Tuesday, April 5, 2011

SXSWTF: This Year's Thing and a Response to the Stuff That Was Said

Wye Oak doing an acoustic set at Lustre Pearl. 

Right now I am in Iowa City. Wye Oak hired me to sell their merchandise for a five-week tour of the US and Canada with Brooklyn band Callers, so here I sit, behind a card table listening to an opener named Alexis Stevens strum out some earnest chords at The Mill (est. 1962). Last night we were all in Omaha, where the local weekly published an article about Jenn and Andy, the content of which focused primarily on What It Is Like To Be A Band At SXSW. 
Whenever I go to SXSW I’m relieved that I don’t have to “work” it, even though I may be present. Once, Monitor Records brought me down for free because I was working for them for free. I sunburned my entire face and got locked out of the hotel room. A few years later, I went down to perform in a few different capacities (solo and with Lexie Mountain Boys). I’ve never had to play more than 4 shows in the weekend, nor have I had to schedule meetings about overseas music licensing for advertisers nor have I run across South Congress with a guitar in my hand trying to make it for my slot at a bookstore barbecue. Someday, maybe. I am not complaining; I’d like to preface this screed by stating that I was present for SXSW this year in an unprofessional capacity. Perhaps "improfessional" is a better way of putting it. Informally non-professional. I didn't have to attend any conferences, put it at that. I hung out with Jenn and Andy while they played their shows. It was fun.

When we first got to SXSW, three things happened within 20 minutes of each other. Seeing this was the first.
This year, most of the people I spoke with who actually did have to "work it" seemed to be in high spirits despite the gloomy forecast for moving units across the US and beyond. The nature of music manufacturing and broadcasting is being redefined, the strictures for artmaking and cultural support are tighter than ever, and music listeners are absorbing more product than ever while paying less for it than ever. It is this type of environment that forces artists and industry-types to reinvent themselves while riding the rails of the old ways; the demands of SXSW require heavy gasoline usage, regardless of how many semi purposeless “Green Zone” tent villages are erected. Vans, generators, trailers, motorcycles. A thousand pedicabs couldn’t hump all the equipment passed from hand to hand all night & day, up and down staircases and across innumerable thresholds. What use is a Green Zone in a parking lot if there aren’t enough trash cans and everyone is ankle-deep in empty little plastic spring water bottles and greasy taco foil? 
So Austin is awash in trash, shirtless fistfights and barely audible streetcorner gypsy bands competing with the omnipresent blare. There seems to be no weight or value to anything because the whole thing is everything and the diffuse effect of all things promoted simultaneously creates a near-total wash; the “where are you?” heard over and over is the cry of echolocation and the answer should always be “it doesn’t matter” or “everywhere”. This mass, unchecked washout is a microcosm of both the tour experience and the American experience. A blur of city-states, a dazzling endless skyline of signage two stories off the ground, a situation bolstered by live musicians who are largely underpaid (if paid at all) and a situation that can barely support their weight when it comes to the execution. A desperate communal scrabbling towards something greater, something more effective, more what it needs to be. A mindless bacchanal shitstorm streaming shreds of bathroom tissue, filthy tears, ice cubes, dried vomit, cameras: a staring contest between thousands of participants. A party of darkness and light fighting for supremacy. 

Number 2: Return of Josh T Pearson, pictured here (l - r) with a hobbit and Jean Rose.
We drove out of Austin on Monday March 20. We read articles written by Baltimore journalists, bloggers, record company owners about the SXSW. Twitter accounts of a fake parallel festival (#southbysouthwendys) featuring Narwhalz & Juiceboxx, where the Mooney Suzuki was hogging all the honey mustard, sounded awesome, especially since it was fake. Some articles, however, were exasperating
Many (OK, ALL) of the articles that drove me up the everloving wall were written by Baltimore's Sam Sessa, whose "main reason for going was to find out why Austin (the "Live Music Capital of the World") has such a great music scene, and what Baltimore could do to help make ours better." I couldn't believe it, especially in light of the actual blog entries. My response to these articles is threefold. 
Number 3: A reminder that partying hard can happen before noon. 

