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.  
wyeoak's dot com



Austin has a music scene. In that people play music. Create music they do not. Everywhere else usa could stand to borrow from austin in their commitment to local business. And while sixth street always looks like being at the mall except people are drunk. The mall looked more bravely corporate than ever. This years fest was an internet conference for the pre game. And it was much larger than years previous. I got out the second day of the music. But what is really really really really awesome. Is when that many people are on their I phones or pads.. they don't work. And suddenly people are asking you directions again.. and what looks cool or happened. And I just remebered the dream I had last night it was the twig Harper cilantro double chz burger from bk. So he holds up his finger to shoosh me and says yeah im the new sound guy so bk wants to name a buger after all of us.

Travel Light said...

Yes, this.

Sam Sessa said...

Lexi! Thanks for reading my stuff. I appreciate your comments, and think you make some valid points.

I really wanted to see baltimore bands, and looking back, one of my biggest regrets was that I didn't get to see more.

My plan was to go to austin, do some reporting, see some baltimore bands, come back and work on a piece about austin's policies that encourage live music, and what baltimore can adopt to be a better live music town. A day after I got there, my editor called and said he wanted the piece to be filed that Friday. So instead of seeing many of the bands I wanted to see, I had to spend a huge chunk of time interviewing club owners, austin musicians, baltimore musicians and government officials, and then hole up in cafes and my hotel room to frantically write the piece. Drat!

I caught up with j roddy and june star, saw dan deacon, played phone tag with ami dang, eureka birds, lands & peoples and some other bands. I walked miles across town to see/interview wye oak at home slice, waited for a half hour only to be told the show was canceled. When I asked christina from merge to reschedule the interview, she never got back to me. Double drat!

Right now I'm working on an hour-long special for wtmd about austin's live music policies, which I think deserve an honest look from our city government. I think that's a fair question. A couple years ago, I did a piece which talked about wham city's frustration that despite all their efforts, they couldn't find a proper home base due to the city's backward-thinking live music policies. Baltimore has an awesome music scene, but I think our city could be doing more to help on its end.

In may, wtmd is organizing a panel, with club owners, neighborhood association leaders, promoters, and hopefully stephanie rawlings-blake who, to her credit, has made live entertainment a priority. I'm going to pose the question: what can baltimore do to be a better live music city? We're still hammering out the details, but id love to see you there, and add your voice to the discussion.

The past six years, I've tried my best to be an advocate for baltimore's music scene, through the sun, wtmd, and freelancing for other publications. I've made my share of mistakes, but its been such a pleasure to watch and interview baltimore musicians and artists, including you, Lexi. And again, thanks for sharing your opinion about my work. I've got your number, and in case you don't have mine, its 410 332 6689. Cheers!

Sam Sessa said...

Oh and sorry for leaving the 'e' off your name, Lexie. One of the perils of typing on my phone's tiny keyboard.

Steve said...

I want to back Sam up here. The point of sending Sam and the other members of WTMD staff was not to see every Baltimore Band playing. We can see Baltimore bands in Baltimore in a more relaxed, less hectic setting where we are able to tell their stories more completely.

Sam did astounding work for WTMD and the Baltimore Sun. We've received listener feedback praising him and the station for bringing back a story that will benefit the growth of the Baltimore music scene.

When you have a thought, good or bad, about our coverage, please, pick up the phone and find out why we approached a story the way we did. Reading a critique of our coverage without having all the facts does disservice to your readers.

kate said...

why does anyone need to call you to see why you wrote an article the way you did? shouldnt that be a part of the story if you think it requires defense? rigoddamndiculous

/oh and/ unless you are british and/or a care bear please don't say cheers /end rant/

Travel Light said...

It seems it would have made more sense for the scope of your piece then to have gone to Austin during a normal time, when you could have gotten an honest assessment of Austin's music scene. Though that may not have conformed to the story you basically had written in your head already.

scott said...

Sam, Lexie,

This is an issue I am really interested in. As a long time city resident, huge music fan, frequent Austin visitor for work and pleasure and architect who has worked in and with the city, I have no unique qualifications only enough exposure to have opinions.

