Four days, 32 artists, and one physically/mentally tired guy. That about sums up my SXSW 2012 experience. While I was stumbling around Austin in a haze the last hour of the last day, my first trip to SXSW was a wonderful experience I wouldn’t trade for the world. After hearing so many great things about the city and the conference/festival, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer and simply had to go just once, just to see what it was like. The end result was largely what I expected it to be, but with a few surprises thrown in as well. My hope here is to chronicle the things I think worked about SXSW, and a few that didn’t. Also, if you click past the jump, you can see all the photos I took while in Austin. If you’d like to read about individual performances that I saw last week, have a look at the following daily reports:
Perhaps the thing that makes SXSW truly great is the sheer size of it all. There are literally thousands of bands performing over a handful of days, almost all of them within the span of about 2 square miles. Getting around from show to show isn’t bad, whether you’re on foot or feel the need to take a pedicab. Of course 6th Street can get a little packed during peak hours and create some slow downs, but it’s never anything too unmanageable, even if you need to get somewhere fast. The wide array of shows and showcases happening at any given time can also create a bit of a headache, as it’s not exactly easy to pick and choose if there are 6 artists you want to see all performing at once. Learning the city and the locations of all the venues both legitimate and illegitimate goes a long way towards helping you make such tough choices based purely on conveniece and distance from where you’re currently at. Do you go see Cloud Nothings playing down the block, or do you walk 6 blocks to see Grimes? As I see it, the decision is pretty much already made for you.
Yet there are also a few SXSW music moments that you can’t always plan for, simply because they weren’t planned. There weren’t many “secret” shows this year so much as there were secret guests like Kanye West jumping on stage at the 2 Chainz show or Eminem showing up to support 50 Cent or Bruce Springsteen bringing out everyone from Jimmy Cliff to members of Arcade Fire to Tom Morello and Alejandro Escovedo. Those extra thrills only make the experience more special. Also a major contributor: the people. Austin is already something of a cultural melting pot, but with music fans and artists coming into town from all over the world, the diversity factor multiplies by about 10. But here’s the thing aboug most music fans: they’re good, friendly people. You could strike up a great conversation with the person standing next to you in line and not blink an eye. Everybody was there because they love music, and the easiest conversation starter was always finding out who they’re most excited to see while in town. The only time I ever saw anybody get angry was when a couple of people cut in line trying to get into a show. The reaction was less anger and more, “That wasn’t cool, guys.” If we as a society behaved more like everyone in Austin at SXSW did, the world would be a more peaceful place. Unless of course you’re at an A$AP Rocky show and somebody’s throwing full beer cans at the stage. That near-riot situation was a showcase of the worst side of humanity.
But outside of good music, good people and good weather, good food is another thing Austin is known for. There were food trucks and street vendors on most corners, each specializing in a different type of cuisine. You could get breakfast tacos at one place, and some Korean version of spaghetti at another. There was plenty of BBQ to be found too. If you’re a fan of slow-roasted meats that are tender and delicious, you didn’t have to walk more than a block in downtown Austin to find some. For the cheapskates, there were also a bunch of showcases giving away free food. It’s worth noting that like grocery store samples, the “food” they give you for free is often small and may not be of the highest quality. It also gets snatched up almost immediately for those reasons as well. You’re costing yourself a potentially great meal if you’re not paying for it.
