Imagine if every music business operator from Los Angeles to New York to Nashville to Munich decided to get together and take over your city for a long weekend. They’d eat your food and park in your parking spots and sit on your barstools and drink your beer. They’d go see your bands—ostensibly the main reason for all the eating, parking, sitting, and drinking—but they’d talk more than they’d listen, complaining that band X wasn’t nearly as good as band Y and that label A overpaid for band B. They’d also smugly opine that your city was much cooler five years ago—before there were so many people.
This is the story of the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference (SXSW), the Austin extravaganza that in its eleventh year is the largest, most prestigious gathering of its kind. For five days in March, when University of Texas students head for South Padre Island, Austin gives itself over to rock and roll. SXSW brings the music of Texas (and of the South and Southwest) to the rest of the world by bringing the rest of the world here. That was the conference’s modest goal when it began in 1987 with seven hundred registrants and two hundred bands, and it quickly developed a reputation as laid-back, unpretentious, and music oriented as opposed to business oriented—especially compared with the granddaddy of such events, New York’s New Music Seminar.
By 1991 SXSW’s great rep attracted 2,800 people. While the basic outline of the conference was nothing new—panel discussions and a trade show by day, followed by manic happy-hour socializing and an even more manic evening in the clubs—SXSW did it better. The panels, usually the bane of any industry convention, were spunky and provocative. The centrally located Sixth Street entertainment district made it possible to amble from club to club all night long and see two songs apiece by twenty bands in five hours. And to out-of-towners especially, Austin’s leisurely pace, cheap beer, and ample barbecue seemed like paradise. The city welcomed SXSW’s tourism dollars, while Austinites welcomed the music; locals have always had the opportunity to participate in the conference by paying a modest price for a wristband that gets them in to all the clubs. All things must pass, however, and in the past few years SXSW has lost its homey innocence. In 1993 the conference moved from the Hyatt Regency to the cavernous confines of the newly built Austin Convention Center. In 1994 the New Music Seminar went under, leaving SXSW as the cool—some would say aloof—only child instead of the kid brother who tries harder. In 1995 it drew 4,700 registrants, a level of success that attracted bigger bands along with bigger crowds and the inevitable criticism that SXSW no longer cared about the esoteric or the unsigned; bands that didn’t get festival gigs started playing unofficial anti-SXSW shows in protest. Meanwhile, the conference’s mission was becoming more diffuse. In 1993 it spawned sibling multimedia and film festivals—the latter has been a rousing success—and music gatherings in Portland, Oregon, (North by Northwest) and Toronto (North by Northeast). This year 5,707 people registered for SXSW, seven thousand wristbands were sold to the general public, and more than 750 acts and solo artists performed—all record levels of participation. Yet even if the lines are now around the block, and even if music business weasels make commerce seem more important than art, SXSW is still a nonpareil event. Where else can you take in tejano, punk rock, jazz, Britpop, country, and the latest alternative hitmakers in the course of a single evening—with the sets (mostly) starting on time? Still, the conference never fails to inspire a certain amount of defensiveness and sarcasm from the locals. Take the Wannabes. The Austin band, which has played at eight SXSWs, had T-shirts printed for this year’s gig. They read “Don’t Move Here.”
The Austin Music Awards have always served as SXSW’s unofficial kickoff, but in 1997 there were club showcases scheduled at the same time. This proved not to be a conflict, as the big show filled up with Austinites while out-of-towners looked elsewhere. The awards have always been a downright mystifying experience for non-Austinites anyway; people from New York or L.A. don’t really know who (guitar hero) Ian Moore or (disc jockey—blues singer—awards emcee) Paul Ray is. They also show up completely underdressed. You see, the awards are actually prom night for the Austin music community, the one time each year when the city merges its bohemian attitude and thrift-store chic with big hair, big chests, and other time-honored Texas values. The real purpose of the evening is making the scene and being seen; hence the plunging necklines and overapplied makeup, the red and gold lamé and the tattoo-revealing strapless dresses, and the people who look like they haven’t been to a club in fifteen years. One such person—the guy wearing the “Kirk Watson for Mayor” campaign button who was genially pressing the flesh of a six-foot redheaded woman with a VIP sticker directly affixed to her bare arm—turned out to be the candidate himself.
