SXSW Is Inspiring, You’re Just Doing It Wrong

Posted: by The Editor

Photo by: @mhfoto_

Ah, SXSW. The annual pilgrimage for entertainment industry ghouls, venture capitalist hucksters, bleary-eyed media journalists, and the type of rich assholes who shell out annually for premium Coachella tickets and then spend the whole weekend Instagram-living the two hour line to sample the latest FIJI competitor.  

That’s all SX is, right? Just an exhausting melange of corporate-sponsored showcases, make-work panels, and artistic exploitation draped in the facade of an International™ Music™ Festival™. What was once a summit for creative celebration and genuine artistic discovery is now just another glimmer of sunlight that’s been consumed by the monstrous black cloud of late capitalism.

Before I attended my first SXSW this past weekend, that’s what I thought I was in for. Because that’s how my music media elders spoke of the festival on Twitter. Without blowing up anyone’s spot, I saw more people either bemoaning their required attendance or merrily announcing their decision to stay home than I did expressions of joyful anticipation. This was the first year I’ve ever been able to afford the trip down to Austin, as well as the first in which my budding career as a music journalist yielded me the opportunity to do so. However, despite my elation to finally be participating in this supposed rite of modern music media, I was tempering my expectations to prepare for a playground of streaming wonks and vape pod startups.

And the assessment I came to upon boarding my flight home is this: they’re not entirely wrong. SXSW is a massive, commercialized festival that sticks starving artists on stages sponsored by Bank of America to play for slack-jawed, middle-aged white dudes—guys who are yammering on about their next meeting while slamming overpriced beers before noon. I saw a lot of that, and a lot of it was really disheartening and irritating and even infuriating. And I can see how if someone spent their entire weekend in those spaces, the prospect of skipping out to stay home might be appealing.

But it was also so painfully easy for me to completely avoid those environments and attend showcases that were operating on an entirely different plane of existence. Showcases put on by tiny DIY labels. Showcases put on by non-profit blogs (nepotism note: The Alternative x No Earbuds showcase was an obvious highlight). And “unofficial” showcases hosted by local businesses, punk houses, and community spaces that were just a scooter’s ride away from the main drag. At those events, I witnessed unadulterated love for music and art; selfless support for sustainable communities and mutual, upward mobility; and authentic musical curiosity—a true desire to experience new music and contribute to its continued existence.

So for those who’ve never made it to SXSW, those who skipped out this year due to the capitalist ickiness, and those who came but left feeling unsatisfied, here are a few things I learned at my first visit to the festival. Perhaps my experiences will encourage you to come through next year with a fresh attitude, whether it’s your first or 15th time, and see what made this one of the most inspiring gatherings I’ve ever attended.

Holy shit, so much of this is free!

Call me crazy, but I didn’t want to shell out $1,200 for an official, all-access pass—which would’ve let me jump lines and get into all the coveted, big-tent evening showcases. However, I was worried that going passless would hinder my ability to see artists like Laura Jane Grace and The Beths, who were exclusively playing official showcases sponsored by the likes of Stereogum and Brooklyn Bowl. But what I quickly learned was that many of the daytime showcases, as well as a handful of the evening ones, were entirely free to enter. I saw over 40 artists in three days (a fraction of the total number of artists I could’ve seen if I was a robot, and not a human who needs food and sleep in order to survive) and spent a total of $10 on cover charges.

Sure, I didn’t get to see Rico Nasty or Tierra Whack, which was unfortunate. But as someone who’s only ever lived in secondary and tertiary markets, I was able to see fledgling artists like Sir Babygirl and Sidney Gish who have yet to play the city (Pittsburgh) I live in. The prospect of seeing 18 bands in one day isn’t that special for someone who lives in NY or L.A. and has to choose between 18 great shows on any given Tuesday. But as someone who’s always lived in areas that Cool Indie artists will maybe hit on the third leg of their tour (if at all), the accessibility to see so many bands at once (for free) was wild.

Dodge the corporate bullshit

Let me be clear: when I say “corporate bullshit,” I’m referring to the sort of silicon valley-certified landscapes Jeff Rosenstock paints so vividly in “Festival Song.” I.E. the architecture of every single major music festival in the United States. Whether it’s Pitchfork Festival or Boston Calling or Panorama, all of those events are funded by big, soulless companies with economic intentions that are inherently antithetical to the artists’ messages they’re selling you. That’s capitalism, and right now that’s just the way it is—which is disgusting. However, there’s always been an opposition party to that corporate mentality, and DIY ethos were scattered all throughout Austin this past weekend.

