Sunday, March 20, 2005

SXSW: The Great Caste-System Smorgasbord

Writer Dan O'Conor calls it 'adult spring break.' My girlfriend calls it 'a theme park for musicians.' I like to think of it as indie land. It’s all of these things and none of them are meant as insults because we all agree that whatever it is, we like it and we're in awe of it. Since the mid 80’s, South By Southwest (SXSW) has been a music industry phenomenon, growing from two hotel ballrooms to eat up the entire downtown Austin, Texas area. Other than soaking in the warm weather, good BBQ and smooshing with musicians and other tradespeople, scribes feel compelled (usually by their editors) to file the ubiquitous “SXSW report,” with a sum up of all the good and bad, known and unknown groups they managed to see in a span of a few days along with a nice zeitgeist tie-up to put everything in perspective. Hope you don’t mind if I do a bit of that here but after attending for five years straight, some things have sunk in about this little big fest.

I know I’ll sound like a sycophantic cheerleader but I love SXSW. I cajole and drag people down there to attend and even try to push bands that I know and like to be part of it. Not just for the reasons above but also because it is so damn well organized, not to mention convenient- most of the clubs are all clustered together. Bands actually go on when they’re supposed to (unheard of in New York except at Irving Plaza) and the panels are always interesting and worth attending. You can’t say either of those things about CMJ. Granted that they’ve had financial problems for years and everyone is always amazed when they make it through another year but it’s kind of embarrassing to have that be the biggest music festival that New York is known for.

Don’t even get me started on about how Gotham government does everything it can to discourage a music scene there- despite the constant presence of fire marshals, Austin LOVES music and nurtures it like a young one. It’s only sensible since it means a lot of revenue for out-of-towners. Every year I’ve been to Austin, I find people there to be friendly but I can’t help but think that there has to be some resentment to the hoard of people who descend on the town for 2 weeks in the middle of March each year. From person experience, I can tell you that NYC isn’t fun during CMJ, especially if you happen to want to go to a concert that’s part of a showcase.

Another thing I wondered about in terms of resentment was the whole badge system. Like any fest, anyone signed up for SXSW will get a badge provided that you’re an approved member of the press, a band, a label or promo person, a panel speaker, etc.. Otherwise, you’re going to pay somewhere between $200-$400 for the badge, which gets you into any club for free (except the private parties) or the panels. If that’s a little too much, the fest also offers wristbands ranging from $100-$150 (like the badges, the price goes up as the time nears). If that’s still too pricey, you can take your chances and show up at a venue and hope that they’ll let you pay to get in. Many times, you’ll be SOL because the badge and ‘band crew will fill up a place and you’ll be greeted by a hastily-written sign telling you so. Thus, a caste system is established.

Even when the clubs are filled to capacity, you’d be amazed about how long people will wait (sometimes in vain) to get in. I’ve had people report standing on line for over an hour for the chance to squeeze into a small club, usually for the hot item du jour like dancehall sensation M.I.A.. And that’s just the badge people. The w-band people will be set aside into another line, having to wait until all of the badge people who show up get in. After (or if) the ‘banders are let in, then the other poor souls who’ll actually pay will get the chance to enter. If I was waiting in lines for hours even after paying for a ‘band, I would not be a happy camper but surprisingly, most of those folks were pretty calm and resigned to their fate.

For anyone lucky enough to brandish a badge, the world was your oyster in Austin. You’d get waved ahead in after they’d check the photo on your badge and maybe an I.D. to make sure and also see if you’re drinking age. The problem you then face is you have a musical smorgasbord ahead of you. You know what happens when you encounter a buffet- though you’re perfectly willing to have a normal meal in a restaurant, when you encounter a seemingly endless selection of treats, you tend to try to take advantage of it. You pig out. You gorge yourself. You might be sorry you did later but damned if you won’t do it again when you find yourself in the same situation.