Show Me the Money
Reduce things to purely economic terms and SXSW’s schematic is this: One group (record companies) spends money on another group (musicians, journalists, booking agents) to the ultimate benefit of a third group (Austin’s hotels, restaurants, clubs, and retailers, to say nothing of SXSW itself). The music business is slumping, however, so this year the largesse was somewhat less—and that’s not all that was different. Instead of big-name headliners, most of the major artists who appeared were culled from the Social Security rolls, though booking Tony Bennett, Carl Perkins, Jimmy Webb, and Elvis’ most famous backing musicians was still quite a coup for SXSW organizers and quite a joy for SXSW audiences. Actually, the absence of buzz bands made for a more user-friendly conference: With a few exceptions, there was a shorter wait to see music, a greater variety of acts, and a stronger sense of going to see promising or completely unknown bands just for the hell of it.
pat me on the back/and tell me that i matter/happy gravy train
There’s a kernel of truth in that SXSW-inspired haiku penned by San Francisco journalist Gina Arnold. Slump or no slump, there were still plenty of parties, dinners, and private showcases where you could also party and have dinner. At SXSW, nobody is ever hungry, thirsty, or sober; the loneliest person in Austin is the guy without an expense account. The definitive gravy train depot is probably Threadgill’s, Austin’s prime purveyor of, well, gravy. With its new downtown location Threadgill’s was, more than ever, the obligatory SXSW dining experience. One night—and this was typical rather than exceptional—a group of approximately eighty journalists and twenty record label employees took over a third of the restaurant. They were seated at twenty tables and racked up a $1,750 tab, which ended up being split ten ways and charged to ten company credit cards.
Schmooze You Can Use The Four Seasons is Austin’s finest hotel; as such, it is the place to be, the unofficial nerve center of the conference. While the peons spend their days at panel discussions and the journalists strut around with an air of importance because they aren’t paying for dinner, the real players are at the Four Seasons lobby bar, power-schmoozing and dealmaking as hopeful would-be music bizzers and hopeless unsigned musicians look on longingly. That being the case, the Four Seasons is booked solid with the biggest bigwigs. In a front-page Austin American-Statesman story trumpeting the exclusivity of the hotel, its general manager said that his staff routinely turns down bribes for reservations and that you can’t book a room for SXSW even a year in advance (because they’re parceled out by the conference, not the hotel). Anyway, since the place is in such demand, I thought that calling on the first night of SXSW to ask if there were any rooms available would go over about as well as “Is your refrigerator running?” But instead of laughter or a canned apology, I was connected to the front desk and told I could have a view of the city for two hundred bucks. SXSW’s dirty little secret: last-minute cancellations.
The Myth of the Deal Here is the dream: You start a band, play a few shows in your hometown, and send off a tape to a post office box in Austin, where five or ten people decide you’re the 632nd best thing they heard out of maybe five thousand submissions. You spend your last $300 fixing the engine in the van, which will also serve as your bed, and then you play a show at SXSW. It’s so great that the record label executive who accidentally caught the end of your set offers you a six-figure deal on the spot. That’s it: You’re set for life. Right?
Actually, your hell is just beginning—you’ll probably have a good couple of years, then buy a house that you won’t be able to pay for after you’ve been dropped by the label. But the real myth of SXSW is that anyone gets discovered at all. At best, the conference serves as a summit for bands and record companies, and it’s more fun than playing a showcase in New York or L.A. The connections between bands, managers, and labels are established well before SXSW, and so is the notion that a band is worth seeing. This year’s hot catch was Austin singer-songwriter Kacy Crowley, but the eventual winner, Atlantic Records, and most other interested labels knew about her before they’d ever gotten on a plane. Austin’s Sincola got a deal with Caroline Records at 1994’s SXSW, but the person who signed them had already heard the band’s debut record and lots of favorable word of mouth (and, sure enough, the band parted ways with the label after making only two albums). And Austin’s Spoon was signed by Matador Records president Gerard Cosloy after he caught the band’s set in 1994, but not at SXSW; Spoon was playing one of the unofficial anti-SXSW shows at a punk club called the Blue Flamingo.
Old Faithful After all the buzz bands and rock stars and next big things and aging legends and European novelties have had their moment, there are the artists who just show up, play a great set, and go about their business. The Instruments, for instance, have been around for too long to think that SXSW is going to be their big break. Known for most of their career as the Texas Instruments—until lawyers for the electronics goliath finally wore them down—the Austin band is said to be the only one to have played all eleven SXSWs. This year their show was at Trophy’s, a run-down South Austin sports bar that doesn’t ordinarily host original music. As one of those Strongest Man in the World contests unfolded on a crappy big-screen TV, T.I. (as they’re still called) reveled in the simple joy of playing together. Guitarist Clay Daniel did windmills, bassist Ron Marks seesawed his bass like a scythe, and singer/guitarist David Woody bounced on his heels as sweat and saliva poured off him like a spigot and dripped onto the microphone. They aren’t trendy or particularly popular, but their music is vibrant. As a band, T.I. espouses the values that SXSW embodied when it was just a two-bit conference featuring a handful of good bands, so it’s more than fitting that the group holds the conference’s endurance record.
