The big news this week is of course the SXSW Festival, and you’re probably tired of hearing the same stories about the festival over and over.* They usually follow one of two tropes, and it doesn’t matter which, because they’re both terrible: either the “all of your favorite bands are having a blast here in the LIVE MUSIC CAPITAL OF THE WORLD” or “it sucks now that SXSW has totally sold out, man” (annoying coming from either an Austinite or a music industry lackey, for different but totally valid reasons). Here’s what you should know: 1) None of your favorite bands, if they are in Austin, TX this week, are having a blast because it’s now a requirement that anyone with new music coming out has to stop by and play crowded bars that haven’t seen an inspection since 1998, and 2) Nobody cares that the festival was awesome before anyone heard about it.
*I’m making a couple of assumptions here: that you like music (why else would you be here, unless you were really into cartography, I guess) and that you have at least enough of a passing interest in music/news that you are aware that there is a festival called “South by Southwest” (SXSW for short) and have seen at least one mention of this gigantic festival. I would think that these assumptions didn’t need to be stated for the record, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
That said, there are tons of pieces out there attempting to provide a preview of this year’s particular incarnation of SXSW, and they’re all fighting for your eyes and clicks. That means I have to come up with my own original approach, and I think I found the right hook: I’ll be reviewing my previous trip to SXSW in order to give you an idea of what to expect. Because history repeats itself, and time is a flat circle.
I was lucky enough to attend the festival in 2011, when it lined up perfectly with my Spring Break from law school. With my sister already in town for grad school, I had a floor for crashing and the toughest part of the trip figured out (a previous attempt to attend the festival back in 2007 when I was still working in radio fell apart because of that detail). It sure seemed to be a better idea than sleeping in each day until noon and then waiting three hours in line for a Shake Shack burger–now I would sleep in each day until noon and then wait three hours to watch some of my favorite bands (because let’s be honest–I wasn’t going to work on my thesis in either scenario). I looked forward to a week of sunshine, music, and cheap/crappy beer, instead of a week of cold, traffic, and expensive/crappy beer.
The thing that’s hard to realize about SXSW until you’re there is just how many bands are there, and they’re all playing venues that they would otherwise have no business playing in, whether it be a downward or upward shift in fortune. Queens of the Stone Age playing in a converted auto-body garage? Um, if you say so. Some Brazilian surfer-punk zydeco hybrid band playing a packed two-story bar? Yeah, you’ll never hear of them again (I think their name started with a ‘Z’), but for a brief moment they were a Next Big Thing at this festival. You truly can’t comprehend the sheer number of bands. My one souvenir from the festival was a t-shirt that listed “all” of the bands that played. I took it out during the course of writing this as a reference to help jog my memory of what bands I saw, but it’s practically worthless in that regard because the half-point font makes reading impossible. And and all these bands are playing in any possible space that they can find.
So to people who are fans of “music” as a concept, this all sounds wonderful; to sane people, not so much. You walk down Sixth Street, beer in hand, (or as I call it, Bourbon Street Lite) and hear through the air the strains of 30 different bands playing packed, ramshackle bars. Oh what glory it is to be alive, as the streets are filled with the sound of music! Of course, if you’re able to actually pick out through the cacophony that sounds great or at the very least interesting, good luck in trying to actually make it into the venue. This is something that a normal, sane person would enjoy, but SXSW makes this task very difficult indeed.
SXSW is of course famous for the long lines at its venues. Of course, as a ridiculously popular festival, it’s to be expected. However, I thought I had purchased a proverbial golden ticket: the wristband. A couple of hundred bucks up front, and I had bestowed upon my hand the promise of “access” to nearly all shows without paying additional cover charges and the ability to skip lines. As anyone who’s been to Disneyland knows, this is truly the only way to travel. And it’s true, you CAN skip ahead of the lines…well at least part of the lines. What I didn’t know is that SXSW had created an additional supertier with “badges”. Those were the people that actually had access and so on–you know, what you thought you were getting with the wristband. In the end, you realize that your purchase of a wristband was the equivalent of pulling into the gas station and selecting the “Plus” nozzle–additional dollars down the drain, with no real noticeable difference in product.
That means your dreams of seeing someone like Bad Brains were pretty much gone. You thought you could make it into the shack where Death From Above 1979 had a surprise reunion? Only one possible reaction. If you’re aiming to see Queens of the Stone Age put on a show at midnight, well you better get to the venue at 7 and watch random crap for five hours, because there’s no way you’re going to be let back in. It’s tough shit for the badgeless.