What has always impressed me about Austin is its commitment to understanding and promoting what is unique about itself. I believe this is the idea Baltimore needs to take away. Rather than trying to copy what another city has (this has been the failed strategy of the Baltimore Office of Promotion for the last 20 years), Baltimore needs to capitalize on what is unique about it and its artists. For example its great buiding stock that allows for great venues, galleries, etc.

Sam, I would really love to be part of your panel to help in anyway I can. Even if its just as a witness. I believe in Baltimore's strengths and want to be part of making it better for artists and patrons, not just bitching about it. I would love to be part of future discussions. Email me if I can help in anyway.


Lexie Mountain said...

Thanks for responding, Sam.

Steve, while I'm sure you've had plenty of positive phone calls and feedback about Sam's reporting, I can creatively respond to his work in a public forum inasmuch as the work itself was posted publicly. I'm certain that I am indeed providing a service to any blessed readers I may have in bitching about current affairs, writing stories about my jobs, posting stupid lists and asking popular artists what they think about David Lee Roth. Regarding "having all the facts," what are all the facts, precisely? The facts are that NOT ONE BUT TWO different media outlets were responsible for sending a reporter to Austin and the end result, as far as I could read, is that 1. Austin somehow figured it all out so yay for them and here's why, sort of, and 2. the reporter didn't make it to most of the shows he tried to see. It is telling that Baltimore's cultural output is outpacing its journalists.

Yes, to be fair, Sam never explicitly stated that he was there to see Baltimore bands. Sure, he can see those artists in a "more relaxed setting" here at home and I'd like to see him do so. I'd like to see a list of the shows he's seen in the past year or two. The articles seemed very disconnected from what is actually happening in Baltimore.

The idea that one approach could be carbon copied legislatively, when the two places have such a different identity, geography and history, falls short of any actual investigation into the reality of either city and thus benefits neither.

One dark question SXSW raises is "Does Music Need to Be Fucking Everywhere All The Fucking Time?" It already is (in our hearts dude), and the thing about SXSW is that it imposes a forced celebration of music so aggressively onto the landscape around it that it denies any private enjoyment or sense of choice in the matter. You know why the Wye Oak set at Home Slice was cancelled, along with several others? Noise complaints.

We have a really solid handful of spaces, and I'll be glad if any discussion or panel can help keep them in business. I'd be even gladder if the neighborhoods around them and far beyond were provided with places to buy fresh food and other valuable community resources. Baltimore needs businesses run by artists and creators for the benefit of all. Places that host performances at night and are libraries by day, places to host classes on healthy cooking with food stamps and studios where high school kids can learn sound recording and make CD-Rs with their friends. Places for dance classes and gallery exhibitions and all-out rager hardcore shows. Rap battles and espresso bars. Synthesizer workshops, book readings, produce aisles and guitar lessons.

It is telling that many of Baltimore's semi-prominent clubs have failed right alongside a real boom in interest in the city and increased musical traffic. Poor management, uninteresting shows, awkward space, cumbersome overhead, economic downturn, lack of visionary action. Baltimore needs a more holistic approach to live entertainment on the whole. When much of Baltimore's teens are highly at risk and funds for arts in schools are at risk as well, it seems somehow irresponsible to debate the need for a better approach to live music. What about a better approach to making opportunities for Baltimore's kids? Creative, non-profit venue management for the purpose of community centering could be very effective in providing outlets for underserved portions of Baltimore's varied and diverse population. Lets not squander the opportunity to expand the definition of what a venue can be.

Thanks for reading, everyone! Please feel free to add your two bits.

Ervin Berlin said...

Yo Lexi. Long time listener first time caller. Lifelong Austinite here, ive seen sxsw up close and nasty for ~8 years, been throwing shows at it for 5.

1. I think its quaint you might even expect music journaists to do anything. The wave of the future has come to Austin....its strictly content providers, we dont even have this charade of music journalism anymore, may it R.I.P.

