HT columnist David Schultz will be making the rounds at SXSW in Austin this week and will file a series of reports on what he sees. Today, Dave explains what makes SXSW such a special and unparalleled event for music fans.
Give or take a day, this Wednesday marks the 5th anniversary of the Earvolution SXSW Showcase at the now-defunct Emo’s Lounge. At that time, for all intents and purposes, Earvolution consisted of myself and Jeff Davidson, the site’s founder who is now involved with the Sun Studio Sessions that airs on PBS. With Davidson wanting to provide a showcase for Pawnshop Roses, a Philadelphia-based band he was working with, he made arrangements with the folks at Emo’s and the first (and only) Earvolution SXSW Showcase took place with the Roses, We Are The Fury, Joshua James, Jealousy Curve, Wes Hutchinson and The States gracing the stage. My inestimable contribution to the event was drinking free beer (ultimately paid for by Davidson) and mistaking someone’s father for David Fricke. In the following days, I got to see Pete Townshend and Tom Morello play rooms much smaller than they would play anywhere else and Grace Potter & The Nocturnals play the first true encore I had ever experienced. Ever since, I’ve made it a point to return to Austin each March. This year marks my fifth trip in the past six years.
There are certain universal themes that infiltrate any attempts to write comprehensively about SXSW: you run out of synonyms for overwhelming, you complain about your feet hurting, you rave about the abundance of barbeque (I implore you: go to Franklin Barbeque) and Tex-Mex, you marvel that Rachel Ray has a gigantic party at Stubbs, you wonder how NPR can plaster their letters all over the place yet catch none of the same backlash as the other “corporate” sponsors, you question the legitimacy of the showcase put on by the homeless guy and appreciate the immeasurable pleasure of how great it feels to sit down after standing for hours on end.
Unlike other destination festivals, SXSW doesn’t cater towards providing a fan-friendly experience. (This doesn’t apply to the conferences and seminars about which they very seriously care). Geared towards the music industry, the festival’s main concern is assuring that participants with coveted laminated badges (of which your humble narrator is one) can access any official event without violating the Austin Fire Code. Even then, it’s a bit cutthroat. Consequently, the hundred or so unofficial day parties provide a marvelous opportunity to catch bands that time, space and physics might otherwise thwart. In this sense, it helps to know who people are buzzing about; lines (queues for our European guests) form quickly and people are stubbornly patient. In past years, it was easy to bounce from day party to day party. In recent years, some foresight has been required.
One curious aspect of SXSW is the singular focus placed on the event by those that attend. If there’s overlap, the commencement of NCAA tournament hardly siphons crowds to the sports bars, St. Patrick’s Day gets paid lip service at best and no one is discussing Allman Brothers Band setlists from the Beacon. Austinites and those that come to SXSW are knowledgeable music fans so much of the discussion concerns who you’ve seen and who you’re going to try and see.
If you are a music obsessive or even just a serious fan, SXSW is pretty much like Indie Rock Disneyland. (In spite of all its charms, SouthBy does not jam). For the bands though, it’s a grind with some playing a dozen sets over a four day span. As a result, you get varying levels of sound issues as well as the occasional and understandable motivational issues. Not only that, the oversaturation at SXSW hardly guarantees future success. For every band like Yuck and The Head And The Heart that carry the momentum forward there are more like Ebsen & The Witch, British Sea Power and No Age that remain less kinetic. What that means for bands like Bleached, Niki & The Dove and Tennis, who seem to be everywhere this year, should be interesting to discover.