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Gettin’ Mighty Crowded: the story of SXSW is the story of Austin today

Posted by mcorcoran on November 11, 2017

This column is from Feb. 2014

Sunday is March 1. MARCH FIRST! People in Austin start freaking out- a mix of horror and excitement- when they flip the calendar and see it’s March. The chest pounds like being in the tunnel before a big football game. The third month means South by Southwest and, godammit, we’re going to do it right this year.

SXSW turns Austin into a dead buffalo and all the people who come are the Indians who use every piece of the animal. Every building, every parking lot, every side street, every park. They stuff their faces and dance to tribal beats and go a little crazy in the spirit of celebration. And when they go home there are always a few they leave behind.

One of the advantages of our town is that we have a built-in conversation starter that bypasses the weather. “What brought you to Austin?” Cab drivers to yoga instructors, they all have a story. The number one answer used to be “attended the University of Texas and decided to stay.” But today it’s because they came to Southby one year and decided they could definitely live here. The registration line at the Convention Center in mid-March is the Ellis Island of New Austin, a land of opportunity for people with reasonable expectations.

SXSW used to be “the music industry’s best kept secret” and the people who came here from all over the country (mostly Oklahoma and Louisiana in 1987, the first year) went back home and told everyone about this paradise they had found. The music was good stuff from road-tested professionals, the clubs were right next to each other and the weather was better, the beer cheaper and the people friendlier than back home. Some got laid. We didn’t even need breakfast tacos, but that foldable deliciousness was a spectacular bonus. This town during SXSW in the ‘90s was a moveable feast equal to Paris in the ‘20s. I shit you not.

The monster of mid-March became an action-packed trailer for the indie film “Move To Austin.” The word got out like a mutha, as SXSW became the cultural party of the year. Lately, Austin during the ten days of madness more closely resembles a montage of apocalyptic chaos, which has called for scaling down.

Austin is no different than any other cool place- it had to show off. It’s only natural, no one is to blame. I was one of those doing the bragging, writing a seven-page spread on the Austin music scene for Spin magazine in 1986. “The New Sincerity” was the headline and the piece focused on bands like True Believers, Zeitgeist, Wild Seeds, Glass Eye, Daniel Johnston and Dino Lee. We were all on a mission to tell the world what an amazing town we had found.

Then SXSW started and legitimized Austin as a music industry town. Nashville with soul, an affordable L.A. An estimated 150 people a day are moving to Austin, while 40 a day move away, usually because they can’t afford to live here anymore. Used to be you could house the whole band and the roadie for $750 a month. For that price these days you’ll get a studio apartment next to a Jiffy Lube south of Ben White.

So what brought me to Austin 30 years ago? I thought I’d never ask. I got a postcard one day from a friend who toured with the Cramps as girlfriend/ lighting tech. It said the band had just played a punk club called Raul’s and I wouldn’t believe how hip this town in Texas is. I ran a t-shirt business in Honolulu with tattoo artist Mike Malone. Around the same time he got a newsletter from an Austin jug band his friend Travis Holland was in. We were pretty bored in Hawaii and the t-shirts- which we advertised in biker magazines- were really taking off, so we had decided to move to the mainland to cut down on postage. But where?

I also remembered that my rock critic hero Lester Bangs lived in Austin for awhile. We up and moved and Malone set up a tattoo shop at 2712 Guadalupe St., but hardly anybody came by because only military guys and bikers got tattoos back then. There were only two tattoo shops in town in 1985 and they were both pretty dead, so Malone ended up returning to Hawaii after a couple years.

But I stayed, long enough to attend every SXSW. Long enough to watch Austin become an overcrowded bar that used to be a place where there was always an empty booth. You drive by and see the line outside and can’t even remember that night that girl who’s now your wife surprised you by rubbing her bare foot on your crotch from across the table. That booth is still there. You just can’t sit there after about 9 p.m. Or when there’s a festival in town (AKA “the weekend.”)

A couple of ironies to point out: SXSW was started by the Austin Chronicle, a liberal weekly with an anti-growth agenda, and it was held on Spring Break week because all the UT students would be out of town.

Austin fiddler Ruby Jane with Lady Gaga at Stubb’s during SXSW 2014. Billboard magazine photo.

In recent years, as the buzz got out about free Jay-Z and Kanye concerts and free booze at music industry parties and flocks of film celebrities and people getting laid, Austin became a Spring Break destination. Padre Island still gets the bronzed and the blasted, but the more parsimonious collegians head to ATX to get their free(k) on. It’s the party of the year if you know how to work it and if you don’t and you have $30 you can get one of the RSVP services popping up to enter your name in as many free party lotteries as they can.