I saw it at The Alternative x No Earbuds showcase, where we were just one of many all-ages shows to host over 20 artists without a cover charge. Events like that provided a platform for bands who weren’t yet big enough to play the official showcases, and also gave them space to sell merch and decompress in a relaxing environment a good distance away from the fest’s epicenter. I saw it again at the Community Records showcase, which was held at this old-timey rock bar called The Hole In The Wall. Longtime tour friends embraced, heartwarming speeches were delivered, and new connections were made, all thanks to a small DIY label from New Orleans putting together a killer lineup.

I felt it at the La Castanya showcase at Breakaway Records, a modestly brilliant record store a half-hour bike ride North of downtown Austin. Bands played in the back corner while patrons sipped complementary seltzer and casually browsed the shop’s rich collection of soul, indie, and punk. It was a quiet, residential setting, void of the omnipresent bass booms of downtown. Members of the Spanish label chatted happily yet soberly in the way folks do at a lowkey house show. And although I wasn’t there for it, the Topshelf Records Friend Oasis (another free, all-ages, ~20-band bill) looked like a truly wondrous occasion.

The point is, if you couldn’t find authenticity at SXSW, you probably weren’t looking hard enough.

Let yourself find new music

One of the dumbest, most jaded takes I saw on Twitter a few months back went something like this: no one actually discovers anyone new at SXSW. If you attended and went home without seeing an artist you didn’t previously know, then that was a conscious decision on your part to avoid new music. I went into the fest with a shortlist of bands I wanted to see and left with a list twice as long containing bands other people told me I should have seen. And although some of my most anticipated sets did end up delivering, the most ~magical~ moments were the impromptu ones. The sets that I literally wandered into unknowingly and/or figured I’d catch to kill some time before the next act on my list.

Alfred at Cheer Up Charlies on 3/13

That was the best part about finding new artists at SX: I didn’t even have to do anything, they practically came to me. The first night I got there I saw Richmond art-rapper Alfred absolutely murder it, spitting as furiously as they were crooning emotionally. It was complete happenstance, I was at the venue for a different band and they started playing just as I was getting ready to leave.  Earlier that day I had wandered into a bar to use the bathroom and ended up getting sucked into this Italian shoegaze band called Rev Rev Rev, who were playing to, like, five people and utterly dazzling me with this trippy delay effect.

Two days later I was trying to fill the gaps in my schedule and stumbled into a Yahyel set. They were a four-piece, like, baroque, experimental dance band from Tokyo that dressed like Matrix characters. Their frontman danced harder than anyone I’d ever seen and they teased the milquetoast American crowd for their tepid foot-tapping. And later that night I arrived a few hours earlier than expected to the Father/Daughter Records showcase. I had listened to an Esther Rose song once but couldn’t recall the details, and then I spent an hour gushing at her and her band’s classic country and contemporary singer/songwriter charm. Had I decided to roam around until Sir Babygirl went on, I would’ve missed that experience entirely.

IRL is important, ya’ll

As someone who doesn’t live in NY or L.A., or even Chicago, Philly, or Boston, meeting industry people is rare. To my knowledge, there aren’t many music PR companies or online music sites based out of Pittsburgh, nor are there any big labels. So for me, just meeting some of the people who’ve been emailing me out of their NY offices for years was fulfilling. But more importantly, simply interacting with music media people IRL felt so good. In an industry that operates almost entirely online, the face-to-face conversations are more valuable now than ever before. Especially since most of us (PR people, label folks, and journalists alike) spend our workweek plugged in and tuned out from “social” office settings. It sounds trivial, but it really did make a difference.

Me and The Alternative founder Henderson Cole doing the thing.

Also, it’s really easy to get jaded on the internet when you’re wrapped up in the lightning speed of a press cycle, or quantifying success with streaming numbers, or trying to predict hype based on Twitter clout. Just seeing some fuckin’ bands rip a gig with all of the people you’re normally confined to messaging curtly via email is a vital reminder for why we all do this shit in the first place.

Living in this age gives us so many reasons to feel defeated and upset and nauseous. And to try and achieve the bare minimum of success in the music world (I.E. living off of this shit) is tough as hell. It’s literally a daily struggle. If you’re reading this, you probably know that. So yes, there are so many parts of SXSW that are just as ugly and cringey as anything else we confront on a constant basis; whether it’s the Panera you’re forced to eat at during your 30-minute lunch break or the commercial for the insurance company you’re forced to watch 48 times during a single baseball broadcast.

Fire Is Motion playing SXDIY, captured by Jessica Lavery

The spoils of late capitalism aren’t going away (yet), but there are ways to work around it. There are ways to exist outside of it. And this weekend I saw countless artists, promoters, managers, label owners, photographers, and journalists working around that shit in real-time. Don’t let yourself glimpse over those spaces, those experiences, and those interactions. They’re there and they’re real, even if you gotta walk by some douchebag selling $10 mineral water to get there.

Eli Enis | @eli_enis

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