As I type this I’m already at South By Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas. In fact, I’ve been here since Sunday afternoon, taking in the Interactive portion of the conference, sent to learn the latest in digital media for my day-job.
The “vacation” part of the trip — the part I’m documenting for The Reader — begins Wednesday when I switch hats and cover the music portion of the conference/festival. If you’re reading this on Wednesday through Friday (or thereafter) you can check out the day-to-day coverage at thereader.com, written by myself and/or fellow music journalist Chris Aponick. Or you can just wait until the next issue hits the stands and read our capsule summaries (but you’re going to miss out on a lot of fun).
I’ve been going to SXSW since aught nine. This is the first year I can remember when no “major” artist or band has been booked or rumored to play the festival — no Springsteen no Metallica no Kanye will be here to thrill the national slacker media with a rare club performance.
This morning SXSW trumpeted that Lady GaGa will give a keynote address at the Austin Convention Center. Neil Young also will talk about his new hi-fidelity portable music service called Pono. And Blondie will take a turn behind a podium. And while there’s talk that Gaga has been negotiating for weeks to do a show at outdoor venue Stubb’s, there’s nothing planned for Young or Blondie other than monotone speeches.
Believe it or not, there’s an actual Music Conference going on during SXSW this week. In all my years traveling to Austin, I’ve yet to meet anyone who actually attended one of the “informational sessions,” even though attendance is free with a Music Badge. If it’s a choice between spending your afternoon listening to an eager music industry “executive” drone on and on about the value of “branding your band” or drinking watered-down mimosas at one of the many free day parties that feature the same bands who performed at “badge events” the night before, well, that choice is pretty simple.
By the way, other riveting music conference topics include “Album Recording: When Do You Hire a Pro?” “Copyright Termination Rules Have to Change,” and “No Rules: Defying Genres in the Music Business.” Riveting.
In no other year at SXSW has a Music Badge — which can be bought for an exorbitant amount or earned by being a member of a sponsoring media outlet — been more unnecessary. Almost every band on my “must see” list is playing a free day party or free non-badge showcase somewhere this week. In past years, it would have been worth having a badge to get in to see exclusive performances by Jesus and Mary Chain or Springsteen or a reunion of Big Star. This year all you’re getting for your badge is Spandau Ballet, Willie Nelson or a chance to win a ticket to see Coldplay.
Without those amazing exclusive performances for Music Badge holders, SXSW has a problem on its hands. Aponick, who does have a badge, told me last week he may spend his entire time in Austin at Beerland — a punk venue about the size of O’Leaver’s that will feature the hottest garage bands in the country playing every night for free. Beerland has never participated in SXSW, so a badge will get you nothing more than scorn from the greasy locals who frequent the bar when they see your laminate hanging ‘round your neck.
People have been known to take off their laminates/badges when attending day parties. While the locals will recognize you as a music tourist anyway, why give up your identity as an out-of-town hick on a newspaper-sponsored boondoggle so easily?
With no gee-whiz acts and most band playing “unofficial” day gigs, is the music industry’s decline beginning to eat away at SXSW’s infrastructure? In fact, this year’s SXSW features the fewest number of Nebraska bands in recent memory. Saddle Creek — Nebraska’s nationally recognized indie record label — is not hosting a showcase in Austin this year, though one of its bands — Twinsmith — is playing an official gig. Omaha punk band Digital Leather is playing a few unofficial showcases (including one at Beerland). Omaha transplant Dan Scheuerman’s band Deleted Scenes plays a showcase, as does former Omahan Adam Hawkins’ band Eros and the Eschaton. From an indie music standpoint, that’s about it.
Still, it’s SXSW. And if there wasn’t anything worth seeing, I wouldn’t be here and neither would the tens of thousands of media tourists who booked hotels a year in advance, making the trip not only for the music but to escape whatever winter hell they came from.
My short list of must-see acts includes Eagulls, Kurt Vile, Future Islands, Foxygen, Urge Overkill, Speedy Ortiz, Warpaint, Gary Numan, Steve Wynn, Angel Olsen, No Joy, Gardens & Villa, Timber Timbre, Perfume Genius, Vertical Scratchers, Cate Le Bon, White Mystery, Spray Paint, and on and on.
And as much as I hate to admit it, I’ll go out of my way to see those few Nebraska bands that have made the trip to this faraway land in hopes of maybe — just maybe — getting the attention of somebody from outside of Nebraska who can make a difference in their career. Because isn't that was South By Southwest is all about?
By the way, on my first day at SXSW, the temperature was warmer in Omaha than it was in Austin. There’s a message hidden in there somewhere.
Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.