Ed Ward's Blog Leaves Europe After 20 Years and Returns To The U.S., Another Foreign Country. Currently, This Blog Is In Transition.
Sunday, March 20, 2011
SXSW XXV, A Few Observations
It's almost over, the worst SXSW I can remember. I missed one over the past quarter-century, but I doubt that it was worse than this one. And, for all the flack SXSW's management takes, the reasons for this situation were, as far as I could tell, out of their control.
It wasn't all bad, needless to say. Bob Geldof's keynote speech, which, for all its snappy lines, probably shouldn't be quoted out of the context of the whole, was superb. More than once I found myself finishing his sentences with him: it's all stuff I'd been saying over the past few years. Among his observations were the spiritual impoverishment of so much contemporary popular music (particularly American) and the apathy of its audience. To me, this ties in with ubiquitous entertainment, which is now apparently regarded as a basic human right: on the awful Continental flight down here from New York, the TV screen in the back of the seat ahead of me urged me to swipe my credit card so I could "continue to be entertained." The pilot in the next seat took the emergency card and affixed it to the screen in such a way as to blank it out.
Geldof's speech also tied in with the panel I was on, entitled "I'm Not Old, Your Music Does Suck." An overstatement, but at least it addressed the overwhelming quantity and mediocre quality of so much of what's out there. The youngest of our panelists, Paige Maguire from the Austinist website (in her early 30s) referred to Austin as the "light listening capitol of the world," although when one is being entertained all of the time, shutting out the world with earbuds, light listening is, perhaps, all that should be attempted. You don't want those messy mood swings music with actual content provides. Older farts, like Chris Morris (until recently of Billboard) bemoaned the lack of what some called "gatekeepers" and he called "trusted observers" to help us wade through the deluge of mediocrity. In the end, when anyone can make a CD, a lot of anyones do, and when everyone is a record reviewer (and few are critics), there's a lot of noise out there.
And boy was there a lot of noise out there! It's a problem that's been growing, but this year the challenge of finding a bar or a restaurant where some mediocrities with loud guitars weren't set up was harder than ever. There's a reason for this. SXSW has gotten a lot of resentment from the locals for the onslaught of visitors it's created. It also dumps an amazing amount of money into the local economy. But increasingly, the noise is from events that have nothing to do with SXSW except the time-frame in which they're happening. There are a lot of young people who buy things in town. Brands set up events, parties, swag giveaways, for which kids queue for hours, sometimes in the hopes of catching a short set by a performer who is far better known than anyone playing a legitimate SXSW showcase -- which, lacking badges or wristbands, they can't get into anyway.
In short, SXSW has become a spring break destination on top of a large-scale event. The roar on 6th St., the main drag of clubs, is horrendous. (I regret that I tried to record a walk down several blocks and for some reason the recorder didn't get it. The picture above comes from Friday night, when I tried to make the recording). But the roar all around town is, too. You can blame the folks who put on SXSW if you want to -- and lots of people do -- but there isn't much I can see that they can do about this. If Levi's wants to throw a party during SXSW, it's not much difference from Levi's throwing a party at any other time of year in Austin: they need to get permits and a venue and all, and there they go. If you think SXSW gets a lot of criticism for what happens each year, imagine what would happen if they went after these other events.
Me, I mostly hung out at the Convention Center, going to panels, tossing business cards into fishbowls in a vain attempt to win an iPad (I'm enough of a gadget head to want one, but not enough of one to pay $600 for one, even if I had the money), schmoozing with the folks I only see once a year at this event. There was almost no music I wanted to hear, and although I might have made a fortuitous discovery and been well-entertained for 40 minutes, the sheer physical toll wasn't worth it. I finally got game on Friday night because a pretty young girl had approached me after my panel and said something about stalking me (always a nice approach) and handed me a card for her gig, which was early enough that I could make it. I lasted half a song: not very interesting at all. And then walking out onto 6th St. I was confronted with the roar. I actually felt physically tired by the time I got back to the hotel, and it was only 9:30.
I don't see an easy solution to this, and I'm very happy it's not my problem. As someone who lived in Austin for 13 years, I know ways around the mess, and places where quiet exists. I have friends here, who mostly live outside the noise zone, and I know restaurants where I can eat without being subjected to unwanted irritation. For that, I consider myself lucky.
(Incidentally, the morning paper has an actual news article about some of the stuff that went wrong, which I recommend).