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sxsw

Sell by Southwest

written by: on March 20, 2012

As the Bard once said, a sinus infection is a terrible thing to waste. Thus, my weeklong excursion into the heart of Austin, taken over by a preponderance of that weird and introverted paler sex (the blogger, duh), was punctuated by that nagging feeling that one gets after having ingested opiates (I would assume…) or, in my case, heavy doses of Motrin. Being a SXSW virgin but relative festival veteran, I assumed that what I would be getting into would be just like every other experience, full of sweat, worn walking shoes and the wide-open, accessible atmosphere that makes music festivals so beautiful.

Right. Right. Wrong.

While it’s not as if SXSW was particularly withholding (seeing Rick Ross certainly has never been easier), there seemed to be an ever-present waking nag for something not particularly attainable. Didn’t have a badge? Good luck seeing the hotly anticipated Eve 6 reunion without sneaking in. Didn’t get there early enough? Grimes might just not play at all, anyway. And let’s just not even talk about the egregious lines for food. Waiting has always been a key component of the music experience – release dates, hyped first singles, day-of ticket lines – but SXSW really seemed to be more about the waiting, then recapping of something than the actual thing itself. Either by its own design or by the crushing number of drunken fraternity brothers descending on the town like it was a veritable pale Cancun, the action always seemed two steps ahead of the people around it. By the way, did you catch Jack White? I thought not.

When things become so complexly difficult to access, as many of the official/unofficial showcases/parties/shows/interviews/keynotes/presentations/circle jerks were, the more transcendent things to notice about an event as massive as SXSW are the things that are right on the surface. Blogger culture has ben engendered to dig out the unattainable, the places that nobody knows about and the shows nobody else goes to. SXSW is like this, but flipped on its head. Anything not ridiculously hyped is boring, a fact that SXSW shares with only one other type of mass social meeting: a trade show.

If nothing else, SXSW has turned into a trade show. This seems obvious, since the festival is cored by a giant convention center (which, by the way, is not the easiest thing to get into itself), but even outside, on 6th St. or Red River or Congress, Austin turns itself into its own Bizarro World to hawk products that would otherwise make the pierced, tattooed masses inhabiting the city cringe.

Taco Bell and PS3, meet Hype Machine. You guys will get along great. More than the bands themselves, SXSW is about the sponsors, the people who can and have paid the most money to be able to access that buzzy blogger cultures that’s so obsessed with cats and .gifs these days. It’s a profit world, didn’t you know?

This is by no means to say that the music wasn’t frequently terrific. Pre-natal punk-rock gods The Men, Cloud Nothings and Titus Andronicus played seemingly every venue, and the now decade old Doomtree made more of a media presence than they ever have. Even the last night, that worn Saturday in which everything seems a bit slower from eating Julio’s breakfast tacos for four days straight, brought a ribald crowd to Lucky Thirteen for a vicious Nashville rock n’ roll showcase headlined by a first-time-in-Texas The Weeks. Festival friendly world acts like Rubblebucket made you forget about the lines for another disappointing Zola Jesus performance at the Fader Fort, and Washed Out proved chillwave could be played outside.

But the real focus here was product. Push, sell, hand-out, whatever. Just get product to the masses. Moutain Dew co-opted a hush-hush lil Wayne performance for their DEWeezy van. A hardcore Christian church came to warn of hellfire while a block down scantily clad women pretended to like a human-sized Fleshlight. Camel Light bought a fucking garden for their secret party, while Marlboro was hitting the streets hard with one dollar cigarette packs in exchange for your email address. By the second or third round of walking around looking for exactly where the Spotify House was located, the reality of the drug dealer mentality – sell, sell, sell – at SXSW had fully set in.

In a way, SXSW resembles the internet. A cadre of bloggers scared to talk to one another but all to eager to talk at one another, constantly in search of something nobody else has heard of, all the while being bludgeoned to death by Brand Marketing 101.

The corporatizing of hipster culture is nothing worth fighting a battle against – the war has already been lost, and Bushmills is planting their flag on the rotting corpse of forums worldwide. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that SXSW would mirror the festival-goers attending it. This doesn’t make it any less jarring to watch product hype replace performance. For christ sakes, the new iPad came out during SXSW.