1. Make sure you are actually seeing Baltimore bands. More than two, preferably.  Especially when a thorough list of Baltimore bands and when and where they were playing was published on the same blog you are writing for. Not one but TWO Baltimore media outlets (Baltimore Sun and WTMD) send you to Austin and the thing you have to report is that you shook Rachael Ray's oily mitt and you didn't get in to see Das Racist? Sam, call me and I will take you to actual Baltimore shows with Baltimore bands playing them. My phone number is the same.

All that stuff went down on our walk from Lustre Pearl to Wye Oak's IFC filming. 

2. Drawing comparisons between Baltimore’s music scene and the music scenes in other places in America, especially Austin, is useless. Why does one thing work and another thing not work? Because nothing is precisely the same. Just saying that Austin has a great music scene does not automatically make it so. Baltimore’s music scene and its relationship with the city legislature is best served when it highlights its own strengths in order to rebuild and redefine its needs, not when it bemoans its lack in comparison with other places. How can we capitalize on what we have in order to create a situation advantageous to the city and its artists in particular? It doesn’t benefit Baltimore’s cultural entities to know that Austinites think its fucked up to not allow bands to play all over the place all the time. Additionally, who's to say that Baltimore bands want Baltimore to be more like Austin? Baltimore has one of the spiciest scenes in the country now, due in no small part to the fact that Baltimore bands have to be creative and inventive. When there is no SXSW, Austin's scene can't hold a taco to Baltimore's action. MAN AM I WORKED UP! 

I drank a Miller Lite and ate caramels in the green room. Here is Jenn wishing she could do the same, via the IFC. 

3. Journalists need to know that it is fucking boring to read about bands talking about SXSW. As a fan and someone interested in the lives of musicians and their artmaking processes, the last thing I want to read is a two-minute opinion about something as sprawling and grotesque as SXSW. The only person there who is going to tell you he hates it outright is Cass McCombs, if you can get him to talk to you at all. Did you know people actually move out of Austin when SXSW happens? No business owner is going to tell you they don’t like it either, because the festival is precisely the boost that post-holiday retailers, restaurants and vendors require to make it into summer.   The Stranger's Line Out blog is a perfect example of what kind of thing people want to see when it comes to articles about SXSW: a blend of gore and triumph. Pictures of carnage (toilets at Red 7, anyone?), real surprises, weird stuff, good pictures.

"Can't wait to try that raisin pie from craft services..."
This year, Ben Weasel punched two women in the face in a move that caused his entire band to quit (albeit only after the internet comments jumped off). YOKO ONO performed, sparking a rumor that LADY GAGA was going to make an appearance (she didn't). Bands from Africa played. AFRICA. Every year, every day of that particular weekend someone wakes up thinking “Did that happen to me, to us?” Did I just drive all the way across town through the hellish mobs and steaming gridlock to the late show and then load in after the obvious headliner just to be told they would only have five minutes to play so why bother and get out? Did I just enter a “gifting suite” that smells like a cardboard box and take my pants off to see if these other hard new pants fit? Did I, drunk and stoned, hop a fence at the edge of the yard of a person I just met, to cry into a neglected dog’s lion ruff? Did my life just look like that for a moment, pure hedonistic transcendence so fierce-feeling and tender and wide-open that it could not possibly be mistaken for anything else than reality? My dreams often look a lot like SXSW: crushing waves of strange bodies, familiar faces swimming in and out of focus, buildings that look like one thing turning into another (“Is this a textile factory, a bar or an amusement park?”). Mutability, potential, heartache. Come on, that's got to be interesting to write about. Oh wait.

Dr. Waz, Post-raisin pie glow in Waterloo Records' Official Tito's Vodka and Brioche French Toast Airstream. 
All photos in this article taken by Lexie Mountain.  
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