Any day that starts with waiting in line for FADER Fort wristbands is probably going to be an irritating day at SXSW. The Fort has been the battleground for the war between SXSW and unofficial sponsored showcases for several years because access to it has in some ways become more coveted than SXSW wristbands themselves; if all the hip parties are free as long as you’re willing to wait in line and RSVP to everything with a link, why shell out queso money for an official wristband?
Like SXSW at large, FADER Fort has grown to an embarrassing degree and its status as the default stage for surprise superstar sets means the line to get in is full of every SXSW stereotype you don’t want to deal with, like the girl in a goth gym class ensemble who pointed at the muddy ground and asked “what is this stuff?” shortly before trying to start a fight with me because I stepped out of line for half a second to get a bottle of water. At this point in its existence, SXSW is more defined by endless waiting while sandwiched between people you instantly hate for the reward of sets by acts who are usually even more frustrated with the event than you are.
SXSW is an endurance test, whether you’re a fan or a performer or an employee, and your enjoyment of it comes down to how willing you are to tolerate discomfort and disappointment in your pursuit of something genuinely exciting. You deal with the bullshit because you’ve been sold on the idea of a unique experience, a chance to witness creative lightning strikes, to insert yourself right into the vein of the cultural zeitgeist, feeling out the pulse of pop culture from the inside. For fans, that means a FADER Fort line or two; for musicians that means saying yes to every single showcase that is thrown your way, regardless of venue, location or sponsor.
Before SXSW started, I was only planning on reviewing films and doing some music reporting, but as SXSW got closer, my band Stickers started receiving more and more opportunities. We were in the midst of recording an EP at Eastern Sun Audio with Matt Simon of Tele Novella, and through that process we wound up on one showcase, which turned into another showcase, and then another. As a brand new local outfit without a following, we’re under no illusions when it comes to SXSW prospects and we’ve been happy to get a chance to play at all during SXSW. But we’re similarly aware that the opportunities we have aren’t that dissimilar from what fans go through in lines at FADER Fort and elsewhere, a lot of hope but also a certainty that the end result is more likely to be a letdown.
During normal sections of the year, being in a band is a hassle, a grind of frequently shitty shows to small unreceptive crowds where you’re lucky to get drink tickets let alone get paid and even the pay is a drop in the bucket compared to the expenses of gear, transportation and self-medication. You will meet great people and you will have good shows but most of the time you’re dealing with assholes who couldn’t give less of a fuck about the art you’ve put so much of your life into, and that’s totally okay. Most musicians don’t perform because of a belief that they’ll strike it rich, they perform because they have to, and the gamble of SXSW is that there’s the small chance that the stars will align and you’ll end up on that one showcase that gets you on the right radar screens.
Stickers’ first showcase of the day unfortunately fit into the category of “not worth the hassle.” I made it to Club 1808 before my bandmates, who were driving all the gear down, and it took a while to figure out what the plan even was at the venue. Spread across three stages, the “Escapes” showcase was curiously structured in a way that had bands playing outside and on two indoor stages at the same time, making for maximum bleedover. There were line-ups everywhere, but the band names had been crossed out and reconfigured so many times it was difficult to determine who was still playing or who had dropped out, let alone who was playing on what stage at what time. I wandered over to the bar trying to find the manager and sound guy, but apparently those aren’t positions that exist at 1808. So I moved on to asking the bartender about drink tickets, only to be told there weren’t any. That part wasn’t exactly a surprise, but the $4 price tag on the 12 oz. Lone Star at a desiccated club on 12th and Chicon was.
It was getting close to the time we were supposed to play at, so I made my way outside, trying to find anyone who was involved in putting this showcase together but eventually gave up and caught Clouder, a New York act playing in the backyard who had a sound somewhere between the Hold Steady and the Walkmen. The first half of Clouder’s set was especially strong despite the lack of a crowd, and by the end people were funneling out to catch them. It was at this point that Ethan from Party Plants wandered over to me and told me he was involved in running the show and wanted Stickers to play out back, after Clouder. After he left, a woman named Katie came over, asked if I was in Stickers, and then told me were going to play the Annex, one of the indoor stages. I pointed out that Ethan had already told us we were going on the backyard stage, so she disappeared again and when she came back, we had now been exiled to the 1808 stage, a dark corner of the venue where Ethan’s “fake improvised world music” band Bear Donkey was currently playing.
Though it wasn’t exactly a great development, I understood what Ethan and Katie were dealing with. You have to be a certain kind of insane to throw a DIY showcase during SXSW and making such an event work requires juggling groups that aren’t familiar with Austin who are trying to make their way to an inconveniently located venue while they’re probably also juggling other showcases on the same day. The only guarantee is that nothing will go as planned, and all you can do is switch around the groups as they come in, based on what’s the least inconvenient for the most people. We got shuffled because a band that had failed to show up for its earlier set time had finally appeared and then shuffled again because another group that needed to go play a later show absolutely had to play right then. It sucks for everyone, but you roll with it and accept the indomitable absurdity of the situation and try to put on the best show you can regardless of the circumstances. But playing to a dozen people, most of whom we knew, while struggling to hear ourselves over the noise band playing outside was not Stickers’ shining moment.
Our singer Kate stuck around 1808 after, while our guitarist Vinh and I packed up my drums and the amps and set off to go get drunk off of whatever free drinks we could find. We ended up at a Yahoo party and took solace in the fact that the electro-rock ensemble Yahoo had assembled to play in front of a #yodel banner didn’t fare much better than we had, though they undoubtedly got paid a whole hell of a lot more. A dozen free Shiners later, we had already gone up and down the full post-show emotional spectrum, breaking down all the errors and mistakes while conceding it wasn’t all bad while mentally preparing ourselves for the next day’s showcase. At least I still had that FADER Fort wristband.
– Morgan Davis