This is the part of South by Southwest that’s not really SXSW, the foliage that has practically overgrown base camp. You see, SXSW Inc. is really only what goes on in the Convention Center and the venues they have under contract. Everything else is fair game and corporations, craving a clientele of tastemakers, come to town with money to melt and impressions to make. If the SXSW event you want to go to has a RSVP link, it’s not really SXSW. It’s the afterparty that goes on before, during and after the main event. But like a rap concert where there are 11 people standing on stage and only two mics, the afterparty has become the big draw.

“I thought SXSW was supposed to be for unsigned bands,” the old sandwich artist’s mope, has been magnified in recent years, as such acts as Coldplay, Prince, Eminem, Usher and the like have taken high profile slots.In 2014, the iTunes Fest took over ACL Live, Austin’s downtown jewel, but it was not really SXSW. Just as the Austonian high-rise condo isn’t really Austin.

Although their sanction is slapped on the event, SXSW organizers had nothing to do with Apple’s decision to bring the iTunes Fest to town. Believe me, they didn’t want to give up their very best venue, the 2,750-capacity ACL Live, with not a bad seat in the house, to a corporate giant trying to bask in their heat. But iTunes Fest was coming no matter what and so the best SXSW could do was convince Apple to work with them.

The whole game has changed at SXSW, just as it has for the entire entertainment industry. The music portion of SXSW used to be the main focus, with about 90% of the attention, and the other 10% going to fledgling interactive and film components. Today, music lags far behind interactive for the simple fact that the Internet made music free. Spotify has rented a big house in West East Austin (west of Chicon) for around-the-clock partying, while the record labels have a cheese, fruit and vegetable tray in the corner of a dive bar.

SXSW brings out the best in people and the worst. I’ve been saying that since year two. But the city has become so overrun with a Mardi Gras- like party atmosphere that even the city government noticed. Unlike the New Orleans blowout, SXSW is an industry event. Aside from the few superstars- like Prince and Justin Timberlake last year- who are paid handsomely to play corporate parties, almost all the 2,000 plus acts come to SXSW to play basically for free in front of industry folks who can help their careers. The energy from true fans helps the show, but generally the more the public gets involved, the more watered down SXSW gets. A lot of folks who used to come to the convention every year to network and learn, have sworn off SXSW forever. It’s become too much of a challenge to navigate through the tens of thousands who come to town because they heard there’s free shows everywhere.

In an attempt to limit the madhouse’s scope, the city began putting a cap on the number of special event permits in 2014, reaching capacity almost two months before the event this year as well. The city permitting department even prevented Lady Gaga from playing on the Doritos stage (last year). The official reason was that the demand would be too much to handle, but I think there were closet “little monsters” in on the decision who just couldn’t stand the desperation of their idol playing on a 50-foot-tall chips dispenser.

But there’s nothing to limit the number of folks who are moving to Austin. “Yeah, it sucks, but tell me a better city to live in,” is what I hear from friends when we sit around. We used to argue True Believers vs. Zeitgeist, now we debate about what we hate more: Mopac or I-35.

But just as there are two SXSWs, there are two Austins. What you loved about this town when you first moved here is still there, you just have to look for it. “The land of opportunity for those with reasonable expectations,” remember that motto.
On Sunday afternoon I went to an old haunt, the Hole In the Wall, and it was almost like the old days. Someone had a Weber grill going on the patio and bands were playing country music and blues and stompin’ folk. People were sitting at picnic tables draining pitchers, talking politics, gossiping, laughing. It brought me back, but I couldn’t stay long.

Amid the craziness of SXSW, you can find scenes from SXSW 1993, I’m telling you. There will be little moments that are big in your heart. The mistake a lot of people make when SXSW approaches is becoming obsessed with seeing it all, being everywhere. You want to be where they’re “killing it” on Facebook or hashtag facemelt on Twitter. The fear of missing out is wasted energy, let me tell you as a veteran of every SXSW.

In the early years of Southby, there might be only two or three big parties a day, so if you missed one you felt like a loser. But in less than a couple weeks it’ll be all day, all night, wall-to-wall music and partying. Forget the big picture. That’s just traffic. Look at what’s in front of you and you just might stumble onto the set that makes you fall in love with live music all over again. Stop reading nametags and you’ll meet people who know how to share themselves in meaningful ways. Finding the individuals in the crush, the artists in hucksterville, is not usually something you can plan.

SXSW brings out the best and the worst in all of us.

But here’s the thing I like most about when our town becomes Super Austin, the Burning Brand Festival. The lines, the crowds, the gridlock are a great advertisement for going out to the clubs and the restaurants when it’s not SXSW.

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