“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.” -Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City
AUSTIN — The question you ask yourself is whether you’d prefer a few hours of sleep to staying out for a set by Fragile Rock, which is billed as a 10-member, all-puppet emo band. As utterly incredible as that sounds, you choose sleep because it’s only Monday night (okay, early Tuesday morning) and you’ve got a full week ahead at South By Southwest. It’s your first time visiting the one of the preeminent music festival and conference in the world, in many ways the grandaddy of them all. You must preserve some energy for what’s yet to come.
Others who have trekked to the event before you impart some wisdom. Don’t even think about trying to do everything you want. Impossible. Don’t pay $6 for a beer that can be had for $2 a block away. Impractical. Don’t believe, just because you have a press badge, that you’ll waltz into the biggest shows of SXSW. Improbable.
But, you are willing to stand in a line or two. Even though the youthful hipsters who flood Austin’s streets like Tropical Storm Atticus view you as a relic, your legs are strong. They couldn't best you in a 20K, you think, so you take your place in line. Standing there it occurs to you that a line is like a chain. Once you’re a link, there for some time and firmly in your place, you’ve given the chain its binding strength. You’ve cinched yourself in. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to see the Danny Browns and Wu-Tangs of the music world, especially if you’ve spent more than $1,000 to buy the right to stand in line to watch them. But how much music might you have seen waiting in line to see this show?
A lot, but there is literally too much music at SXSW. And still, not enough. You have indie rock and hip hop. These are the chosen genres of the festival, anything else is an afterthought (sometimes called an “unofficial show”). On the way back to the space you’ve rented for your stay, you stop at a Taco Bell Cantina (yes, Austin’s got a booze-peddling Taco Bell). A young woman is clearing ice from the soda machine and asks about your Music badge, so you ask if she has ever attended SXSW. No, she says. Has she been to any of the shows that are peripheral to the event? Nuh-uh, she replies. You press her and he says she is Latina, lives in the state capitol of Mexico’s largest neighbor to the north and the norteno music she prefers is absent from the world’s biggest music conference and festival. Then she mumbles something about SXSW’s recent immigration snafu, which is the most you've heard anyone discuss the matter while you’ve been there.
You plan to attend the conference sessions to learn something practical about the music industry, but get too distracted to educate yourself. The distraction is your awareness of how serious this event wants to be in some way. You’re taken aback when an hour-long session about the role of streaming services like Soundcloud takes on the tenor of a Nobel Prize address. The big takeaway of the session is Soundcloud has metrics which artists are under utilizing. Everyone in the room already knows this, but it’s given roughly the same rapt attention as that announcement about those recently discovered Earth-like planets. You think maybe it’s just the session you picked, but then you spend an hour watching Krist Novoselic talk about voting and redistricting. Important and heady, but not what you expected. When the floor is opened for questions – no limits to what anyone can ask – nobody asks anything about Nirvana. Everyone just seems weirdly interested in Novoselic’s takes on gerrymandering in 2017.
You feel deflated by these unexpected turns. You head out into the streets to find something to revive your hopes for your experience. You go to Gus’ for its “World Famous” fried chicken. As you relish its crispy, spicy, moist goodness you start recalling what you have enjoyed about the stay so far. For instance, the comedy events you’ve caught have been stellar, specifically the Harmontown podcast at Esther’s Follies. The actual administration of logistics at SXSW is honed to near-perfection. You worried for nothing about how to pick up a badge, get photo credentials, or rub elbows with national and international reporters in the press room. When you one day are giving your advice to a novice attendee of the event, you’ll reassure them that these pieces of the SXSW puzzle fit neatly because of hundreds of volunteers and years or organizational prowess.
You’re feeling better. Maybe it’s the three-piece meal you just polished off, but you’re relaxed when you see “The Velostacks” listed on the sandwich board of some 6th Street dive bar. When you’re a foreigner, there’s nothing more comforting than finding a familiar face, a compatriot who might also be herky-jerkying like a fish out of water, too. These guys are fellow Houstonians. No badge or pre-registration is required to see the show, just a willingness to have your face melted like Velveeta by their many guitars. You’ve heard the songs before, but they sound anthemic tonight. This is the music of your homeland; now you’re ready to go out and conquer other worlds.
The next day’s music meet-ups help rally you back. You hear Warren G discuss the resurgence of G-Funk. He tells a story about him and the late Nate Dogg writing a song to the beat of that Schoolhouse Rock song about adjectives. He hums several bars and says they were denied use of the song, which he still laments.
“It was dope as fuck,” he says, shaking his head.
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The highlight of your time, and what really sets you straight, is Mick Fleetwood’s address. He and Rolling Stone’s David Fricke discuss Fleetwood's new book, which is a loving reflection on Fleetwood Mac’s earliest days, long before it was a globally-known act. He spends little time talking about sold-out arenas or music awards. He shares a lot about the joy and pain that came with the relationships he formed with his bandmates over narly 50 years. He’s a rock icon, but in these moments he’s just another human reminding us all that the music exists solely to connect us to each other.
“You are the kind of guy who always hopes for a miracle at the last minute,” Jay McInerney once wrote. The miracle is the music and especially the people who make it. They’re the reason you’re at SXSW to begin with and they’re out there in Austin’s bars and show spaces. You can’t wait to go meet them all.
Come back soon for more of Jesse's SXSW adventures.