What I Learned at My First, and the Darkest, South by Southwest Music Festival

Categories: Feature Stories

Marco Torres

Thousands of people are on Austin's famed Sixth Street, punks and hipsters and bros, et. al. We're standing in the jarring sunlight of daytime, the afternoon after an alleged drunken driver plowed into a crowd at South by Southwest. People walk gingerly past each other, as people do when they don't want to shoulder-barge other people to the ground in such a packed space, and the sheer buzz of the day before has dropped to a conversational level.

No one is shouting through the crowd. No one is dancing alone for reasons apparent only to them. The presence of authority is noticeably increased, especially at the intersections, which now have police cars parked across them where once there were barriers. It's SXSW on mute, or at least turned way down low, and you can't help but wonder whether anyone will, or should, turn it back up.

Before I moved to the United States from the UK, SXSW was one of the things I'd forever longed to attend. I'd spent days absentmindedly looking at the combined cost of flights and tickets every year, before remembering that I couldn't sell everything I owned and come close to the cost of spending a week in the impossibly fanciful Austin, at one of the biggest festivals in the world. It was a world away, and that world required really expensive badges.

Then, three years ago, I moved to Texas. So by early this year, when I was offered a press credential to cover SXSW, I was even more aware of how much fun could be had. I could go down, stay at a friend's, and be faced with the prospect of a week watching live music in Austin. Not a terrible way to spend an alleged work week.

Arriving via bus on Tuesday, I sauntered across First Street to pick up my pass. There were no lines in evidence either outside Austin Convention Center or inside for badge pickup. Sitting down after picking up the badge, I realized that I had absolutely no plan whatsoever. The music listings, contained in a book the size and width of a small child, pressed down upon me with a weight even greater than the mighty tome they were contained in.

I left the book on a sofa in the Convention Center. Who needs that kind of pressure? I headed out of the Convention Center and walked north. Upon approaching a club I had never noticed before, I heard a drumbeat. I stepped toward the door and people seemed to approve of my pass. Inside I realized I was at a music venue I didn't know the name of, watching a band I didn't know the name of. Perfect. There was a second band, a more country number, playing on the back patio. The venue buzzed with anticipation of the week ahead, hundreds of people even more excited about what's coming next than what's happening now.

Exiting the venue with a shrug, I'd learned nothing. There was another drumbeat over the road. I went there. A hardcore band was playing what appeared to be some sort of treehouse, designed to accommodate about 40 people, of whom I was the 41st. The venue was alive with movement, with shouting, and most of all with the repeated thwack of bass-drum noise into the skulls of music fans. This time I had arrived.

I spent the rest of the evening playing "follow the drumbeat." It seems that wherever you are in Austin during SXSW, there is either a man shouting into a microphone or a cymbal being hit really hard. I looked at some of the lines to get into some of the fancier venues -- you can judge exactly how popular an artist is by how many blocks are spanned by the line that artist has generated -- and decided that, despite my British heritage, queueing was not for me.

That's the paradox of SXSW. You have more possible choices than you know what to do with, but every choice you make renders another hundred outcomes impossible. It's actually stressful, knowing that staying for the end of this Lee Fields and the Expressions set renders it unlikely you'll catch any of X on the other side of downtown. Stressful in the best possible way, of course, but it seems that the worst possible choice you can make in these circumstances is to stand in a line for five hours. Doing so not only eliminates hundreds upon hundreds of possible outcomes, it means you've eliminated said outcomes while not actually gaining anything of any real reward, unless you'd swap those 500 bands for just 45 minutes with the artist of your choice, an artist you've likely seen before and will surely see again.

My Voice Nation Help

I'm glad you had a good time. But if this was your first SxSW, how could you possibly call the idea that SxSW has grown too big or too corporate "preposterous?"  The experience is nothing like it was. I used to be able to see six showcases in six different venues each night, walking into a new venue each hour, on the hour, because my badge let me skip the line. The bands were great, unsigned, and the labels were there to find them, not to promote bands they've already signed, you could actually meet and form relationships with the movers and shakers at the highest level of the business. 

Now a badge doesn't even guarantee admission, and you might have to stay at the same venue all night or risk not getting in anywhere else later.

It's cool that you found a conga line, though.


Exiting the article with a shrug, I'd learned nothing.

I'm sorry, I'm sorry, couldn't resist. It's a quote from his article, see?


Sounds like you did it right, Gavin.  Glad you got to enjoy this Texas music experience.  You've had the BBQ, now you've seen/heard the music.

Ain't Texas great?

bvckvs topcommenter

SxSW is for drunken street revelry - not good music. If you want good indie music, check iTunes or Amazon. 


Nice read Gavin.


Nice read. Totally agree on your take of the pressure in finding music/atmosphere without waiting in line for hours.

ScottsMerkin topcommenter

Pretty sweet that you got to live something that you only dreamed of years ago in England.  Glad you had a good time, everyone should go at least once.


Glad you had a great experience and sought out what is still good about South By. 

Even better that you haven't become jaded like me by reminiscing about the past when week long tickets were about $30 and you could still bar hop to see multiple bands in multiple venues in a night. 


@bvckvs We really need to take up a collection to buy you a clue...


@becoolerifyoudid I don't really understand the point of it anymore. It used to be all about seeing new bands while they were playing the very set that would get them discovered, signed, and turned into stars. Now nobody sells records. Record labels aren't scouring the scene for the next big thing. For fucks sake, Lady Gaga played there last week and got puked on for "art".

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