I guess there are several reasons I've put off writing about SXSW's 20th anniversary this year. One is that I've already talked about it so much in conversations during and after the conference, and I've always found that that diminishes both the desire and the focus needed to write about something. Another is, well, that thinking about it is so damn...depressing.
Some of what depresses me is personal. I was a co-founder of SXSW, and have never even been mentioned in that context. There are reasons for this, having to do with personal politics between me and some of the other directors which don't need to be made public, but I must admit that, as I was pawing through a pile of stuff here earlier this year, I was cheered to find a laminate from the first year that said ED WARD, DIRECTOR. At least it wasn't a hallucination.
For a number of years, I was in charge of assembling the panels, cajoling reluctant music biz panjandrums into attending, often using the great weather in Austin as a bludgeon. After that, I was given the title "International Coordinator," which involved encouraging (mostly European) bands and panelists to attend, and that only ended when I moved over here. I don't at all regret that I never became part of SXSW, Inc. because I've always been clear on one thing: I'm a writer, and that's what I do. And I've been treated well by the conference in exchange for solving various logistical problems and such imponderables as standing at the booth during PopKomm and answering the inevitable "Are you a record company?" questions while the other folks go about doing business, which is what they came there for.
Still, I haven't been asked to participate further than that in a number of years, despite suggesting panel ideas and, through my connection to Fresh Air, being something of a public figure in the U.S. (And, incidentally, now Berlin, where NPR has taken over an FM frequency and is broadcasting over it, a sure sign that I will, indeed, be moving soon, since I've never lived in a place where I could hear myself: KUT Austin only started running Fresh Air after I moved away).
Nonetheless, that's personal stuff. What depressed me while I was on the scene was the way SXSW has changed. That's a little more subtle, and, I guess, possibly personal in the end.
The thing that made SXSW the world's top music conference was its educational content, I've always thought. In the beginning, I used to joke that we showed people that anyone could make a record, and, dammit, that's just what they did. We also helped acts learn how to take charge of their careers, and, in so doing, were a potent force in starting a movement which has all but doomed the major labels' model of doing business. And that's all for the good.
Second was the fact that a wide variety of musical acts played; not, perhaps, as wide as I'd have liked, but wide enough that the evenings couldn't have been tagged a "rock festival." There was something I wanted to see every night (usually three things all in the same time-slot on at least two occasions each year), and I got to see it. Sometimes the clubs were a bit crowded, but the eternal vigilance of the Austin Fire Marshalls saw to it that SXSW was careful not to over-crowd them, a little bit of contention that always raised tensions with both the attendees and the general public, which usually managed to get excluded from the more popular shows.
Maybe I wasn't paying attention last year, but this year seemed to be quite different. One thing I noticed immediately was that the panels program had been cut way back, with a number of celebrity interviews (Neil Young, Judy Collins, Chryssie Hynde, k d lang, Billy Bragg, Kris Kristofferson, Morrisey, and others) replacing panel discussions. This was disappointing because the subjects get to pick the interviewer, and the questions are invariably softballs. This represents a kind of hierarchy I had thought SXSW was empowered to break down. But of course the subjects wouldn't assent to be interviewed if they thought they would be made uncomfortable.
My take on this was that this may be the only way the conference can get asses in seats for the daytime activities. There have always been informal daytime events sponsored by record companies and management firms, a sort of counter-conference for those who didn't or couldn't get showcases, and I'd always ignored them for the most part because the conference activities seemed more compelling. This tendency has now escalated to the point where the conference helps arrange a lot of them, working, in my opinion, against its original remit. On the other hand, if what's going on in the Convention Center isn't compelling, you might as well Go See Bands.
But, dammit, most of these people can Go See Bands all the time. Further, that's what the evening is all about and always has been. This year, though, it seemed like SXSW had become the spring break it takes advantage of in Austin, only with an indie-rock focus. Bands, all day and all night.
And here's where the Old Fogey Factor comes into play. I simply don't find most of these acts compelling in any way. It's a statisical inevitability that most of them will be literally mediocre. The screening process sees to it that a higher standard is applied (although I must admit that, with 1200 acts selected, I was pissed that the one I wanted to see most, Jon Hardy and the Public, were rejected, although I was told they "tested well," and "we liked them," whatever that means), so the mediocrity is therefore of a higher standard. But based on what I've been hearing, there's an urgency, a committment, missing from most of the stuff out there. The music seems to be about itself, never a healthy sign. With self-creating having become so damn easy, too much of what's created is about oneself. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, of course, but there seems to be little desire to connect: take what's here or leave it. Hardly a sound basis for (pardon the etymology again) popular music. If the past decade has taught me anything, it's the value of community, and as someone who was an enthusiastic consumer and observer of popular music both during the '60s and the punk era, I'm feeling a void at the center of the current indie-rock stuff.