This curatorship stage of music journalism and hip signifiers is something to get used to, and in that way SXSW was a lovely way to cut ones teeth. In the midst of a ibuprofen-induced haze state I might have eaten one or two (or seventeen) Doritos Tacos Locos at the Hype Hotel. If I can’t access the internet, I need ads one way or another; why not eat them? Amidst all the beautiful music (and there was a ton of it, don’t worry), the stale taste of exclusivity and capitalism permeates. It’s a corporate world; SXSW knows it.

  • Joseph Duemig

    Tyler,

    You’re doing it all wrong, my friend. While a bombardment of advertising no doubt plagued your entire SXSW experience, I’m here to tell you that you have no one but yourself to blame for that.

    SXSW is a strange time for Austin locals like myself. Every year, for two weeks, hundreds of thousands of “not-austinites” descend upon our city, in search of some romantic Woodstock-like experience and the chance to see all those awesome reverby bands they’ve read so much about on Pitchfork. They come, maybe try one or two of our more famous downtown food trucks/carts (I hear Chillantro was very popular this year), but otherwise will hit the Wendy’s on I35 between shows or before bed (a sin to Austinites – why would anyone go to Wendy’s when they could go to P Terry’s?). They come with a plan to see The Boss and Grimes and Jack White, leaving themselves little time to explore and find new things to love.

    The unexpected, all those new bands and new foods, that’s what SXSW is about. If you spend all your time at the Hype Hotel, of course you’re going to be enduring sponsors with Greenpeace-level zeal and eating nothing but Taco Bell crunchy tacos made out of Doritos (could there be a brand pairing with more MSG in it?). To get the most of your SXSW experience, you have to go to some of those “boring shows” you spoke of, the ones that got no hype. You have to be flexible, and ready to ditch your plan at a moment’s notice for a new plan. You might just stumble into your most unforgettable SXSW moment.

    Case in point: I was walking back toward my car after The Belle Brigade played a short set at Guerro’s Tex Mex on South Congress. On my way I passed by a little show going on in the front yard of a small boutique called Lovely Austin. There was a jazz trio playing a cover of Billie Jean by Michael Jackson. Instead of merely rushing past this show en route to some other must-see performance, I walked in, grabbed a free beer from an unmarked keg (I think it was Shiner Wild Hare Pale Ale from the taste, but I can’t be positive), and watched the rest of the band’s set. As the band begins to clean up, I see my friend Andy, who is in a band called Moon Furies, walk up to the stage and begin setting up his keyboard. Lo and behold, they’re playing in the very next time slot! I had no idea they were even in town, let alone playing a show! Had I rushed past this charming jazz trio, I’d have missed Moon Furies’ set completely. Now, Moon Furies isn’t my new favorite band or anything, but watching their show and drinking the free beer was much more enjoyable and worth my time than standing in line at the Paste Party. Moral of the story is: one is almost always rewarded at South By for saying “fuck the plan” and living moment to moment.

    Next year, instead of wasting time on the high-profile sponsored showcases, take a ride on Interstellar Transmissions’ party bus, spend three hours at Rio Rita watching a bluegrass circle, check out some shows of local Austin artists like The Eastern Sea, Cowboy & Indian, Lex Land, or Danny Malone. These shows will usually be free, there will usually be free booze or food, they won’t be super packed, and they probably won’t have obnoxious sponsors begging you to sign their email list. You may be missing out on Grimes, but you’ll be having a way more unforgettable time than all your other blogger buddies. Who knows, you might even see something worth writing about.

    • Leah

      Right on Joseph. Couldn’t have put it better. Not gonna lie, I did (and have done) my share of waiting for some big hype shows, but I love floating about the breezes of Sxsw and just see where the winds will take me. It’s a delicate balance. Every year I accidentally stumble upon an awesome band by just stopping off at a small venue to catch a refreshment and some cool free music. Cooperate or not (and honestly what music festival doesn’t have it’s share of cooperate infection), you have to take Sxsw for what it’s bones intended it to be. A unique experience with a hefty helping of great free live music.

  • http://twitter.com/Voyno Voyno

    I agree with Joseph and Leah. The more you can go with the flow of the good music the more you’ll find unexpected things, and more you’ll find people who can you get you there.