For all the great things that happen in Austin during SXSW, it’s not a perfect situation by any means. First and foremost among the issues is overcrowding. Things may get cramped when you’re walking down the street, but that’s nothing compared to what’s happening inside many of the venues. Jam packed to the gills, trying to get anywhere close to the action was tough, let alone trying to make your way back to the exit. When things did get that bad, the waiting games began. Lines built up outside venues that were a city block or more long, everyone beholden to the “one in, one out” policy. Pitchfork’s evening showcase at Central Presbyterian Church was the height of madness, and I stood in line for 3 hours, missing Fiona Apple, just to get into the 500 capacity venue. Was it worth it? Eh, kinda. Every performance I saw there was a revelation, which is more than I can say about the other venues in town. I’m not entirely sure how all these sound engineers stay employed given how many times I saw an artist ask for a levels adjustment or something broke. I know these artists don’t get a soundcheck during SXSW and they want to put on the best show possible, but constantly stopping or even aborting some songs right in the middle because of a small issue takes away whatever mojo that might have developed in the meantime. The worst night of all was at Clive Bar, where Tycho played without any sub-bass, New Build’s monitors weren’t functioning properly, and Grimes was forced to start her set even after everything wasn’t tested to see if it was working properly (it wasn’t).
Sound issues are just one half of the paradoxes that SXSW presents. The other is overextension. While SXSW can be a great thing for artists (performing in front of music industry bigwigs brings all sorts of exposure along with it), agreeing to play 3 shows a day for 4 days in a row can put you near death’s door. Touring is tough enough when you’ve got one show every night for 3 weeks straight, but SXSW is a marathon compared to that long distance run. Artists function on little to no sleep and can easily blow out their voices from singing too much. On Thursday night I saw Grimes play a perfect show at Central Presbyterian Church. 24 hours later, she had performed at least twice more before arriving at Clive Bar with a voice that was barely there. She fought against it as hard as she could, and eventually had to call it quits in a set that was also plagued with sound problems. It was a valiant effort, but likely left most of the crowd disappointed. Then again, everyone was so kind, understanding and enthusiastic, it probably didn’t matter as much as I thought it did.
Finally, I want to mention the hierarchy that is SXSW. Your amount of access is almost entirely based upon your status within the music industry. If you’re not part of the industry and are simply looking to see some free music, there’s lots to choose from if you don’t mind a bunch of bands you’ve never heard of. If there was a line anywhere, it was almost guaranteed the general public would not be allowed in, as those with badges or wristbands automatically had first dibs. Among the badges and wristbands, only the badges were given priority access into any venue. Every badge would be allowed in before any wristbands would, no matter when they showed up. Of course if I had a badge I probably wouldn’t be complaining about it, it’s just that there were so many of them. There must have been at least a dozen shows I tried to get into but was denied because the room was already filled with badges. Granted, badges cost around $900 and you should be getting something for that money, but it would be more fair if they offerend some balance like for every 100 badges let in, 10 wristbands also get in. Alas, wristband holders got the shorter end of the stick, while the general public was more shafted than anything.
SXSW is something that every obsessive music fan should attend at least once in their lives. It can be a genuine blast if you let it, and only gets better the more access you have. Not but a few years ago, the several day conference/festival served as a proving and development ground for new music talent. Today, that’s not really the case anymore. You may discover your new favorite band while wandering around Austin, but for the most part our discoveries are contained to the hype cycle on the good ‘ol Internet. Then again, were it not for SXSW I never would have stumbled into the band Tearist and one of the most batshit crazy/weird live shows I’ve ever seen. I’m still not sure whether it was supremely stupid or incredibly clever, but if you like incomprehensible psych-pop and somebody showing an iron beam who’s boss with a lead pipe, Tearist could be for you. Outside of the occasional exposure to an artist you didn’t intend to see, you’re quite in control of your own destiny. Unless you’re the adventuresome type willing to walk into a venue without knowing or caring who’s performing, most identify and target acts based on personal tastes or recommendations of others. With so many choices, you can use the time to check a few acts off your personal bucket list. That’s what I did, and though I didn’t get to see every artist I wanted to, I feel like what I did see was extremely worthwhile anyways, with the aforementioned issues or not. I hope I get to go again, be it next year or in 10 years. And if you didn’t go, I hope you take the opportunity to get to Austin soon. It’s a great American city, and the Live Music Capital of the World for a reason.
Click past the jump for photos of many of the bands I saw at this year’s SXSW, in alphabetical order:
Sharon Van Etten