Posted by: Necci – Apr 17, 2012
You think you know, but you have no idea. This simple quote was originally the slogan for the MTV series “Diary” when it debuted in February of 2000. But the fine folks in Austin who put together South by Southwest (SXSW) may want to open their pockets and adopt it as their official tagline.
I thought I knew about South by Southwest. I had heard about it, read about it, watched videos of it for years. I had read the previews, the reviews, the live blogging and tweeting. I had talked to friends who had attended, bands who had played and everybody in-between. And when I made the decision last Thanksgiving to attend the annual film and interactive wonder, I was fairly confident that I was going to take Austin by storm and make South by Southwest my bitch.
I had no idea.
It may not even be accurate to categorize South by Southwest as a festival anymore. Since Apple made being nerdy cool again, and indie became the new mainstream, SouthBy has acted as the climax of a year's worth of trends within several trendy communities. It is not just a film festival, or a place where bands play, or where the next Foursquare is born. No, South By Southwest outgrew such a passive aggressive title when American Express brought in one of the biggest rappers in the world to play an intimate show, and a stage replicating a three story high Doritos bag was spontaneously erected in the middle of downtown Austin.
No, SXSW is not just a festival anymore. It is the hipster Olympics. For ten straight days, thousands of pop culture elitists roam the streets of Austin competing for a gold medal; the brief opportunity to share a humblebrag with their Internet audience regarding the secret show you just saw or which "list" you made it onto. This large scale pissing contest has an undetermined number of medals to distribute, as even the most elite of the elite could not cover one-tenth of all that SXSW has to offer.
In what may just be its most noticeable double edged sword, the event seems to pride itself on including more content than any army of attendees could possibly scratch the surface of. No matter what band you’re seeing or what celebrity is in plain view, something cooler is always going on, and a shinier gold medal is always close by. Some accept this and enjoy what they have when they have it, while others chase the unicorn, in search of a better high. Each year, more bands play, more parties take place, and more alcohol is consumed than the year before. In essence, South by Southwest is the everlasting gobstopper that has accumulated more flavor than any mouth could ever handle.
I began Monday with a smile on my face. The Austin airport was loud and vibrant as live bands lined the terminal covering popular indie jams that most of the twentysomethings shuffling by could mouth the words to. The people were friendly, the cowboy boots were in full force and the alcohol was practically being poured down your throat as you located your luggage and hopped in a cab. This was the party I came for.
It took me exactly one hour and twenty seven minutes from the time I landed on Austin soil until the moment I walked into my first South by Southwest party. Entitled “the Geeky Beach Party,” it delivered exactly what the title promised; geeks of both genders wearing tacky beach attire and large Kanye West-esque sunglasses, sipping on tropical drinks while inflatable beach balls whizzed by their heads in all directions. Held on the rooftop of nightclub Roiāl, the party delivered heavy cocktails, some of which included umbrellas--an exclamation point at the end of a rare occurrence in which a themed party was executed correctly.
One of the elements that makes South by Southwest so incredibly unique is the fact that at any given time, literally hundreds of bands could be playing within a one mile radius, each offering a unique sound and experience. It’s as if the door of any public building in Austin suddenly becomes a rabbit hole that will lead you into a world completely different than the Narnia to the left or the Never Never Land to the right. It may be easy to imagine on paper, but when you are in the trenches of SXSW, it’s tough to wrap your head around the fact that while you are enjoying Cults at a tiny two story bar reminiscent of the Ottobar in Baltimore, dubstep superstar Skrillex could be doing an unannounced set across the street, which nobody except those accidentally in attendance would know about until it was posted on Pitchfork the next morning.
And then, there are the venues. For ten days, every building imaginable gets transformed into a music venue; some of which only are only temporary. Traditional venues such as coffee shops and pizza parlors harvested continuous showcases from dusk til dawn; as did unconventional spots such as libraries, churches and car dealerships. Due to overwhelming demand and limited supply, any real estate is good real estate in downtown Austin. If it has the proper electrical outlets and people can fit on it, around it or underneath it, a band is probably going to play a show there. This element of SXSW never goes away; for six straight days, music of all shapes and sizes is constantly crowding your personal space and repeatedly punching you in the face.
