So you’re in a band. Let’s say there’s three of you: gives you a good fullness-of-sound to van-space ratio. Who else has to be in your camp? A producer, yeah. An engineer, totally. Roadies … one day. Someone’s got to take pictures and design the album, but that’s why you have a boyfriend with a Macbook. A manager’s always good, lest your tour strand you in Provo. Gotta get someone to administrate your publishing. Then there’s the label: someone to guide you, someone to update your Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, someone to email any sucker with a blog byline. Oh, and the marketing department of an international snack-food conglomerate.
The musical portion of South By Southwest is here! Here, as in: here, where I live, Austin, Texas. Though SXSW Interactive has stolen a fair amount of thunder, it’s music on which we stake our rep in Austin. Some call it a festival, but it’s more of a marathon: a hectic mob of bands, labels, A&R departments, on-the-rise companies tangentially connected to the biz, and corporate juggernauts hoping to glom onto a little bit of cool. The entire thing’s enough to convert one into a hardcore Marxist, or a Marxist into a Web 4.0 soothsayer. There are fans, yes: boys and girls just like us, but our experience is the caramel on the financial flan. This week’s about making it big. Or bigger.
I don’t mean to come off reactionary. After all, this how the majority of our music gets to us: hard work and the trained caprice of biz lifers. The White Stripes stoked interest in White Blood Cells with a 2001 set at Fat Tuesday. (I have no memories of that venue; evidently, it’s gone the way of sponsor Listen.com.) That same year, the Strokes — fresh off the Modern Age EP — plied their baleful EQ-rock at Iron Cactus to a rapturous reception. Two years prior, the Flaming Lips, playing a SPIN showcase with Built To Spill and Juan Atkins (!), distributed headphones and receivers to the assembled at the Scarborough, in hopes that everyone could catch the nuances of their objectively third-best album. Three months later came the Pitchfork 10.0, and we were ready to feel again. Bill Murray graced a 2010 Best Coast set, and every day since has been Santori Time for those kids.
And while I’ve only made the official SXSW festivities once (logging 40 hours of line-tending duties for SXSW Film for the privilege), it’s easy enough for an Austinite to take in some refracted excitement. The para-South By industry is a marvelous thing; once considered detrimental to Official SXSW Shine, the Fader Forts and Dickies showcases are too viable to spurn. And in a non-sour-grapes sense, they can be better than their sponsored counterparts: I caught Odd Future at Fader in 2011; they blew through a raucous, authoritative set. At their official showcase, they called it a night after one song. It’s not uncommon for a band to throw pacing to the wind and play a spate of free shows to supplement their official slot. Sometimes, all it takes is one: Spoon’s “anti-SXSW” show at Blue Flamingo happened to have Matador Records’ Gerard Cosloy in attendance; he signed the band immediately. (Also signed in 1994 on the basis of an unofficial show? Hanson!)
At the time, Spoon was — as anyone from here will tell you — an Austin band. So their exclusion from that year’s festival is a bit puzzling. After all, this whole thing began in the mid-’80s with three staffers at the Austin Chronicle. They figured (rightly) that a still-robust music industry would jump at the chance to flex their travel budgets for a week picking over Austin’s oddball offerings. But where the execs are, so will the hopefuls be, and the idea of Austin as a music hotbed has long taken a backseat to Austin as an unconventional place to audition Chilean chillwave acts. Every year, there seems to be a surplus of acts. And every year, folks line up outside of a refitted auto repair shop or metal-friendly dive bar, ready to take a chance.
A few years ago, my girlfriend — a badgeholder for years — stood in a corner parking lot, watching a venue construct itself around her, as if by magic. Within minutes, it seemed, she found herself with a vodka cocktail in her hand, Jazzy Jeff and Mos Def holding it down onstage, everything walled off from the surrounding madness. I caught a few cool things the one year I had a badge: Ray Davies and Roky Erickson back-to-back at La Zona Rosa, a Chinese rock showcase on Congress Avenue. At Submerged — a shitty, long-gone Prom Under the Sea-themed bar exiled to a corner next to the convention center — some of New Orleans’ hottest bounce acts and most tireless twerkers delighted a crowd ready to party. There wasn’t a stage as such, just a lit area ten feet from the door; everyone just leaned into each other to catch the action. I kept hitting the patio for air, finding a different rapper filming a promo for her YouTube channel each time. It was a blast, but not because we were onto some new hype. It was just really close to an ideal night out.
By now, most of Austin has made its peace with South By’s international outlook. Twenty thousand visitors, 2,000 acts and a $160 million revenue jolt have a way of doing that. My pedicabber friends make major bank; locals will clog Auditorium Shores in a few days to see Divine Fits, Cafe Tacvba, Steve Earle and the Flaming Lips; breakfast tacos will trend on Twitter. There’s a charge in the atmosphere, a sense that this combination of corporate cash, desperation and craft will find a way to amaze you. Doesn’t matter if you’re a veteran band looking for a fourth act, or a crustpunk crew seeking to repurpose SXSW resources: Austin can fit you in. For every Screeching Weasel debacle, there are a hundred acts taking the next professional step, and thousands of people discovering new favorites. After all these years, it still seems totally inefficient to me. But most fun is.