Lone Star Trek
The South by Southwest conference held in Austin, Texas, each year is the music industry's most massive gathering. Now in its 12th year, the conference purports to be the mecca of the biz, a place where unknown bands will find their A&R guy in shining armor and ride off with him into the platinum sunset, a place where newcomers to the business can frolic with the big shots and absorb their secrets of success through the osmosis of schmoozing.
This is supposedly the place where deserving artists can get their break. Hey, we might never have had Hanson if it weren't for SXSW, although the little blond ones never really played the conference. They just wandered around bopping at a barbecue attended by hordes of drunken industry folks until they found somebody who would listen. How hard can it be?
In reality, SXSW is an already feral industry's excuse for an orgy of intoxication and self-congratulation (with a soundtrack of about 800 bands). Around 6,000 "insiders" bumrush Austin each year to listen to bands, drink free beer and jerk off each other's egos. Revolver's never one to miss an orgy, so when the editors said "go," I dutifully packed my bags.
The first day of the conference (Wednesday, if you make it out that early) requires you to pick up your pass at the Austin Convention Center, ground zero for the elbow-rubbing, palm-greasing badge hounds scurrying around squinting at the laminate dangling from your neck to see if you're "somebody" (I unfortunately attract the worst of this crowd since you've gotta be pretty lame to think that I'm gonna do your career any good).
The Convention Center is also home to the trade show and the multitudinous panel discussions SXSW puts on. If you can manage to tear yourself away from the schmoozing and panels of arguing, self-important industry hotshots during the day, you can probably find a record-label party at which to eat barbecue and drink beer for free (lemme see, should I go to the panels on "What Is a Major Label" and "What's Next for Electronica?" or go drink some major-label beer and kick it in the sun?).
This year the trade show actually had some cool product up for grabs: free cigarettes. Typical trade-show fare is three-month-old music mags and compilation tapes from the [insert foreign country here] Pop Institute; the cigarettes were by far the coolest product handed to me.
Other than my first venture and subsequent cigarette refills, I shied away from the Convention Center. Last year's experience taught me that I was better off sleeping off my hangover than nodding painfully while some dirty hippie cornered me and told me how much I should hear her world-beat band.
The first of my musical SXSW experiences this year was seeing local glamour boys the Beat Angels play late Wednesday night. The Angels aren't usually my sort of thing (actually, the only time I've seen them before this was last year's SXSW), but as I drank more and they drank more, the show just got better and better. So good that I took off and passed out immediately afterward.
Thursday's musical prospects were much brighter. Since many of the hacks who attend SXSW don't make it to Austin until Thursday, the better bands are spared the Wednesday-night slot. Every year has its big name at SXSW--last year it was Tony Bennett, this year we got Sonic Youth.
Having Sonic Youth play at 7 p.m., an hour before any other bands were scheduled to start at the 36 other venues, sounded like a good idea until I spent more than an hour in a line with four thousand other people.
It's okay, though. Most of the 2,500 people who didn't get into the venue were just locals, so who cares? Which brings us to the hierarchy of SXSW. Conference attendees buy a badge for $400 that gets them everywhere (or at least in front of the line); locals can buy wristbands for $95 that get them into the shows, providing the badge assholes didn't pack the place first; and the financially challenged can pay a cover charge of $10 or $15 if there's any room left in the venue (this year the fire marshal was in full effect, so sold-out shows were common). The locals can understandably be a bit bitter about this, so it's a smart move to hide your badge if you stray too far from the "official" venues.
Sonic Youth surprised the crowd (and disappointed many) by only playing songs off its unreleased DGC LP, A Thousand Leaves. The songs were a far cry from both the art-noise of early SY and the band's recent pop-oriented output. Bassist Kim Gordon put down her bass for most of the set and played third guitar to Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo. The songs were viscerally experimental; absolutely no hooks to be had, which left audience members who were expecting "100%" scratching their heads.
Thursday night was also the debut of Tempe homeboy turned Austin transplant Curt Kirkwood's new band, the Royal Neanderthal Orchestra. Unavoidably similar to Kirkwood's former band the Meat Puppets, the Orchestra cranked out dense slabs of punk-tinted guitar rock. Expect to hear more about this band later this year when it releases its first album.
Friday brought both the lamest and the coolest experiences of the conference. I was anticipating Sub Pop's afternoon party to be one of the major brouhahas of the conference. Wrong. Those in attendance at the placid U-district cafe got nifty key chains and a performance from the Pernice Brothers, three guys with a serious Elliott Smith envy complex. Not a free beer to be had, but at least it was happy hour. Sub Pop was a lot more fun when grunge still sold.
Arizona locals Jimmy Eat World more than recompensed for Sub Pop's weak throwdown Friday night. As well as playing an awesome set that attracted none less than Janeane Garofalo, the mischievous bastards proved themselves to be the coolest musicians playing the conference. Upon being given their mandatory two free-drink coupons per person, the boys headed for the nearest Kinko's and turned eight free drinks into 130 free drinks, which they were more than generous with (the only band that can actually use 130 free drinks in one night would be the aforementioned Beat Angels).
Later that night, the Promise Ring took the stage and tore the crowd a new earhole with its precocious pop songs. Despite a recent tour accident that left two members hospitalized, the Ring is back on the road and sounds better than ever. Too bad the band's skipping the West Coast on this tour, but they say that kids just don't come to the shows out west, so it's your own damn fault.
Saturday brought more of the same bacchanalian madness, but I'll no longer bore you with stories of marathon intoxication. The only awe-inspiring act I witnessed on Saturday was Kansas City's Get Up Kids. They call those kids an "emo" band, but fuck all that. The Get Up Kids rock like few emo bands know how, straightforward and unpretentious.
The bands pretty much stop there. Only four venues hosted shows on Sunday, but SXSW wasn't quite over. Sunday is the big softball game where different factions of the industry battle each other on the field for the much coveted Montana Cup (named after the deceased "Country Dick" Montana).
It's a harrowing decision, whether to spend the day in bed recovering or go play ball with the heavy hitters. Yours truly batted .280 and won the Cup for the Print Media team--and then I woke up from my dream with a blissful smile, content to stay far away from the industry assholes swinging their sticks around. Maybe next year.
Contact Brendan Kelley at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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