick of it, SXSW really doesn’t need to be that much of a disruption. With the exception of a higher than average chance of non-residents crowding our various local restaurants and businesses, so long as you stay south of the lake, north of the capital, and east and west of 35 and Mopac respectively, you’ll never notice SXSW happened at all. Even if you do decide to venture downtown, most of the streets are open during the day and even at night, I’ve always found parking below 15th street on my way to showcases.
Now there are two ways to enjoy SXSW: one is free and the other will cost you. The best way is to get yourself a wristband and sadly, the time for that has already passed. These wristbands usually go for about $160-200 depending on when you buy them and they’ll get you into nearly every SXSW showcase. There are badges too, but they cost a lot more and are really only useful if you’re also taking part in the trade show portion of the event. The only things wristbands won’t get you into are invite-only showcases and badge-only events, but those are few and far between and besides, you didn’t want to hang out with P Diddy anyway. If you want to enjoy SXSW for free, then there are any number of free showcases also to be attended. Most of the free stuff are what we call “unofficial” showcases and tend to take place during the day. Usually the only caveat for admission is being on the RSVP list. Some events (like our own OVRLD unofficial showcase) usually don’t require an RSVP though. If you’re thinking of attending SXSW on the cheap, check out this article on RSVPster for a great primer.
All told, over the six days of official and unofficial showcases there will be nearly 2000 local, domestic, and international music artists playing shows across the city. As of this writing I’ve listened to roughly 700 of them thanks to Do512’s Spotify playlist. Take a look for yourself. As you peruse this immense catalog of musicians, you’ll likely notice a few that you recognize and plenty you don’t. SXSW is a great time for discovering new bands from across the globe. In recent years however there have been those who feel that the higher profile artists (Snoop Dogg, Justin Timberlake, Tenacious D, Bruce Springsteen, Green Day) that have showed up for events have been overshadowing what many see as a chance for emerging acts to expose themselves to music professionals from numerous publications, studios, and labels. The advertising at SXSW by various national and international entities has grown as well. I don’t think anyone who’s been to SXSW the past couple of years can forget the giant Doritos bag stages or random attempts at “viral” crowd marketing. Has this sullied what was otherwise a chance for new acts to get noticed? If you ask me, the chances are about as likely as they’ve ever been.
I get it, believe me I do. With so many unknowns jostling to be heard, it’s disparaging to see people lining up for the mainstream acts that they’ll likely be able to hear again at some point. With this being my 4th SXSW I can tell you that, assuming those mainstream showcases aren’t invite or badge only, you’re going to spend all night waiting in line to probably not even get into those venues and with so much other music in town, you’re better off going elsewhere. I can guarantee you that you’ll be able to find a similar act with less of a following at another showcase that could use your patronage that much more as well.
As far as coverage goes, let’s face facts. It’s not as if previous years saw the major music outlets like Rolling Stone and Pitchfork clamoring to fill column inches with reviews of the amazing unknowns they found at SXSW. Those unknowns are getting the same coverage they always would have, it’s just that now their mention (if it exists at all) is in a side bar for an article about how cool Outkast’s invite-only showcase was. With so many smaller acts coming and going these days the major publications aren’t equipped to deal with them anyway. The real taste makers in the realm of new music are all of us who choose to listen to the music in the first place. Like the zine culture that helped hardcore punk flourish in the early 80’s, social media gives us all a forum to proselytize for our favorite up and comers. That’s why, if anything, SXSW should be about exposing yourself to as much new music as you can and spreading the good word.
While the major label interference may be annoying and the spotlight-hogging mainstream acts may be undeserving, I don’t see SXSW going the way of the Cannes Film Festival anytime soon. For those who may not know, at one point in time Cannes was the place to go in order to see the new, cutting edge, independent, and risky films debut, until the Hollywood hype machine started turning it into another star-studded gala. Nowadays you can still see those marginalized films at Cannes and they often win the awards, but there’s a good chance you’ll also see the latest superhero slug fest’s debut trailer as well. When it comes to SXSW, the 99% of virtual unknowns are always going to outnumber the 1% of major label stars and starlets, but they aren’t going to get exposure unless we give it to them.
I approach SXSW every year with a fairly solid plan that gets altered based either on schedule conflicts or the whims of whoever I’m roaming the streets with that night, but you don’t need to listen to 700+ tracks on Spotify to enjoy new music at SXSW. Just walking along 6th street at night you’ll hear the sounds of dozens of bands wafting out of clubs and into the streets and if you hear something you like, poke your head in. Just like getting to a show early will expose you to opening acts you’d otherwise never hear, SXSW has the same potential…a thousand fold. Let the boring people gather for the bands everyone has heard of at Auditorium Shores and this year’s permutation of the giant Doritos bag; I’ll be bar-hopping in search of new music and letting everyone know how awesome it is.
Brian Audette lives somewhere in Austin within a pillow fort made of broken dreams. He only comes out to see shows and buy beer. He has a surprisingly well maintained lawn and is using it to breed an army of attack mosquitoes with which to take over the world. Brian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at @bjaudette.