And that’s just while the sun is up. Once it disappears into the Texas desert, the atmosphere intensifies as those left standing set out to enjoy showcases put on by the likes of NPR, Nikon and Dickies. If phase I of any given day at SXSW is the day parties, phase II is the night time showcases that feel much more like a normal show, but with better opening acts. These shows normally include larger acts, and are thus much harder to get into. Be wearing the right colored wristband, however, and you shall be rewarded with an audio treat such as indie darlings Girls at the world renowned Stubbs, or Lil Wayne at the Austin Convention Center - sometimes, back to back.
Phase III, of course is the after hours nightlife scene, where corporate sponsors such as Pure Volume take over small clubs and turn them into guest-listed hotspots that offer open bars and special musical guests. Bandpage, a tool for artists to connect with fans that integrates directly with Facebook, offered the “Band Page HQ,” a venue that specialized in late night DJ-fueled dance parties. The evening I spent at their HQ was centered around popular dubstep artist Porter Robinson, who created one of the wildest and most intense environments I experienced during South by Southwest. At one point, the music was so loud that I could literally feel my lungs shaking in sync with the galactic beat, which went strong until two in the morning.
The sheer consistency that makes this festival so unique and popular to begin with is also the element that makes it extremely easy to become overstimulated by the tsunami of culture taking place around you. After a night at Bandpage HQ, you need to level it out with a slightly different flavor. Veteran music blogs So Far Sounds and We Listen for You recognized this and attempted to counteract by putting on intimate showcases that were both unplugged and low-key. In other words, a rare breath of fresh air.
The former took place in a living room about a mile outside of downtown Austin. The guest list was small and the band lineups were not released until you arrived at the small suburban home that would act as the venue. The latter occurred on Friday morning (read: hangover central) at a secret location that was only given to the strict 100 person guest list. The 7 artists, while not announced ahead of time, were promised to range from “up and coming” to “bands you know and love.” Both shows, while extremely different in nature, combined to help people not only temporarily escape the corporate stranglehold that has become SXSW, but also remind us that at the end of the day, we are all here because of the unique passion that we have for good music.
I kept a running notepad on my phone of thoughts and feelings I incurred during my time in Austin, while this spectacle was going on around me.
Thursday, March 15th, 12:37 A.M: “Emotionally exhausted.”
Six straight days of music and film may not sound like something that would be extremely difficult. After all, plenty of people attend Bonnaroo or Coachella, party hard, and return to work on Monday slightly less rested than normal, but with great stories to share. The difference between the aforementioned weekend musical excursions and a weeklong South by Southwest is the second half; the first cut is always the deepest, and the last mile is always the longest.
By Saturday, even getting out of bed was difficult. Emergen-C was taken two or three times a day, tacos no longer made the cut for lunch, and water was the preferred bar order over the usual whiskey and coke. No matter who you you are or what you do for a living, the fact remained: a human body can only take so much. It can only be dragged into so many shows, put on so many lists, and be a part of so many late night champagne toasts before it quotes the late Owen Hart: “Enough is enough and it’s time for a change.”
There was a point on Saturday afternoon, while I was stumbling to the Perez Hilton “One Night in Austin” party, where I distinctly remember wondering if my body was ever going to feel normal again. My legs were heavy, my stomach was turned on its side, and “hit by a truck” didn’t even begin to cover it. I had all but convinced myself that SouthBy was going to leave a small permanent scar on my body by never allowing it to return to a full and complete one hundred percent. It was almost as if the festival wanted me to leave Austin only after realizing the sacrifices that had to take place in order for me to be granted the opportunity to experience something like South by Southwest: a combination of music and culture in their most pure and most tarnished state - sometimes, right next door to each other.
By Chad Brown