Of course, as an Old Fogey, I'm alienated by a number of touchstones of the current scene. The near-domination of the MP3 format and the iPod blast-it-directly-into-your-ears playback method is something I'm planning to write a large essay on sometime soon, if only to clarify and structure my feelings about it. The desire to be surrounded by sound all the time bleaches any emotional connection to it and deprives it of what one would hope, at least, is the creator's intention. But the sameness of a lot of this stuff seems to indicate that it's not intended to raise emotions, just to soothe. How weird: muzak at 110 db.
At any rate, there was nothing compelling me to go out and see very much, and at one day-party I attended, I retreated to a quiet space when a band started to play. (The other didn't have any live music). The first night, I chickened out, I'll admit it, by going to see two old Austin favorites from the Old Days: I saw Kathy McCarty play a raft of her new songs with her old bandmate Brian Beattie helping out, and then went down the street and saw the newly-reunited Standing Waves, who hardly seemed to have taken 20-odd years off. By then it was midnight, and with nothing else calling my name, I went back to the hotel.
The next night, Tom Lunt of Numero talked me into seeing his buddies The Love Experts from St. Louis, who were entertaining, but playing in a venue where a non-credentialed friend couldn't get in. I went looking for him afterwards and got into a club so packed I could hardly breathe, being told at the door that most of the people were there to see some band I'd never heard of that was going on some hours hence. Having lost this guy, I went looking for a Bobby Bare show, since this legendary country singer had come out of retirement recently and was doing a few shows. I had stupidly mixed up East and West 6th Street, but so had a friend of mine who was also going to see Bare, so we hopped into a pedicab and made it midway during Bare's show. This was the most depressing show of the whole event: Bare is not a young man, and his voice is almost gone. His band is extremely sympathetic, and his son, Bobby Bare, Jr., who's developed into a major entertainer himself, engages in lively banter with the old man. The show was packed, and...everybody was talking. In the back of the club, where we were, we couldn't hear the show for all the chatter. I wanted to yell "Do you know who this man is? If not, why the hell are you here?" As the show ended, I left, and went down the street to see what I'd heard was a Jon Dee Graham show, but turned out to be a show by the songwriter collective he's in, the Resentments, who, it turns out, are not well-served by a 40-minute showcase slot. Tired again, I retired.
Friday I did a very smart thing: I went to only one show, but it was several hours long. The Ponderosa Stomp is a roots fan's paradise, a festival where legendary names from scratchy 45s take the stage and (usually) blow minds. SXSW had a mini-Ponderosa Stomp at the Continental Club, and I got to see such famous names as Tommy McClain (who's turned into a first-class wacko), Barbara Lynn (excellent), and Roy Head (demented -- almost scarily so) alongside lesser-known but amazing talents like L'il Buck Senegal and a very strange guitarist named Classie Ballou. The band, C C Adcock's Little Band of Gold, distinguished itself by being able to back each and every one of the musicians on stage, which was astonishing, perhaps slightly less so because the alto saxophonist on the very left of the stage was none other than Richard "Dickie" Landry, formerly of the Philip Glass Ensemble, no less, and a veteran of touring soul bands in the mid-'60s. It would be great if this condensation of the Stomp becomes an annual event at SXSW, if only for us Old Fogeys.
And the next night, I stayed home with a couple of bottles of excellent Sierra Nevada 2006 India Pale Ale and a great biography of Benjamin Franklin and, having transcended the need to Go See Bands, probably had as good a time as I would have had parading up and down jam-packed, noise-polluted 6th Street.
Okay, I know: SXSW isn't put on for the likes of me. It's put on for people in their 20s and 30s who are the hot center of the music biz today. It's also increasingly a place for foreign buzz bands to get seen (this year, KT Tunstall and the Arctic Monkeys, both gargantuan in England, played showcases) and launch their assault on America. It's also, with the exception of the odd event like the Ponderosa Stomp, largely ahistorical, which works against my bias and my gig as a historian. So the question now becomes, should I go again next year if I'm not going to be on a panel or otherwise involved? I guess I'll just have to wait until next year and see what happens. But the urgency isn't there any more, and that's a shame. Somehow, I feel like I've lost something, or something's lost me, and I'm still trying to figure it out.
But...didn't you eat barbeque?
Of course I did. I'll be posting about some of the food I had and various other issues of culture shock in the next few days.