Sunday, March 16, 2014

SXSW 2014: I Was There (Sorta)

Still am, for that matter: my phone just made a noise and is reminding me that the softball game starts in about 30 minutes. Sometime after that I'll jump in the car and go over. This is one SXSW event that I still wholeheartedly enjoy, seeing the locals who've been hiding while the hordes took over, talking with a few people who know how low-key this particular event is.

There may be some music tonight, but I won't be there. In fact, my ears are purer than they usually are: I saw no music this year, much as I wanted to see a couple of events, and I didn't inadvertantly hear much, either. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, practical: because most of the area in which the event takes place has been torn up (along with a great deal of lower downtown Austin) while more huge buildings are erected, parking got to be enough of a problem that, if you could find it, a day's parking cost between $40 and $50. Last year it was $15, I think, and not too long ago it was $7. I just don't have that kind of money. Thus, I discovered that there's a bus stopping nearly in front of my house that got me downtown in a half-hour or less. Of course, none of the drivers and the Capital Metro website had any idea where the return journey left from, and neither did I until Friday, when they were kind enough to put signs up, nearly a week into the ordeal.

The second reason is more personal. Since returning, I haven't gone out to see much live music. In the 20 years I lived in Europe, I saw less and less as time went on, largely because there was less and less I wanted to see. I'd go see Patti Smith when she came through if Lenny Kaye were playing in the band, because I've known him for ages. I'd go see Bob Dylan because his bassist, Tony Garnier, is an old friend, and Dylan's usually carrying one or more Austin guitarists I know. Because of noise restrictions (which seemed to apply to me alone in most of the places I lived in Europe) I rarely played music after 10pm, and then only with phones, which I detest. And my day-to-day life required that I listen to less: there was nowhere to write about new music, so keeping up was less of a priority. I liked that. What I didn't like was going out a week or so after I moved back here, only to discover that being in a room with loud music triggered a panic attack. Not just music: I went to a theater performance and could not wait to leave. Seeing the vast crowds surging around downtown Austin, I knew I didn't want to join them. Plus, there was the problem of getting back home on the bus.

The music end of SXSW has become unwieldy. It's out of proportion to the conference end: there were very few panels and the majority of them were underattended. This was nothing new; it's been declining for years. The performance end, though, has metastatized in a very unfortunate way. Let me take a minute to explain.

There's no law that a venue has to allow SXSW to put showcases into it, and every year a large number of bars and clubs choose not to participate. Officially. They're all very happy to rent themselves out to other promoters, and there's basically nothing anyone can do to stop them -- and why should they? It's capitalism at work! But it's gone way beyond alternative programming at night. Lots of downtown businesses rent themselves out for branding events, in which RSVPing to an invitation allows you to stand in line with hundreds of other people, waiting to get into a building where there's a DJ and lots of free stuff all branded with the sponsor's logo. There's usually live music and sometimes free food. It has nothing to do, for the most part, with the SXSW people. And as SXSW has become a Spring Break destination, more and more of this stuff has been popping up.

This year, however, things reached a pitch I've never seen before, mostly because something called the iTunes Festival decided to piggyback on SXSW, renting one of the prime large venues out from under the conference and stacking the multi-day festival with big names. A certain amount of cooperation was worked out -- my phone kept urging me to go to their venue if I wanted tickets to various performers I'd never heard of and show a platinum SXSW badge if I wanted to get in -- but it was also open to the Spring Breakers. And then there was Lady Gaga, who was booked for the Doritos stage, a gigantic replica of a Doritos vending machine that gets erected each year and on which top talent performs. This is a non-SXSW event. SXSW was short one music conference keynoter, and there was apparently much back-and-forth as to whether or not she would be it. Eventually, of course, she was. But apparently in the evenings there was pedestrian gridlock as the throngs went from one venue to another, gorging on music.

