SXSW: An Austinite's History
Next week, hundreds of thousands of people (and nearly that many bands, or so it seems) will descend on Austin, Tex., for the annual South by Southwest festival, the world's preeminent music/film/interactive bacchanal. Outsiders inevitably fall in love with the city, but how do the locals feel? For that, we turn to acclaimed rock critic, three-decade Austinite, and seasoned SXSW veteran Michael Corcoran for the insider perspective. Listen along with his playlist of great local music, and enjoy.
Like seemingly every other neighborhood in the city, East Austin is now thoroughly electric with activity during South by Southwest, but in 1993, it was a strange place to have a party. Cabs were rare as sushi in the neighborhood that was predominantly Hispanic and African American back then, but when word got out that actor Johnny Depp and Butthole Surfers frontman Gibby Haynes were hosting a party on far East 7th Street one night, a yellow procession took scenesters to the mysterious side of town.
The result was a near-perfect allegory of the conflicted relationship that locals have with SXSW, the three-headed monster (interactive and film components were added to the music conference in 1994) that overtakes this slackers' paradise for 10 days every March. It's 1 A.M. on the East Side. The party's three main attractions -- Depp, Haynes and kegs of beer -- are all gone. And so everybody inside the packed venue is trying to leave. Meanwhile, there's a big crowd outside trying to get in, determined to cap their night at the hippest secret party of the week. Two throngs on opposite sides of the front door, at an impasse, with one side passionately pushing to get out and the other side just as adamant about getting in.
Everyone who lives here claims to have had it with "Southby." The traffic, the obnoxious revelers, the constant thump, the caste system of badges over wristbands over nothing -- get us out of here! But when the moveable beast starts packing up each year, we crave more. And the majority of Austin loves it. For the $190 million economic boost, for the celebrities, for the jolt of excitement, for the international flavor. When this city is regular old Austin, Tex. -- not the Super Austin of mid-March -- we're about as international as a house of pancakes.
But what music-loving Austinites -- the ones who stay in town and don't rent out their homes, anyway -- really love about SXSW are the increasing number of big shows that are free and open to the public.
We're not referring to those corporate shindigs where 30,000 people RSVP for a 2,000-capacity venue and the long lines make it look like everyone loves Doritos. We're talking about The Flaming Lips, Café Tacvba, Robert Randolph and the Family Band, and many more playing free concerts this year from a stage on the shore of Lady Bird Lake. Then there are four days of free parking-lot shows at Waterloo Records, which brings name acts like Richard Thompson, Billy Bragg, The Mavericks and Emmylou Harris with Rodney Crowell to whoever wants to see them. And that's just this year's schedule on Friday.
Once the music industry's best-kept secret, the word has gotten out about SXSW: You don't need an official badge (around $600) or a wristband ($145) to sponge up more music, booze and food than you could possibly handle. The cat's not only out of the bag, but you can't swing said cat without hitting a party hosted by Brooklyn Vegan or some other hip blog.
Some think that SXSW, which started 27 years ago as a music-industry networking and discovery event, jumped the guy in the shark costume handing out fliers in 2008, when Rachael Ray and Perez Hilton first hosted private parties. Nowadays even NBA stars are popping in on their days off: Shaquille O'Neal, Jeremy Lin, Stephen Jackson and Matt Bonner have scheduled appearances this year. All we need is a power forward and we can beat the Lakers, like everyone else.
The music fest always takes place the third week in March, when the University of Texas is on spring break. When SXSW started, the club owners were overjoyed, because that was the slowest time of the year. But in the past decade or so, it has become a vacation destination for college kids from across the country who would rather party with rising rappers and rebranded former stars at the Fader Fort than bake in the sun and do belly-button shots to "O.P.P." on a beach somewhere. Savvy fans go online, find all the cool parties and email in their RSVPs even though the closest they've been to the music biz was joining the Eleventh Dream Day street team in college. SXSW is as free as you want it to be. Yee-haw!
But hosting the world's biggest party every year can be a bit overwhelming to folks who never miss the chance to Tweet about how much we really need that rain. SXSW started as a regional music conference in '87 with 172 acts on 15 stages; last year, there were over 2,200 sanctioned acts, and there's no telling how many others performed at "pirate" showcases just to say they played here. Besides 110 official stages, seemingly every lot, lobby and loft downtown has bands playing from noon on.
Such around-the-clock action brings out the best in people, but also the worst. It's when opportunity meets booze and delusion. But SXSW is still a conference where you can do a lot of valuable networking, especially with the fest's rising international profile (more than 600 foreign acts this year). It's just that now you sometimes have to step over vomit.
Everybody's coming here to get attention, but the biggest star of SXSW is always Austin. The festival just works best in a city with 50 nightclubs within a mile of each other. The weather's gorgeous, the people are friendly and we got breakfast tacos, too.
Twitter was launched at SXSW Interactive (which surpassed the Music portion in size with 14,200 registrants in 2010), and social media is rampant, but the real value of the event -- the thing that sets the festival apart -- is the emphasis on unbridled human interaction. Connecting via face-to-face meetings. Bands blowing your hair back. Old-fashioned hookups over beers and free barbecue. To tie-dyed-in-the-wool Austalgists, the glory days when you could park downtown for free and flash your $15 wristband to catch Lucinda Williams or The White Stripes in a 200-capacity club are long gone. But even if SXSW isn't for you anymore, tell yourself, "It's just 10 days." Meanwhile, SXSW lovers have to live with the fact that it's only 10 days.