Sunday, March 17, 2013

SXSW Roundup

David Grissom at a free show at Saxon Pub.
It's too big now.  SXSW is a victim of it's own success.

Because I was walking through crowds of people regularly, I heard many little snippets of conversation.  I counted 7 languages (I could discern), but the other striking thing was I heard "Sundance" mentioned in quite a lot of descriptions about the festival.  Even though I have not been to Sundance, I have talked to a number of people who used to go regularly, and something they all claim happened at Sundance seems to be happening at SXSW.

I spent four days in town.  I did not buy a wristband, I did not buy a badge.  I never even paid a cover.  Not a penny of the money I brought to town went to SXSW per se.  Yet, I saw a lot of music, much of it from halfway around the planet, and really expanded my musical horizons.  These few days are going to change the music I buy and listen to for some time to come.

I have witnessed SXSW's transformation from a project of a bunch of music journalists meeting in a beer garden to plan some shows for clubs that would otherwise be empty during the week of The University of Texas at Austin's spring break to a big-time Major Industry Event (tm) for music, film, and popular application computer programming.  

Come on, man!  Get on the industry bus!  Hot DJ!
I actually worked the festival a long time ago by showing up for free beer and queso at Scholtz's beer garden after being begged to do so by an attractive female I knew professionally.  I got a wristband for four hours of ticket taking and saw a lot of bands that year, and I literally knew the entire event staff by first name.

The traditional music, film and computer programming industries all share a problem in common these days--they are losing control of both ends of their gravy train.  The consumers are refusing to do what the industry money wants them to do, and the bands/programmers/filmakers are refusing to do what the industry money wants them to do.  Both ends are using the power of modern information technology to free themselves from simply being pawns in someone else's money game.  This has got a lot of wealthy people panicked, and there is a lot of in-group and out-group action going on right now.

Day party flyer
There was definitely a "too cool to have a badge or wristband" vibe going on, particularly among the locals.  I lived in Austin for 20+ years, I worked peripherally in the music industry and I was a major committed audience member the entire time.  I was one of those people that bought 45's, then CD's, paid cover to see my friend's bands, tipped bartenders and waitresses well for cheap drinks, etc.  Hundred's of people like me made the Austin music scene work over the years, and still do.

These people are figuratively the out-group now.  They are pushed aside by $600 badges, planeloads of beautiful people from the jet set, and huge crowds of hipsters (was there anyone left in Williamsburg, Brooklyn this weekend?) during the conference.  There's no place to park, their bars and restaurants are packed, the very people who made Austin a place this could happen now can't be involved.

What has happened is that these people who originally made all this happen have gone off the grid and organized shows for themselves.  I saw fantastic music at a nursery and in the backyard of a law office.  At the nursery, I talked to a local guy who rescues obnoxious bee hives from being destroyed and re-sells their honey.  At the law office, I broke local misdemeanor laws with the assistance of a couple of criminal attorneys.  A badge or wristband would not have permitted me entry to either of these experiences.

Galaxy Express from South Korea plays
out back of a criminal law office
The local music journalism industry, to their credit (also the same people who started all this in the first place) does promote these events, mostly called "day shows" and they get a fair amount of traffic from people with wristbands and badges.  

What was most interesting to me was that I ended up spending my time at SXSW on the fringes of SXSW.  I was on the fringes financially, organizationally, and literally geographically.  I spent time at the East end of the conference, in the part of Austin that used to be the wrong side of I-35, and I spent time on the West end of the conference in the part of downtown away from the heart of music alley.  I went to the big middle of the conference (East Sixth Street), where everything was supposedly happening, only in order to traverse it to get to the other end.

I was literally on the fringes of the conference, seeing bands that either couldn't get into the conference, or wanted to play more than whatever they had scheduled in conference.  All of the buzz-worthy shows, all with two lines (priority access for the more expensive badge-holders, then entrance for wristband holders if there's room, and finally you can pay a cover if they can cram you in without alarming the local fire marshall) were passed up in favor of seeing someone no one seems to have ever heard of.  I am almost certain I had the better time at SXSW.  I honestly think I dodged a figurative bullet to my fun by not getting a wristband or badge.

Josy, an all-female band from Japan
For example, I saw a group of bands from Japan at a day show in the parking lot of a bar way out east of the main conference.  Being Japanese, these kids went around introducing themselves to the audience during breaks, bowing politely and practicing their English.  I got a huge group of smiles from a band after they thanked me in broken English for being at the show because I replied with a supportive "gambate!" (good luck!).  I was surprised at their palpable joy and relief upon hearing a familiar word of encouragement in a foreign land.  I would have never gotten close enough to them do this at an official show, and I see this as a problem both for the bands and their audience.

I am not down on SXSW.  I don't think this is what the organizers intend, either now, in the past, or in the future. It is just what happens.  We can't ALL do something like SXSW, so when it gets so successful that everyone wants to do it, it can't be done.

Will I go again in the future?  Absolutely, I may well be there next year.  But I won't buy a wristband or a badge because they have ironically become obstacles to what I really want to do there.  

When a fringe event becomes mainstream, it's time to go back out to the fringes, even at the mainstream events.