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).


  1. " . . . when everyone is a record reviewer (and few are critics), there's a lot of noise out there."

    True enough, but what's the difference? I review CDs, but I hate to call myself a critic. Perhaps it's because I stick to jazz, a highly-technical genre, and because I haven't been a musician for decades that I am reluctant to write criticism (pop or rock, with a wider focus, seem to lower the barriers to entry). And on what basis anyway. Who made me king?

    Whaddya say?

  2. Good writing/thinking, Ed. (Par for the course.)

    I concur that the elements of SXSW which overwhelm the experience nowadays are really the cumulative effect of all the NON-SouthBy stuff. Some of which are perfectly sensible -- Alejandro Escovedo's Saturday party at Maria's Tacos, say, or instores at Waterloo Records -- but it's the product-placement-type events that are potentially smothering.

    Thing is, though, for me, they can't really smother it. Showing overwhelmed Australians around town for much of the past few days, at one point I suggested to them that the mission of any individual at SXSW is simply to make it smaller, in terms of their own personal experience.

    And so, Fader Forts and Rachel Rays and Nuvos and the like may exist -- but they never enter my world. Journey and REO Speedwagon existed in the '80s, but not in my world; same basic principle, as I see it.

    Yes, there is unbearable cacophony. But it IS avoidable, and it's really not all that hard to do so. Both you and I benefit from the local knowledge of restaurants, granted; the Aussies were amazed when I steered them to barbecue and Mexican joints that were not only as good as they've ever had of either cuisine, but we also parked right in front of the restaurant (no more than 10 minutes away from the crush). The music is somewhat more of a challenge, but there are oases. The 18th Floor of the Hilton Garden Inn puts you on literally another plane from the masses below. I found the new ACL Live theater a surprisingly pleasant place to hang out. Lambert's is a pretty good new place (in a very old location!). I put up with the East Sixth Street circus just once or twice over 5 days, but the spots on West Sixth are reasonably calm and comfortable by comparison.

    In the end I think it's mostly about the company you keep. If SXSW affords you an opportunity to spend time with a small handful of people you might not otherwise get a chance to visit with, use the week first and foremost for that. (Again, it's all about shrinking your own personal SXSW: The value is in the quality time spent with probably a half-dozen people at most, even if it means you barely see a hundred or so other friends.)

    SXSW's too big? Of course. But it's within your power to make it smaller. As an old friend once sang (and never mind that he played probably 10 gigs around town the past four days), "Let the rest of the world have its rise and its fall." For me, somehow, it was one of the best South By Southwests ever. Go figure....

  3. The whole purpose of any powerful American Art is that it be anti-art. Rock and Roll for example, should never be considered art. As soon as it is, it's dead. Should I go or should I rock the Casbah? Anyway, check out my blog "King of the Whole Darned World" at
    particularly the entry of August 21, 2008 on "Album Covers". You might find it interesting....
    Please folks. Don't call Kerouac or rock and roll, or Ginsberg or Dylan art. They tried so hard to not be called that.

  4. I enjoyed everything I heard that was presented by John Conquest/3rd Coast Music at G&S Lounge and Amelia's Retrovogue Lounge. This is into South Austin and has nothing to do with the racket downtown, through which I traveled Saturday night en route to a friend's sideman gig. The noise downtown was stupidly loud, as was my friend's gig, which exhibited one of the stupidest mixes I have ever heard.

    As for the idea that many journalists would know anything about the future of some kind of music, I hear Zappa saying "Most rock journalism is people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read."

    I have enjoyed being around a lot of young folks making lots of what I consider wonderful music that is extremely relevant and which has nothing at all to do with "rock" or the big end of the music business stick. That rock journalists know little of this surprises me not at all. And you know what? Those kids don't really care. They're going to make their music, most of which is way too good to make it past some self-appointed "gatekeeper".

  5. Boy, I hope I don't grow up to be a bitter old man.

  6. Well, Ed. old buddy, I recommend LaLa's Little Nugget or The Poodle Dog Lounge. You won't find any SXSW in those joints. Better jukebox in LaLa's.

  7. Good juke at Buddy's Place too, nearby, same side of the road.

  8. Ed, I disagree. I feel very strongly that SxSW should be held responsible and accountable for the near tragedies that were averted, simply because cooler heads prevailed, when things almost got out of control.

    Here are a few points explaining my stand, that some might considered to be corrections, but as far as I'm concerned, are just the ongoing conversation we're having, that other people can listen in on.

    SxSW did go after the Levi's event, for years, and I should know, I'm the one who had to fight against every dirty, rotten, last minute maneuver and move they made, and the one who was called on to scout new locations, every time SxSW would "stick it to Levi's" as they would go around town broadcasting, when they twice leased the venue Levis' had successfully used, the prior 2 years, out from under them.

    At the end of last year's event, however, I decided to cut ties with the "Levi-Fader Fort", because after working so hard to play by the rules, the first of many rumors began to circulate about "protection" money that the unofficial events were beginning to pay SxSW, in exchange for SxSW "not preventing their events from being permitted by the City", and that, if true, was, and is, a bunch of Ca-ca.

    I was informed that SxSW booked and heavily promoted the Strokes appearance at a free concert, 6 months after they headlined ACL Fest, out of their extreme frustration with the competition for talent that the "Fader Fort" books each year (note ... The Fader Fort by Fiat, this year)

    Oh, yea, and I almost forgot ... who paid for the Strokes extravaganza at Auditorium Shores ... wait for it ...


    Maybe they finally just gave in to the pressure, and said, "If ya' can't beat 'em, join 'em", but ... if they're gonna do that, then for Christ's sake, get a handle on your shows, Roland, and accept responsibility when you fuck up. Jeesh.


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