2. We can taco bout it at length, but I would be more than happy to pit Austin's top 5 against Bmore or anywhere else. Who yall got, Beach House, Future Islands, and Dan Deacon? Im a little outta date, I'll bet you roll a little deeper than that, and I have seem some pretty good Bmore stuff come thru town, but if I'm just giving my picks, I'll take When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth, Soft Healer, Yellow Fever, Holy Wave, Total Abuse, Pataphysics, Strange Boys, Golden Boys, etc etc etc...bands we got em, no need to hate on the ATX scene, it is literally way better than 99% of America. You learn at a young age to turn the Stevie Ray guitar filter on, and that just kinda gets to the point where you dont even notice it anymore....

3. Another nice thing about Austin vs. Baltimore, besides the weather and the lack of crime, is that its pretty easy for a touring band to get a show here, which I have not found to be the case with your fair hamlet (although when I did play there, the people were super extra nice).

4. I think its a good point that the social dynamics of Austin vs Baltimore make a comparison a little stupid. Dont look to Austin for the answers, please, you might convince people to move here.

5. Sxsw is still cool because its what you make of it. Locals tend to ditch their friends entirely and completely for the duration and then you just compare stories at the end. And it gets to be like "damn, I thought we were friends cause we had common interests, but we did literally none fo the same shit except for that 10 minutes i saw you at..." The fact that its a zombie wasteland, well, in a few days everything is gonna return to normal. Just need one good hard rain thats all. Ex. One time I wanted to see Lexi Mountain Boys play an official showcase, but i didnt have a wristband, so I just cut up a shirt, wore it like a headband and said I was in your band and "sorry Im late, were about to go on" and the doorguy let me in, no waiting in line. Extra bonus, got to see Citay and Jad Fair, suweet!

I had to write all this twice so thats how you know I care...I could go on at length, actually I already did, twice, but thanks for writing this piece, I can't remember how I stumbled on it any more .... :P

Ervin Berlin said...

ps, as someone who throws shows over sxsw, you can call the Home Slice thing a Noise Complaint issue, but really what it was was a Permitting issue, i.e. on the promoter, not a function of general chaos.

Lexie Mountain said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lexie Mountain said...

(editor's note: I removed the word "really" from the following, because it appeared over two dozen times. Really!)

Hi Ervin,

Thanks for throwing down! It is quaint, ainit? Especially in this age of twnety-year old bloggers in their bedrooms droppin a hammer on musicians who've been playing & recording for a decade by bein' all "They look sleepy up there, I'm drunk" in their reviews. I try not to hold music journalism to any sort of standard these days because I heart Lester Bangs and stuff like that, the old stuff, so maybe I secretly do or think that we should? Is it even useful to do so? Anyway its fun to talk about and I'm always hoping that eventually someone will be good at it. Some contemporary journalist/ critics are: Sasha Frere-Jones is always interesting to read whether or not you agree with him, and I love Jessica Hopper's work.

I'm glad to hear that Austin has awesome bands. I like and respect Church of the Friendly Ghost and deserve a wrist-slap for not mentioning them. Except that I didn't want to go tit-for-tat Austin to Baltimore scene but I also sort of deserve it for calling Austin backwards. But regarding the backwards, I DID read on le facebook de one Amy Waller that during relay weekend places had closed their public restrooms and there was general citywide shutdown due to actual racism? Also, death penalty? Oh wait, Maryland has it too. We had Spiro Agnew, you had the Bushes. Tit. Tat. Ta Da!

Will you make an Austin mixtape? There's a good Baltimore one here, from Bmore Musically Informed/ Friends Records: http://www.bmoremusic.net/2010/12/baltimore-2010-bmore-musically-informed.html?spref=fb. Do not ask me why none of my bands nor Cex are on here, it will only make me/ us confused.

I know that you guys have better weather, less crime, more tacos, better food, more relaxed dudes, bike culture, swimmin holes with fresh cold spring water, good coffee, no sweat livin etc etc etc I KNOW I KNOW I KNOW. You also have Thor Harris and Bill Callahan DONT RUB IT IN.

Also, I like SXSW. Its a big weird crazy fun time full of odd convergences and exciting opportunities and a truly gross window into humanity. Thanks for sneaking into our show! You were one of maybe twelve people there.

What shows have you thrown at SXSW? email me at meetamountain at gmail dot com. Anybody can. Have fun!

Again, thanks for droppin by and keep up the good good!

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