Insert Punchline Here “Who Cares?” was the name of one of SXSW’s biggest panels, a discussion of politics and music.
Grandpa, Tell Us About Luckenbach Again A panel on Austin’s cosmic country heyday could have been the story of any music scene: We had joy, we had fun, we made really great sounds in the sun. Then money and drugs—in this case, cocaine—ruined everything. Nevertheless, the beatific reminiscences from the likes of Marcia Ball and Eddie Wilson (who owned the Armadillo World Headquarters during the seventies) underscored what makes a good SXSW panel: Forget about discussing “issues” or generating “dialogue” and just tell some stories and be entertaining. The panel did make one wonder what kind of Austin-centric nostalgia SXSW might offer up in future years. Some suggestions: “The Sky Is Still Crying: Stevie Ray’s Sidemen Remember” and “Still Slackers After All These Years.”
The Most Indelible Part of SXSW… … are the hand stamps you get at the doors of clubs. This year’s included “Yes,” “Top Secret,” “This Place Sucks,” “That Place Sucks,” “TABC,” and a picture of a lobster.
The SXSW Index. 250: Gallons of cream gravy served at both Threadgill’s locations during the five days of SXSW—25 percent more than normal. 1: Number of Austin American-Statesman music critics who rather awkwardly compared SXSW to the Holocaust. 54: Total number of housekeepers and managers on duty at Austin’s Hyatt Regency on the last day of SXSW—twice the usual staff. 7: According to one eyewitness, the number of police cars called to the scene of a fight at the aforementioned bar Trophy’s. 94: Number of exhibitors at this year’s trade show. Had you visited them all, you might have helped yourself to twelve CDs and cassettes, ten magazines and newsletters, one pair of earplugs, two Jolly Ranchers, one roll of Smarties, one free game of pinball, six stickers, one coffee mug, one Rolodex card, one Coozie, and one See Shell (an experimental CD case that folds up like a makeup compact). +23: Percentage change in customers at Austin’s Waterloo Records during SXSW versus a typical week. +66: Percentage change in sales at Waterloo.
Car Talk The inarguable highlight of SXSW was the Parking Lot Experiment, a rather unusual performance by Wayne Coyne of the Oklahoma rock band the Flaming Lips. Coyne assembled 29 cars and vans in an indoor parking garage, which quickly filled with a crowd that the Austin American-Statesman somewhat hyperbolically estimated at two thousand. After arranging the cars in an acoustically efficient manner, Coyne passed out 29 prerecorded tapes that when played together, made up a bizarre symphony of time, space, and sound, with echoes and stereo separation bouncing around the garage. The tapes were ornately marked with gold paint and, in big letters, “No! No! No!” on the side that wasn’t supposed to be played. During the second symphony (“Rotting Vegetables Marching Through Meatville”), a mélange of drums, bells, echo, and guitar, one of the cars blew a fuse. Unfortunately for Coyne, it was, to put things in classical terms, the “first chair.” In its absence, he described the piece as “the quietest music heard in this whole conference.”
Where’s David Helfgott When You Need Him? Austin’s favorite manic-depressive songwriting genius, Daniel Johnston, came to SXSW for what was just his fourth live performance in five years, a brief set that went on without incident—which is to say that he did not run away in search of pot or candy and that he made it back to his Houston-area home safely. The show itself was rather poignant: With hands shaking and his pig-squeal voice sounding downright mournful, Johnston made it through four quick songs before saying good-bye. “You’re a great audience,” he said. “You always were.”
You Can Call Him Al When Alejandro Escovedo and his orchestra take over La Zona Rosa on the final night of SXSW, it’s like the place falls into a vacuum—everything that can make the conference so frantic and trying is suddenly sucked from the room. No more schmoozing, no more dealmaking, no more keeping your eyes fixed at chest level (so you can read the badges of the people whose names you’ve forgotten). In short, no more outsiders. Sunday is for Austin, and for Escovedo’s performance, long SXSW’s traditional coda. The night involves more than a dozen performers and is alternately epic, beautiful, mournful, and savage, ranging from Escovedo’s dramatic, heart-swelling originals to his long-standing cover of Iggy Pop’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” The show is SXSW’s great catharsis, a perfect exhalation of perfectly lovely and resilient music after a week that is, finally, about that more than anything else.