I did miss some stuff I'd rather not have missed: the final Austin Music Awards overseen by the mighty Margaret Moser, who is retiring and moving to San Antonio, fed up (although she's been very politic about expressing it) with what Austin has become. There was a day party at which I could have seen Phil and Dave Alvin, but I missed it because I was at the Convention Center. There was a Lou Reed tribute which I kept forgetting about because I hate tribute shows, although Richard Barone seems to have come up with some excellent marriages of performer and material. Lucinda Williams, whom I haven't seen in ages, had several gigs including that one, none of which I saw. The last one was yesterday afternoon, when she was at a venue sponsored by the Miles Davis Estate, because when I think of Miles, I think of Lucinda, don't you? (At least she knows who he is. Not sure I can say the same for the other bands that day). But when I saw it was a block from the Convention Center, and thought of Saturday afternoon crowds, and the time to get up there and the time to get back, I just couldn't do it. It was a panic attack waiting to happen.

And then there was The Incident: the police had pulled over a kid driving a stolen car without lights and the kid bolted and the cops took chase and when it was all over, the kid had sent a couple of dozen people to the hospital and two to the morgue. A friend of mine saw the whole thing from a balcony he was standing on. It sounds like it was pretty bad. But although people were discussing it endlessly and lots of them were blaming it directly on SXSW having gotten too big, the fact is that a drunk running from the police, encountering a crowd, and smashing other vehicles and pedestrians is something that could happen on any homecoming weekend at a college, on St. Patrick's Day, on the periphery of any major sports event, New Year's Eve anywhere at all, or just anytime anywhere. Michael Corcoran has a great piece on it, the kind of sober reporting and analysis he's getting better and better at, and before people start casting blame, they should read it.

Of course, based on his Facebook postings this morning, he also seems to think SXSW has gotten too big, and he may be right. You'll notice I haven't even mentioned the Interactive end of SXSW, the tail that wags the dog these days. I went to a couple of sessions there, cruised the trade show as always, and felt like I was being subjected to advertorials broadcast live, for the most part. But that's when Austin is inundated with people who may not be the 1%, but who are maybe the 5% looking to join the 1%, the people who leave multi-thousand-dollar tips at the bars they party at. This is where there's congestion nobody talks about because it's private and there's no soundtrack. After that's over, there's a day's grace (except for people who attend mostly for the film festival, not a huge number, I believe), and then the Spring Break kiddies and the music people arrive. At this point, the ecosystem seems to break down. From previous years, I remember walking up and down 6th Street and hearing the pounding din of the music pouring out of all of the bars, restaurants, and occasional impromptu venues for several blocks around and wondering how anyone could concentrate on listening to anything. There's nothing pleasurable about this, nothing whatever, as far as I'm concerned. And since nobody's paying me to experience it, there's a bus that stops pretty much in front of my house... In fact, I ate dinner at home every night of SXSW but one, and on that occasion, I was too tired from the day to figure out what to make, so I took myself out for an inexpensive Indian meal.

But there's another thing that I think has become unpleasant about the SXSW experience, and that's the growing commercialization. When I was the panels director, back before the other two pieces of the event happened, the focus was on education, on helping people learn stuff that could help them. The "live infomercial" thing I referred to above is now a factor in the majority of the panels I audited. One panel was nothing but an infomercial, dealing with Converse sneakers and their role in rock and roll and -- oh, yeah -- their branded record label. I got three invitations to attend this from a PR firm that maybe wasn't aware you had to have a badge to get in. I had one, but why on earth would I want to see this? Then there are events like the Gaga Doritos show. Jon Pareles of the New York Times had a fine blog post about what he would have been required to do in order to see it, much of which would violate his journalistic integrity, as well as his terms of employment. Of course, Doritos shot themselves in the foot here because he wasn't able to report on the show, which would have gotten their name into the New York Times.

Every year I go to this event, I come away thinking that some soul-searching wouldn't hurt the organizers, but that it's hard to see where to start. SXSW simply cannot control such things as hordes of college kids who just want to get wasted and listen to free music descending on the town, nor are there any laws that could ensure that a drunk (illegally) guy behind the wheel of a (illegally stolen) car driving (illegally) with his lights off would never happen again. I'm kind of waiting to see what the next year in Austin is like before I complain about what's specifically SXSW-generated that I don't like, because I suspect there's lots going on out there that has nothing to do with the event.

Meanwhile, it's just about over, and I'm going to go network over at the softball field, see some friends, and stay home tonight.
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