That means your dreams of bouncing from show to show are pretty much shot to shit, no matter how willing you are to zig-zag around town. You are now forced to plan your time judiciously. And you were hoping that there was not going to be any homework on this trip–I mean, if i was going to think at all this week, shouldn’t it have been in the course of completing my thesis? These are not the kinds of reflections that I should be having on Spring Break. Instead, I’m having to do calculations of “is this band popular enough that I can go see them with minimal hassle, but if there is a line, do I really want to see them?” At this point, I’m about five seconds away from dumping all relevant information into Excel spreadsheets.
For those looking for the best way to see multiple bands, the lawn parties are really the best way to go. It amazed me that I traveled a couple thousand miles to see a lawn party hosted by the record store that was across the street from me in New York, but Other Music had a great lineup, and offered a bonus attraction for avoiding the terrible Texas heat: shade. It’s not the most intimate setting, but I was able to see Low, Ted Leo, and !!! all at the same place, and in relative comfort. And if I wasn’t so restless, I could’ve seen future favorites of mine Sharon Van Etten and Cults as well.
The calculus homework that I did before truly came in handy during the night, when it was more of a crapshoot to determine which shows I could get in. And here’s my advice: you know those buzz bands that you think you’re so cool for hearing about in the days before the festival? You’re not special. There are thousands of other people at this festival that read Pitchfork, SPIN, AV Club, FILTER, and whatever other random music press there is out there. Hell, a lot of them read specific SXSW previews, so there’s no way that you have a chance of getting into the Toro Y Moi show that’s being held in a 50 person dive. Unless of course you have a badge, as I mentioned above, but if you’re reading this I’m guessing you don’t. So that means having to aim slightly lower than the hippest, buzziest bands. And sometimes, this works very well. I was able to catch The Antlers perform an NPR showcase that proved that Burst Apart would be a fantastic follow-up to Hospice. I was able to watch Tapes ‘n Tapes, years after their initial breakthrough, put on a great show and convince me to give them another shot and purchase their third album (and afterwards ate some absolutely kickass Korean BBQ tacos). And I was able to witness Cloud Nothings blow the roof off a bar as they blistered through material, and showed signs of their potential before Attack On Memory was released. Plus, I got to hear Dylan Baldi in the last instance ask the crowd if anyone had a place where they could crash, because they just drove down from Ohio with no real plan. I hope someone picked up the slack.
I keep emphasizing the crowds, and there’s a good reason. I’m not claustrophobic by any means, but Andy Richter has the right idea. Every place is absolutely jammed with people, fire codes be damned (and honestly, if they were strictly enforced, you’d just be pissed that you couldn’t get in to watch the show). And not only that, these are some of the dipshittiest people that you’ve ever seen. I cracked that Sixth Street was “Bourbon Street Lite” above, and that’s really the attitude that the seeming majority of festival-goers take–they’re not in Austin for a great music festival, there in town as a substitute for Cancun or New Orleans, hoping to have A FUCKING BLAST, YO! As a result, I overheard some of the absolute most inane shit possible while spending hours in lines over the course of the week, and I have to be thankful that I can’t remember anything specific.
Which leads me to my next piece of advice: bring a friend. Of course, it’s always fun to share the experience with someone else, but I’ve managed to go solo to several shows without any problem. But when you’re stuck in lines for hours on end, it’s best to have someone else with which to engage, or else you will have to endure only in your head what seems like a lifetime of bullshit. It’s not pleasant.
In the end, is it all worth it? I did get a chance to do things like stand five feet away and see …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead play a hometown show at one in the morning, see random old guys jamming on guitar outside an Odd Future show, and see The Strokes for the first time as fireworks exploded over the Austin skyline during “Last Nite”. I also saw a ton of forgettable bands and people consistently make such asses of themselves that it would seem to be a productive use of my team to merely weep for the future of humanity. But in the end, it was probably a fair trade-off–all I missed was a Shake Shack burger (which I’m now told exists in Austin) and a Godspeed You! Black Emperor concert that I had purchased tickets for months earlier. And I didn’t work on my thesis, but we all know I wasn’t going to work on it anyway.
Anyway, for those who don’t care about history and are here for some advice, here we go, in list form:
1. Bring a friend. This makes the boredom and idiots tolerable.
2. Buy a badge. Being rich and important is a good idea for most things in life, SXSW included.
3. Have a plan. You’re not going to see everything you want. You’re barely going to see half of what you want. Deal with it.
4. Find the Korean BBQ Taco truck. That was delicious.
5. Texas beer sucks. I didn’t mention this earlier, but just know ahead of time. Know that the best thing you’ll buy is some off-brand cerveza at the taverna next to the gas station.