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The Last Word from the Press on SXSW 2008

Monotonix's manic frontman Ami Shalev...
John Nova Lomax

Every year South by Southwest careens closer to lowercase status. Rather than simply denoting the panels and performances of the music festival proper, its signature abbreviation/acronym has become shorthand for the whirl of parties and dusk-till-dawn (and beyond) music radiating from every front porch, patio, parking lot, warehouse, henhouse and outhouse in Austin. SXSW is now as much a generic brand — I saw flyers for several other music festivals around town, each advertising themselves as a "mini-SXSW" — as an official trademark.

The powers that be at the uppercase SXSW are less than thrilled about this — last year there was a rumor, which turned out to be not true, that SXSW officials provided Austin police and fire marshals with a tip sheet of nonsanctioned events — but as we say in Texas, that horse has long since left the barn. This year, A-list groups like British speed-metal gods Motörhead, French electronic duo Justice and Austin's ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead didn't even bother playing the festival proper, opting instead for the lucrative paydays of corporate-sponsored parties (including Press parent company Village Voice Media's shindig), most of which were either open to the public or accessible through a simple online RSVP. Even SXSW keynote speaker Lou Reed limited his actual stage time to a "Walk on the Wild Side" duet with Moby at a quasi-official Levi's/Fader Fort party.

With more than 12,000 registrants and 1,700 performers — worth an estimated $90 million to the city of Austin's coffers — it's not like SXSW doesn't have enough to contend with already. People's reasons for attending are as varied as the registrants themselves; some fashion their entire yearly business plan from what they're able to accomplish over those few days, while others attend simply to take a few days off work and enjoy as much free booze and barbecue as they can.

Two parties I attended illustrated how radically different the various faces of SXSW can be. One was a late-night Blender-sponsored after-party at a warehouse on the Eastside, where professional party people created a chaotic scene at the gate and elbowed each other aside on their way to the free cans of alcoholic energy drink Sparks at the bar. The other was a relatively low-key neighborhood affair at a South Austin beauty-salon patio, where kids danced enthusiastically or climbed trees and adults sat around picnic tables visiting and drinking keg beer from plastic cups. Each was as vivid a snapshot of the crazy quilt SXSW has become as anything "official" that went on last week, and next year, I can only imagine, will bring even more of the same. — Chris Gray

It's interesting to me how South By is evolving its own map. Downtown breaks down into the heavy maelstrom of young, hip and trendy bands east of Congress, along with a heavy dose of guerilla marketing and insidious branding of the sort alluded to by Chris's reference to the mad scramble for Sparks.

West of Congress is more chilled, the land of blues and Americana and world music showcases. East of I-35, in east Austin's rapidly gentrifying ghetto/barrio, you're in a heavy acid realm. This is the best place for people-watching and shows that are truly demented — seeing Gorch Fock and demented Israeli power trio Monotonix (for a full write-up of their goings-on this year, as well as more coverage of other bands, see the Press's Houstoned Rocks blog) on a double bill there in a backyard behind an old shack that purported to be the "Austin Typewriter Museum" was quite a treat.

Along South Congress, you're in kicked-back, pot-smoking Austin slacker town, where much of that city's music royalty from the '60s to the present played relatively chilled shows, or milled about on the street, or passed funny cigarettes around in alleys.

Further out on the fringes lay some of the least-capital-lettered "sxsw" events, such as the Enchanted Forest, a multi-day festival of poetry, music, visual art and every other manner of creative endeavor sprawling along five acres of dusty trails in scraggly woods in some trash land — a flood-plain railway right of way — near the corner of Lamar and Oltorf.

It was pretty hard to describe — people were calling it things like "Austin's Burning Man" and "summer camp on acid," but it's safe to say that no corporate sponsor was anywhere within five miles of the place. Nor would any insurer with half a brain touch some of the performers there, such as the guy who conducted what amounted to a ground-level fireworks display using scrap metal "cannons" shooting great blasts of colored propane in the air, all as people watched from mere feet away. Even the rickety wooden bridge over the little creek that wound its way through the site looked as if it would collapse at any second.

My official laminated badge feels more and more useless every year. The Enchanted Forest was one highlight. The three demented, almost downright terrifying Monotonix shows I saw were the others, and each of those events was open to the general public. (Two of the Monotonix shows were also free, as was the beer at them; the Enchanted Forest was B.Y.O.B. and required a ten-dollar ticket.)

For the first time ever, this year, I didn't attend any panels or even set foot on the trade show floor, and those were until three or four years ago one of the main reasons people bought badges. Now, I am far from alone in avoiding them. And it's not that they aren't interesting events — it's just that there is so much more to do out there on the fringes in lower-case South By Land.

Which, when you think about it, is a pretty decent way of looking at the state of the music business as a whole these days. A couple of days after South By wrapped, I got an e-mail from Bob Lefsetz, an eccentric music industry gadfly whose widely read newsletter excoriates the industry's tepid, foot-dragging response to the technological revolution.

"The new music business isn't at SXSW," he railed. "Why should it be? Think about it. If Yahoo and Google sprung up out of nowhere, what makes you think the powers-that-be in the music industry are going to rule in the future?

"So you're gonna make a deal with a major, a 360 deal, because that's all they want. You're gonna put yourself in the hands of the old generation, lock yourself up completely, because it seems easier this way, you can sleep at night, knowing you've got a signed contract locked up somewhere. But when your record stiffs since the label is chasing the product of the good-looker who recorded the songs they wanted them to, the radio-friendly stuff, and you're tied up forever, who you gonna call, GHOSTBUSTERS?"

Sometimes Lefsetz is dead-on. For the most part, this is not one of those times. That's badge-wearing, capital letter SXSW thinking, and it's just as dated as the ideas Lefsetz excoriates elsewhere.

The new music business is out there, just not in that kill zone east of Congress, north of Lady Bird Lake, south of the Capitol and west of I-35. Lefsetz is correct about things like the Blender, Spin and Fader parties and already-famous band gigs at places like Stubb's at Emo's, especially when he says stuff like this:

"All that MTV-era bullshit is done. It's not about your look. It's not even about following trends. It's not about signing on the bottom line for a zillion bucks. It's about making music. Constantly. Not on a one album every three year cycle. The Net audience wants new tunes all the time. A steady stream. Your hard core fans anyway. If you're playing to the casual listener, you're abusing your hard core. Let the casual user find you VIA the hard core."

So far so good. But then he added this: "A single on the radio for nine months may generate cash once, but it turns a hell of a lot of people off. Like Taylor Swift. If I hear about her fucking teardrops on her guitar one more time, I'm going to VOMIT! Just shut up and make another record. I was a fan, now I just see a young girl being raped by the system. A system that doesn't care about the fans, but only about the short-term money."

I just lived through four-and-half days of this year's South By, and Lefsetz's words seem surreal. Who the hell is Taylor Swift? Nobody I talked to cares about her; neither did anyone give two shits about trying to get on the radio. And I don't think I met anybody who gave much of a hoot about any kind of money, short-term or otherwise. The bands I saw were all about the music, lifers in the game who couldn't do anything else even if they wanted to.

Lefsetz and the other veterans of the old game just had to seek out these mythical creatures beyond the marketing miasma close by the convention center and head out to places like the Austin Typewriter Museum's dusty backyard, the sloping alley behind the Continental Club, or deep within the glades of the Enchanted Forest. — John Nova Lomax

chris.gray@houstonpress.com

john.lomax@houstonpress.com


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