At SXSW, there are 54 venues, each having about six acts a night which comes out to about 324 acts playing each night. The music portion of SXSW runs 4 nights so that comes out to about 1300 bands to see if you like. Because most of the venues are close together on Sixth Street and Red River, it’s easy to club hop (much more so than in New York). Obviously, you’re not going to see everything and you’ll even find that you have to chose which band to see at a certain night because two or three bands you want to see are playing at different places. Do you try to see the first half of one set and then try to run out to another? Will you try to get to a venue early to make sure you can get in to catch a hot must-see band later? Again, since the clubs are so close, you're tempting to chance it. I’m still in the pig-out stage but I try to pace myself, planning out which bands are playing at clubs near each other so I have a chance to catch some of them (having a plan B as a back up always if lines are too long for a first choice). Now you know why I warn people to bring a good pair of walking shoes with them to SXSW.

That’s not even mentioning the day shows and private parties that go on during the fest. I thought it was just me but other people there confirmed that they don’t remember when there had been so many non-evening shows. Eager to show off their goods in front of an industry crowd, bands and labels rightfully see this as a prime opportunity. Musicians are rewarded for their efforts usually with a badge- it used to be a fee of $50-$100 for a gig as an alternative also and maybe still is. Again, if you’re a band, you’re thinking exposure. That’s why this is indie land mostly. Many acts are looking for bigger labels, management, PR, etc..

Seeing how so many of these bands were looking for attention and guidance, I had lobbied SXSW for years to have band clinics to help with advice- everything from signing contracts to finding good places to eat on tour. Hopefully, bands will think they got something out of the convention then, including practical wisdom. How hungry are they? When there were one-on-one mentoring sessions that writers led a few years ago, many of the attendees were actually musicians asking them “what do I have to do to get noticed?” (to which Chris Culter replied, “if it’s that bad for them, they should find another line of work with better guaranteed income”).

And then you have some big fish in this small pond, the old stand-by’s (this year, it was `Elvis Costello and Robert Plant) who are guaranteed attention as stand-outs- they don’t necessarily need exposure but it definitely helps them to be a highlight in an industry event.

The private parties there are mostly magazine-sponsored events, usually showcasing hot newcomers. The Spin shindig had the Hold Steady, Louis XIV, Bloc Party, Futureheads and newly reunited legends New York Dolls. One of the Vice parties also had Bloc Party as well as Go! Team while M.I.A. was at yet another Vice event. Which is great, if you get an invite. The prestige of association goes two ways, both for the bands and publications obviously.

I don’t say any of that with bitterness personally because I managed to get to some of these parties but I know that not everyone was happy about the exclusiveness. Part of the allure of these things are their exclusiveness but that’s cold comfort for the many people outside the gate who would have loved to have been there. One place I did see some resentment about this was the Unofficial SXSW mailing list at Yahoo. In the weeks before, there was a lot of good inside information floating around about what to see or do as everyone filled with excitement and anticipation but as the time approached, panic set in. The first batch of wristbands were sold out so now people were begging for them even before the second/last batch went on sale. Some posters on the list were already theorizing that SXSW was intentionally driving up the price of ‘bands to near badge level in the hope of just having badges only eventually. Then there were furious cross-talk of a possible smoking ban in Austin- I choked on enough second-hand smoke to tell you that it didn’t happen this year. And then there were numerous posts asked if anyone had a connection for the Spin or Vice party.

Be careful what you wish for though. The problem with gorging is that it eventually catches up with you. During the fest, people wander the streets of Austin at night in a day, gazing at their pocket-size Media Guides with band listings, wondering "who's going on at 11 o'clock?" After four days of running around, even the most eager attendee gets winded. At Saturday night around 10PM, I definitely felt it. I heard it too when I asked friends what they did the night before. It was becoming a blur. As such, one reason I think some of the crowds weren’t as appreciate of the bands as they should have been wasn’t because the music was bad or that many people were spoiled from not paying for shows but because they could only clap so much after seeing all these bands, night after night.

In the end, would I go back and encourage others to go to SXSW? Damn straight. For writers and musicians, it's a good place and time to get wired into the thick of things. Maybe you'll make connections, maybe you won't but you'll have good food and good weather and you can write the whole thing off on your taxes. Isn't that the least you can ask for from a working vacation?

Coming Soon: SXSW Report Part 2, where I actually talk about some bands I saw there...


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