By Jeff Balke
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Hill has played multiple shows at each South By Southwest through the 2000s, most famously the jalapeño pancake breakfast gig at the Continental Club on Saturday mornings and the late, lamented Friday afternoon oldies marathon matinee he performed from about 2002 to 2008 on the sidewalk in front of Rue's Antiques on South Congress.
Those shows have brought Hill a measure of national fame and earned him connections he never could have made otherwise. "We met our buddies who run Maxwell's [club] in Hoboken and those WFMU DJs. We met the three people we were supposed to meet to make some really cool things happen for us."
Among those cool things: a live album recorded in Hoboken's WFMU studios and an alliance with indie rock godheads Yo La Tengo, who asked them recently to play the afterparty at a Warehouse Live gig. "That band's full of fans that love rock and roll music," Hill says. "Basically all the hipsters left after Yo La Tengo finished, so it ended up being us playing for the band and about ten other people, and it ended up great."
So no matter how specialized your niche, you can find your tribe at SXSW. "It has taken us far beyond what we dreamed we would ever be able to do," Hill enthuses. "In our band it was like, 'Let's go have fun and make a racket and see what happens.' And good things have happened. We've played weddings, we've gone to the East and West coasts because of our gigs on the sidewalk at South By Southwest. Just met a ton of freakin' people through it."
Back in 1987, there were 700 paid registrants — most from Texas. These days, the music conference draws in about 12,000 registrants, everyone from bands to publicists to talent buyers to music-related tech-geeks, and they stream into Austin from everywhere, from Tel Aviv to Osaka, Buenos Aires to Perth. Another 17,000 laminates are issued for the other two conferences, and municipal officials estimate the overall economic impact on the City of Austin at $110 million, although that figure seems conservative. Does it count all those who drive to town, don't bother registering, attend few if any officially sanctioned SXSW events and crash on friends' couches? How could anyone tabulate that number?
Former Houston Press Nightfly columnist Brian McManus performed at five straight South Bys as the guitarist in the Fatal Flying Guilloteens and has attended the last four in his capacity as music editor at Philadelphia Weekly. He says that his many South By experiences are now a point of pride, as a trip to South By is one of the most lusted-after tickets in the City of Brotherly Love. "Everybody knows about it in Philadelphia" he says. "It's so much bigger than I would ever have thought. In Texas, I knew it was a big deal, but it just seemed to me like a Texas thing to do — just drive out to Austin and go for it. But I've since found out it's like a touchstone up here — everybody knows what it is, everybody talks about it, everybody wants to go if they're not."
McManus believes that the event's cachet gives the entire state an incalculable boost in cultural cred. "People up here are impressed that I come from the same state as South By," he says. "And they love going down there and doing Texas shit."
The event is perfectly timed to align with Mother Nature at her most merciful. The roadways leading into town are lined with brigades of bluebonnets and riots of Indian paintbrush. The weather has been perfect pretty much every day of the event for the last decade. McManus speaks for many from the northern climes when he says that the event comes right about the time seasonal affective disorder starts to kick in. "It's always 70 degrees, and it's great to come back and eat barbecue and Mexican food."
What's more, the far-flung fans are the cool kids from their respective cities, both the ones the marketers lust for and the marketers themselves. How cool are these people? The last few years, AT&T's Austin-area wireless service has come to a virtual standstill as the iPhone-packing hordes vampirically suck all the bandwidth right out of the blue Austin sky.
Meanwhile, the art and science of branding is in full effect everywhere you look, from the banners overhanging the stage to the condoms in the gift bag to the cups of free booze handed out a million times a day all over town. Every telephone pole and flat surface is plastered with ads for bands, publications, Web sites and gigs. It creates this weird bubble effect, where you think the whole world is as obsessed with flavor-of-the-minute bands like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah or the Coral, to name but two from years past.
It's as if Pitchfork's version of reality really were real. "Everybody talks about the same kinds of events and the same bands — every year there's a handful of bands everybody's talking about like Arctic Monkeys," says McManus. "It's weird being in a city where everybody's talking about the same kind of stuff. I guess it's kinda like what I imagine living in Williamsburg (Brooklyn) would be like. I enjoy that aspect of it."