Alibi V.14 No.12 • March 24-30, 2005 

News Feature

An Embarrassment of Riches

So Much Music, So Little Time at SXSW

Wayne Coyne (l) of The Flaming Lips enjoys live music with Michael Henningsen last week at Austin’s Club de Ville.
Wayne Coyne (l) of The Flaming Lips enjoys live music with Michael Henningsen last week at Austin’s Club de Ville.
Tim McGivern

Here begins the near impossible task of creating a cogent literary "wrap" of the 2005 South By Southwest Music Conference. For one thing, the sheer number of bands and artists showcasing—approaching somewhere in the vicinity of the 700 mark—along with all the related day parties, label showcases and other events is overwhelming, making it difficult if not impossible to glean a "big picture" perspective on the festival. For another, most people who read this and other backend pieces regarding SXSW generally have no context with which to approach such chaotic, pants-shittingly awesome musical overload. Even so, the experience itself fosters a determination to share it that throttles then chokes out the thick-necked specter of futility.

So rather than anger or bore you with highlights from my own rather excellent adventure (which I'm going to do next week anyway), I'll attempt to use the allotted space to explain why SXSW—essentially just another live music showcase/party/drunkfest to anyone who's never been—is so intensely relevant to music and arts fans outside the Austin city limits.

The SXSW state of mind, as it were, is defined by a personal desire to allow music to define one's being and control the decision-making process that guides everything from when, where and what to eat, to when and how long to sleep. Sure, it's only four days and nights, but it can be downright monumental and even life changing.

As I sit here writing this piece just hours after flying home from my 10th consecutive attendance, I'm still struggling to distill the menagerie I witnessed into something that at least borders on a concise recounting of one of the best music showcases I've thus far attended. And, frankly, I feel a little guilty for the privilege of having experienced it. And while Austin is widely described in general terms as a "party town," and officially as "The Live Music Capitol of the World," SXSW is more easily defined by what it isn't rather than by what it is on its surface.

South By Southwest, the band selection process excepted, isn't a "battle of the bands." It's not necessarily a new band or new music showcase, and, by the same token, it's not entirely an ego stroke-fest for major label acts. For the most part, SXSW is neither pretentious nor exclusive. It can be a stepping stone in the career paths of bands, artists and others working in fields related to music, but it's certainly not a job fair. It's not about posturing and being at shows you think you should be seen at for the sole purpose of expanding your punk, indie, hipster or any other breed of credibility. It's not about getting shitfaced or laid, and, believe it or not, SXSW is not just about horking down as much free barbecue and Lone Star as humanly possible. Yes, while the SXSW experience can and often does contain any mix of the aforementioned elements, it's overall focus and purpose remains the same as it was 20-odd years ago when the conference began in a handful of downtown Austin bars as a showcase of local and a smattering of regional talent: It's all about the music.

Hence the overwhelming sense of liberation and refreshment that permeates the few blocks of Sixth Street and its immediate perimeter during four days annually in the middle of March. This year, despite a reported 20 percent increase in festival attendance and the added presence of some 45,000 rabid NCAA Tournament fans, the atmosphere at SXSW remained positive and non-judgmental—imagine, if you will, attending a show where you don't immediately get the sense that you're being sized-up based on your choice of T-shirt. Incredible.

Over the years, South By Southwest has struggled to strike a balance between local Austin and Texas-based acts, bands thriving in the other 49 states, and an international contingent that includes countries as disparate and far away as Latvia, Japan, Finland and Brazil (just to name a few). On that front, this year's festival was far and away the best yet. Despite a few complaints by club owners, booking agents and SXSW Creative Director Brent Grulke that the Department of Homeland Security has made it increasingly difficult to attract and successfully book international talent (especially, as you might have guessed, from countries like Cuba, Germany and France), an entire world of music was represented.

And while this year's festival included it's share of major label acts—from Billy Idol to The Wallflowers—unsigned and indie-label bands made up the largest percentage of showcasing talent, and there wasn't an empty room to be had. In many cases, members of various "famous" bands got into the festival spirit themselves, joining the throngs in smaller rooms to check out the bastion of up-and-coming talent. Wayne Coyne dug on The Gris Gris at Club DeVille, while James Iha seemed quite smitten with psych-metal organ trio The Sights at Emo's. (Honestly, though, if Iha had stepped on my already sore toe just one more time I'd have punched him). There were plenty of other star sightings at shows, but the point is that bands were supporting other bands regardless of their differences in income, label status or perceived popularity. Again, incredible. But that's just part of the SXSW state of mind, one we'd all do well to understand a little better if we're truly committed to progress in our own music scene.

Just a few weeks ago, Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez declared that our local music community needs to reach out to places like Austin in an effort to hip them to what's going on with our scene so we can "become the next Austin."

I certainly admire the effort and financial support his administration invested in helping our own Little Kiss Records' team and roster set up shop in Austin this year for an Albuquerque showcase at a little Mexican eatery just a few blocks from the convention center. But I have to disagree with the mayor on this painful point: Albuquerque's music scene still has some growing up to do, and there's a lot to be learned from a city like Austin, whose music community, club owners and operators and city government officials—from its mayor and city council on down to its solid waste management department—have, over the past few decades, worked in sincere cooperation to make the city and South By Southwest what they are today. Albuquerque will never be the next Austin, and most of us wouldn't want it that way. But there are steps we can take as a community to make Albuquerque a better Albuquerque, many of which we can take from the example set forth by Austin's devotion to live music and the multi-million dollar local industry it fosters. But in order to get to where we want to be, it's going to take a lot more than a couple of press conferences and mayoral mandates issued on little or no evidentiary basis.

I'll continue to attend South By Southwest for as long as Austin will have me. And I'll continue to sing its praises on these pages until Albuquerque, frankly, takes at least a few hints and gets its on again off again music scene on for good. The first step, not waiting around for someone else to do something, has already been taken by local music champions like Dandee Fleming, Joe Anderson, Neal Copperman, Jenny Gamble, Kevin Kinane, John Washburn and a handful of others. Time to get on the bandwagon, folks. Literally and figuratively.