"South By Southwest is an eavesdropper's dream..."
The annual South By Southwest music convention and festival, which began Tuesday and ended yesterday, drew more than 20,000 industry professionals and fans this year, who were forced to choose among 2,300 acts spread over more than 100 venues. (They were the lucky few who made the cut; over 10,000 acts applied. Some of those who received polite rejection letters came anyway, and found a home at one of the many "unofficial" SXSW showcases, some of which were just as good -- if not better -- than the official ones.)
It's the largest music event of its kind in the world, and the stimulation overload of having so much live music vibrating your eardrums over such a short time is hard to convey to someone who's never experienced it. To take just one night as an example, on Friday (my birthday, as it happened), I saw the Flaming Lips, Gregory Alan Isakov, Vintage Trouble and Michael Bernard Fitzgerald, all between 8 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. Most showcases feature three, four, sometimes even five acts, so the sets are short -- 20 to 40 minutes, typically. Planning out your musical itinerary for the week is kind of like playing a particularly challenging game of Sudoku. It made my head hurt.
South By, as the locals call it, has gotten flak in recent years for adding major acts to the roster -- Prince and Justin Timberlake both played this year -- after building a reputation as a one-stop-shopping opportunity for carefully vetted up-and-coming bands wanting to show off their mojo to the Powers that Be, and for record label representatives, radio programmers and other industry professionals looking for the Next Big Thing. The magnetic pull of the new star-studded shows siphons attendees from the actual showcases, the argument goes. But every showcase I attended this year, and years past, had a pretty good crowd, and the unofficial ones I saw did too. I think part of the reason is that SXSW, as a genre-neutral music industry lovefest, draws a particularly rabid and open-minded kind of music fan, and a lot of those fans are musicians themselves. (Pretty much all the acts go see other bands too.) They come not so much to see bands they already know about, but to be turned on to new acts. Despite high-wattage music celebrities like Emmylou Harris and Dave Grohl hanging around, and corporate logos screaming from specially-built towers around downtown, South By Southwest is still the best place to get your mind bended into shapes you didn't think were possible by some of the most astonishing bands that no one's ever heard of -- yet.
But SXSW is entertaining in other ways, too. South By Southwest is an eavesdropper's dream, I've come to realize. Bands from all over the world converge on Austin during South By Southwest, and it draws people from all sorts of backgrounds, with very different musical tastes and personalities. So the snippets of conversations you hear just walking down the street to catch the last 10 minutes of the Norway showcase, or in the hall of the convention center on your way to a session on, say "Selling Albums in a Spotify World" or "The Principles of Pop/Rock Songwriting," can be oddly intriguing. Just for fun, I began jotting down some of these kaleidoscopic bits of verbiage. Here's my list, titled "Overheard at SXSW 2013":
"Someone's got some serious problems." (walking down Brazos Street on way to convention center)
"I need a sugar mama." (walking down Red River Street on way to Nick Cave show)
"It's good to get your rage out. Having a fight with your girlfriend or your boss? Hit me!" (man, possibly homeless, offering to trade a black eye for some cash)
"This is actually worth a class credit for us." (young woman during break at a session on embracing mistakes by Corey Taylor, lead singer of the metal band Slipknot)
"He was so nice. My friend asked him for an interview, and he said no." (Girl recounting a chance meeting with Dave Grohl at a restaurant)
"Where the f**k are we going?" (somewhere on 6th Street, late at night)
A band to watch: Houndmouth, a roots-rock outfit from Indiana, impresses a roomful of radio programmers and DJs during the Adult Rock Radio meeting Thursday at the Austin Convention Center during South By Southwest. www.houndmouth.com
Photo by April Reese.