This was not only my first trip to SXSW, it was my first trip to Austin. I’ve been to Houston a couple of times, but the two cities could not be more different. Austin is known as a blue city in the middle of a red state, and is one of the great music towns in the world. Though I’ve obviously never been to Austin when SXSW wasn’t going on, the sheer number of venues indicates that the music goes on non-stop, even after the tourists have left town.
The festival itself is simply extraordinary. No one seems to know how the organizers do it. They’ve had 22 years now to practice their craft, but it’s still an astonishing accomplishment. There are something like 1,900 bands, hundreds of venues, panels, speeches, parties, the Flatstock Poster Show, the Texas Guitar and Record Show, and other special events to coordinate, and somehow it all looks seamless. I’m sure it’s not, but in my mind the mark of a great event is that you don’t see it working, it just does. At no time did I see any indication of the tremendous amount of work that goes into making this festival work. And don’t forget, though the largest by far, the music festival is only one of the three festivals, together with film, and interactive, that make up SXSW. One key factor is the hundreds of volunteers, who are polite, knowledgeable, and informative.
It’s exhausting. While the majority of the venues are on Sixth Avenue, or nearby, some important venues are not. Many are long walks, but not long enough to spring for a cab. So you end up doing an awful lot of hoofing. Plus, you ending up standing up in most of the venues. So you’re on your feet constantly. It’s like working retail. I think a person my age needs to train for this event like an athlete. Add to it that the days and nights are long and consecutive. You know how you feel after a late night of music and partying? Well try doing that for four consecutive days, and nights. One suggestion that I’d make to the organizers is that they consider some sort of shuttle to take people around to the various areas where the venues are. I don’t know if this is practical, but it’s worth thinking about. This year a shuttle bringing people downtown from their hotels on the city’s outskirts was instituted for the first time, and it seemed to work very well.
A little bit of bitching, having nothing to do with the festival itself. As I’ve mentioned before, AT&T’s internet access for smartphones was a joke. It was spotty at best, and often non-existent. How could they not be prepared?
I always pay attention to my fellow journalists at events. Maybe I just want to see how I should behave to look professional. If what I saw is any indication, I’d rather not. There they stand with their little notebooks, and THEY DON’T APPLAUD FOR THE ARTISTS. It’s as if they have to prove their objectivity by not showing any appreciation for what they’re seeing. This is music, not rocket science. If you can’t enjoy it, and be will to demonstrate your enjoyment, find another job. I have a notebook too, but I still make an effort to show my appreciation to the artists who are performing. It’s the least we can do. It’s not as if we paid to get in.
Photographers. I am the first to admit that I am not a professional photographer. I have a pretty good camera, a Nikon D60, but it’s nothing compared to what the real professionals have. But I was all Popdose had a SXSW this year, so if I didn’t take the photos, there wouldn’t be any. That required me to take up residence in the photo pit at Stubb’s for two nights for two of the biggest shows at the festival. The behavior of the “professionals” in that pit was deplorable. You’d think they were taking photos of Britney Spears going out to get a pack of cigarettes, or the Octomom the way they acted. I’m a big guy, but I was pushed more than once, and hit in the head with a swinging camera. It’s a rock an roll show, get over yourselves. If you can’t get your shot within the three songs alloted, without making it unpleasant for other people, find another business.
Minor quibbles all, but it wouldn’t be me if I didn’t whine a little. Overall it was a simply astonishing experience. Inspiring music by the Hold Steady, and the Uglysuit. Inspiring words from Quincy Jones, and Steve Van Zandt. Tex-Mex food that made me realize what I’ve been missing in N.J. all these years. Friendly people who were genuinely interested in being helpful. It was all part of the SXSW ’09 experience for me.
Thanks Austin. See you next year.