By Peter Bottomley
"The crowds were bigger," Brian Venable from Lucero responded when asked how South by Southwest was different in 2006 from previous years. It was the 20th anniversary of SXSW and that crowd numbered some 14,000 people. So even with 1,400 (official) bands to watch in 60 (official) venues over the course of five days, that's a lot of people.
An Albatross, who played SXSW for the third time in 2006, says that "there is a certain 'vibe' and spirit that exists when all these people come together in Austin. It's unique and we feel it corresponds quite well with our band." Lucero, who have played the last four years, went as far as to say, "we really didn't have a reason to play this year but as a band it's just expected." Ashish Vyas of Gogogo Airheart admits to playing this year as a way to support their newest release, Rats! Sing! Sing!, but "in the past we played because it's always a great place to play and meet people who might be able to help you out." "You get to see a lot of the people that you normally don't get to see in one place," says David Leto of Rye Coalition. "You get to see bands you have always wanted to check out, but never did... oh yeah, and to be hip and eat gigantic ribs."
When questioned about unofficial day shows/parties, An Albatross says it is "crucial to play gigs off the beaten path... playing free/all ages/unofficial shows brings it all back home and facilitates the kind of environment that we really want: available and free music." Polly Watson from Crimson Sweet, who played SXSW for the first time this year, added that "cool bands who weren't playing SXSW drove down to play day parties, which is awesome: they (SXSW) might not let you in, but that doesn't have to keep you from smashing down the door!" Anavan, who did not play an official showcase but made their first trip to Austin for a day show, stated the reason for doing so was simply because "playing is fun. Playing anywhere anytime is important." And they added that despite the industry buzzing around them, what is most important is that "we established a direct relationship with the people who saw our performance. If you missed it, you did not benefit from that moment."
In fact, the day shows have grown to be almost as important as the official night showcases. Gogogo Airheart, for example, played five shows in four days. "We played in front of as many different people as we could! I think it worked out! The more times we played gave people more opportunities to check us out." All in all, the "day shows are more relaxed and fun" in the mind of Lucero. And with the number of bands playing at the same time, it's almost necessary for the music lover to have day shows in order to see even a fraction of the bands you want to check out. But like Anavan, there are tons of bands that play day shows that weren't even officially performing at SXSW. These ranged from small "showcases" put on by labels to highlight labelmates like Little Brazil and The Cops or Saboteur and Red Animal War to the reunion of Lifetime, a cult favorite from the 1990s hardcore scene that opened for My Chemical Romance.
Ashish from Gogogo Airheart realistically states, "I really wonder how many people see shows and acts unless they are seriously hyped! I think most people go there to network and meet people." And from that business standpoint, An Albatross recognizes that "every year our performance ends with some sort of positive step for our band." Ashish agrees, saying that "it did help us meet some other people who might be able to help the band out in the future. That I feel is the biggest thing about SXSW." However, "the 'deal', isn't that the most elusive thing... do you really get that from SXSW? Fuck NO! They already know about you before you get there."
Like most groups, An Albatross didn't take part in the conference side of things at SXSW (panel discussions, trade show). "The lure to stay intoxicated for several days on end is usually too strong to go out and listen to people speak and lecture about the music industry." Lucero even commented, "It seemed especially depressing." The one agreed upon exception seems to be the Flatstock Poster Convention, which generated responses like "incredible" and "the most fun." The rock poster show is always a highlight, featuring original poster art by more than 80 artists.
However, I did have an opportunity to check out more happenings at the conference than most bands. For instance, the interviews with the Beastie Boys and Morrissey. Beastie Boys, out promoting the concert film Awesome: I Fuckin' Shot That!, took part in an artist interview, which allowed the general public to ask questions. The interview varied from random conversation between the Beasties (Mike D: "My song shuffle is fucked up; it's just not hot lately") to some enlightening facts of life (Mike D: "I know more about playgrounds than the underground") to more random bullshit (discussing sponsorships with Dentyne Ice, Pampers and Kotex) to the reality that if Ad Rock remarks that Clear Channel is on the Scientology tip the interview ends immediately. Coincidence?
On the other hand, Morrissey was interviewed by Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke about his new album, Ringleader of the Tormentors. Morrissey was surprisingly lighthearted yet the interview was very serious compared to the Beastie Boys comedy hour from the day before. The conversation ran the gamut of his career and the current state of music, for instance revealing that celibacy was "me for a while but then it wasn't... I think everybody goes through dry spells." He went on to cover topics such as music revivals ("I can't see any groups that are going anything new, really"), nature ("beauty in the world… in nature; nature saves us" from people), his role in music ("I don't want to be a musician... I want to simply be naked in front of the world"), and the likelihood of a reunion for The Smiths ("when you start doing something for money something terrible happens to you"). He even criticized the rapid success of fellow countrymen the Arctic Monkeys, which strangely required a public apology several days later. Yet his referring to Joy Division as "incredibly boring" apparently didn't cause any offense.
I also had the chance to see the Beastie Boys and Morrissey perform live while in Austin, a nice opportunity but a further demonstration of the changes that SXSW continues to go through.
Compared to other festivals, An Albatross notes that "the clubs in Austin are all located within a pedestrian-friendly circumference and it facilitates much more of a 'festival' environment... SXSW has got its own unique spirit to it and people gravitate towards it for that reason." Rye Coalition adds that the close proximity of venues also "helps when you are slightly tipsy," a fact that can't go overlooked. Free beer and food are almost as important at SXSW as the music. The most similar festival to SXSW is CMJ, though most bands realize there's really no comparison. Crimson Sweet, natives of CMJ's New York City locale, add that "SXSW is loads bigger (and seems to have a wider variety of bands playing) than CMJ and in a way teenier town, so that makes it a lot of fun." Most bands also recognize the global reach of SXSW compared to other festivals, realizing that they can connect with music lovers from foreign countries and meet industry contacts (labels, distributors) from around the world all in one place. And despite not getting the official seal of approval from SXSW this year, Anavan had no problem saying "we would love to play again... it's energetic and promising." Maybe next year there will be one less Dashboard Confessional on the schedule to give a band like Anavan a shot at being noticed.
"I think if you're unsigned or in need of a manager or booking agent and you work really hard the rest of the year SXSW is a good chance for those people to check you out while they're in town," says Brian from Lucero. However, he continues, "it still works like that some but really it seems to be turning into how many big bands can we get so more people come out." It's the dilemma of art vs. commerce. SXSW is a business that exists to showcase art, but at the end of the day it's really a business to see how many people they can get to pay to see that art. And so it's in the organizer's best interest to continue growing the festival each year, not to mention expand the opportunities to increase revenue. For instance, this year there were Verizon Wireless V CAST screens in venues where you could text message comments to be posted on the screens, and in another venue there was a promotional video for the Scion automobile playing during the set of Austin's own Quien es,BOOM! You can't fault them for this, but at the same time the atmosphere at SXSW even a few years ago was drastically different than this year. And in a year where wristbands sold out, you have to wonder how the festival will continue to grow in the years to come without hindering the purpose of the event. It's a new era where corporate America looks at a festival showcasing indie music as the perfect opportunity to sell commercial product. There's no comparison to SXSW and that speaks highly of what has been accomplished over 20 years, so let's just hope the success can be managed properly and the event continues to be the hot spot of the music calendar each year.