An Austin Native Considers the South by Southwest Juggernaut
On the last Saturday of the 25th year of the SXSW conference, the final day of musical acts and heavy drinking and involuntary crowd surfing at the nine-day event, Austin was exhausted and a not a little relieved that it was almost over. I know the feeling.
Over the course of February, in preparation for the festival, I created an indexed war plan: Researching what panels to see, screening specific festival films early, and listening to over 1,100 songs by SXSW showcasing artists from the bit torrents legally released online for free. I printed up a Google docs booklet with nearly 80 pages of parties—‘South-by’ and non-‘South-by’ events alike—and RSVP’d to every event I possibly could. Yet when the first day of the festival hit, I found myself overwhelmed, like a kid in a candy store, a pothead in Amsterdam, the foreigner on that first step into Times Square.
I grew up in Austin. My parents worked in the local film business and my first internship was at The Austin Chronicle, the alternative news weekly helmed by editor Louis Black, one of the founders of SXSW. Throughout my childhood I went to parts of the festival every March, when it was still an underdog event that catered primarily to locals and a growing number of entertainment industry execs who looked at it as an opportunity to do behind-the-scenes business. When I moved away in 2000, the locals were still proud of SXSW and all that it had to offer—it was our festival, our chance to make a national impact through Austin’s creativity and unique way of life. We wanted this Austin-made product to catch on and succeed because it represented us in a vicarious way, like Dell Computers, like the Longhorns, like Austin City Limits. Careful what you wish for.
A decade later, many of the locals I chat with before and during the festival are disgusted with the size and the inconvenience it inflicts on their lives over its week and a half run. From a local food editor to a banker to a grad student, most natives now avoid the festivities entirely or at least plan on heading out of town for the music portion of the festival. Which is a bit like living next to the ocean but never going swimming because the beach is crowded. “They’re fuckin’-up our town,” one middle-aged woman tells me at a late-night diner, not noticing the badge I have tucked into my shirt.
The “How big is too big?” question about SXSW is up for debate, as it has been for the last few years in many of Austin’s political circles. Yet with the amount of money wrung out of the festival each year, it doesn’t look like things will change anytime soon. According to the new documentary Echotone, about the changing Austin music industry, SXSW had injected a whopping 110 million dollars into Austin’s economy in 2010. The figure is estimated to be even higher for 2011 due to jumps in attendance, begging the real question: “At what cost?”
I encounter this mentality first-hand when I try to catch a cab home one night. The dispatcher’s have an automated message set-up due to “high call volume” and many cabs won’t take you to where you want to go if it is not far enough away. I see one drunken girl sobbing on the curb, because no cab will take her home. When I finally flag a cab down, I climb inside before he can lock the back doors. “I’m trying to make as much money as possible tonight,” one cabbie tells me and won’t move until I get out. When I refuse, he screams at me, threatens me and calls the police, telling them I have threatened him and am “kidnapping” him. After what happened to fellow Blackbook writer Brian Van Nieuwenhoven earlier in the week, when he was beaten, arrested and wrongfully detained for the accusation of being “drunk” by a SXSW staffer, I get out and walk thirty-five blocks.
There is a shocking amount of violence, disaster and lawlessness over the course of festival, in a city that I have always known to be relatively laid-back, helpful and kind. To rattle off a few: at a music festival showcase at Stubb’s, a camera crane swooping over the crowd either broke or was improperly operated, crashing down onto spectator’s heads, sending four people to the hospital. At a “free” Strokes show at Auditorium shores, crowds tore down fences that had been set up for some reason, forcing the police to use pepper spray to disperse them. At a Death From Above 1979 concert at Beauty Bar, a crowd of spectators ripped down a back fence to get into the show, drawing mounted police wielding tazers. At the “secret” Kanye West show with Jay-Z and P. Diddy at the Seaholm Power Plant, hundreds of people who had RSVP’d were denied entry at the last minute due to space concerns, bringing hundreds to the brink of riot. Four relatively serious problems in five days illustrates real evidence of an event that has outgrown itself and a city that is ill-prepared to properly control it.
And then there’s the music. Wasn’t that what SXSW was started for that quarter century ago? Despite the fact that few record contracts are signed at SXSW these days, and many bands should know better then to do so, there are still success stories that come out of the festival. I hear one when I chat with lead singers Michael Fitzsimmons and Noelle Scaggs of Fitz and the Tantrums in the basement of Mellow Johnny’s bike shop, where they are laying on the carpeted floor and using their shwag bags as pillows. They speak in hoarse voices about how they came to SXSW last year and were signed by a label, will be touring Europe and have been named the VH1 “You Oughta Know Artist” of April, for whatever that’s worth. “It’s a dream come true,” Fitzsimmons says. “These things can still happen at SXSW.”
However, on my final night, I witness the extremes of what SXSW has become. As the sun sets I catch the moody and dark electronic rock group Bali Yaaah at Malverde, an upstairs loft with ferns hanging in tin planters from the ceiling. They are the quintessential Austin musicians, guys who have played in numerous bands all over the city for the last decade and are still chasing that dream, but still play because that’s what you do if you’re a musician in Austin these days. On the balconies and street behind them crowds have gathered, but not for their relatively unpublicized show—rather, it’s for the 4th annual Perez Hilton party showcase, which I am reminded to say is sponsored by Carrera sunglasses, at the brand new, three story Moody theater. Inside, I feel like I am back in L.A. as I can smell the newness of everything. They give me free Carrera sunglasses, booze and V.I.P. access. I watch a variety of Pop-Rock bands strut their stuff across the stage from a number of different angles around the theater, without a bad sight line in the house. There are rumors that everyone from Eminem to Rhianna are going to show, but this whole party was built on money gleaned from rumors, and no big acts take the stage.
Outside, on the walk through the breezy, cool night back to my rental car, I see a street musician strumming his guitar for change at a pedestrian crossroads. I give him my Carrera sunglasses.