South by Southwest 2005 is upon us. Please don't tell us to relax.
That's the theme of this column, which we'll get to in our own convoluted way in just a moment. This is the first of three issues in which there is significant coverage devoted to South by Southwest 05. This time the focus is SXSW Interactive; next week is Film, and the week after covers not only SXSW Music but also includes the annual Austin Chronicle Austin Music Poll results. Then there are three special daily issues, after which we get back to our nice, normal weekly routine.
Legendary Broadway producer Jed Harris tells a story about the first time he met actress/writer Ruth Gordon. She was just another showgirl to him, but to woo her he took her to a restaurant outside New York City, a bit of a drive away. On the way there, they chatted, but it was nothing unusual. They got to the restaurant and were soon seated. It was during Prohibition, so I imagine special drinks were ordered along with dinner. When the food arrived, Gordon began to devour everything in sight. She had ordered huge quantities of food, vacuuming it all in as though she hadn't eaten in months. No conversation, no flirting, just eating.
Harris couldn't wait to get out of there and back to the city so he could ditch this woman. He went up to the cashier at the front to pay the bill. As he was paying he looked back over. There was Gordon standing, leaned back into a column by the table, a toothpick in her mouth, with a look of just pure contentment on her face. "In that moment," he would say as he told this story, "I just completely fell in love with her," or words to that effect.
On Saturday night, March 13, of SXSW 04, I leaned against the chain-link fence of a parking lot, staring out onto Red River, a third of the way down the block from Seventh Street. For a long time, I just stayed there, leaned back into the fence, watching all the folks hurrying by down in the street and on the sidewalks.
It was such a bittersweet moment. SXSW 04 was coming close to ending. Now of course, there's always a sadness to that time. Still, the year had seen no counterfeit-wristband scare or similar crisis to take years off our lives. It had gone fairly smoothly, though "smoothly" here is a relative term. There had been any number of problems, mistakes, miscalculations, unforeseeable twists, hassles, and minor but stressful issues with which we had dealt. On our end, we're always working, but most times things are swiftly resolved, and none had been too major. From the outside, SXSW 04 should have appeared like a smooth glide over calm waters; that was one of our goals and a crucial part of our jobs.
Managing Director Roland Swenson regularly and rightly reminds us "SXSW is not for you." Our job is to make it run as smoothly as possible, by quickly solving problems most importantly by anticipating them. We are not there to watch movies, attend panels, listen to speakers, and hear music.
But in the cool of the noisy, crowded Saturday evening, I was enjoying it. Still not listening to music or watching movies, but just soaking it in. Getting to feel some of what it must be like to actually attend SXSW. The people are the best part anyway: the people excited, electric, and alive. People from around the world caught up in the whirlwind that is SXSW, loving this town called Austin. This was as good as it could get for me: the clubs crowded but not packed, the streets alive with folks heading from venue to venue, movie theatre to movie theatre. There was music in the air, and you could smell the creative energy on the breath of the night.
I thought of just how much I love SXSW, how sad I was it was over and also how glad, because I could not have survived much more. I'm an old man. Plus, pleasure is intensified by imposing boundaries.
Now it's just the nature of putting on a large event, but what you always notice and remember are the complaints and attacks, more than the praise or compliments. I thought about this. How, of course, as with any massive event, there were many legitimate criticisms of SXSW, but often complaining, criticizing, or disappointed people get ugly, personal, and overly derogatory in expressing them. As though you were out to get them, had intentionally done them, as they perceived it, wrong. So be it.
I'd be willing to bet that to the vast majority of people involved with putting on SXSW, it's an avocation and a passion as much as a job. I don't expect many of you to take this as anything but spin or jive or typical PR bull. Fine. But I have to say it. The intensity, intelligence, commitment, and deep sense of creative and professional satisfaction that most of the staff bring to their jobs are easily among the major reasons I love this event so much. Not just the music, movies, and media not just the people, panelists, and artists but getting to work with these people.
Last year I woke up in the hotel room one morning after too little sleep and turned on the TV while I finished some paperwork. A local news report featured a South Congress small-business owner talking about an event in her neighborhood. She made a point of noting, "This is being put on by the people who really are responsible for South by Southwest." I'm sure she meant the people and the businesses of Austin, which are defining qualities of SXSW, as we're always pointing out. But why phrase it like that? I'm thinking, are these people who are part of the fabric of Austin but also doing a very lucrative business off of the event really the ones most responsible? Not the folks putting in 12- to 18-hour days, seven days a week for the past many months? Not the ones on phones, checking out venues, thinking about equipment, dealing with marketing and promotion, planning content, listening to 7,000 band submissions, watching more than 200 movies, improving and innovating the Web site, writing press releases, entering forms, and licking envelopes?
Many people who run events concurrent with SXSW, rather than acknowledging how the event brings in all these people, music, films, speakers, and so on, have to attack and denigrate it. Sure, that's the way things operate, but sometimes it hits you just at the wrong moment. Oh well, it really is all about going on despite everything, isn't it?
Well-meaning friends, co-workers, and loved ones often take the opportunity of whatever limited breaks you may take to urge you to relax. This is done with care and love. But most of those who run events don't want to relax. Really. This isn't ritual or superstition. It may seem that by relaxing you renew yourself and refocus your attention. But it's not so. Relaxing is letting go, causing your concentration to slip, and you end up losing your place and not doing so in one concern or project but dozens.
If you relax, you might miss something. You want to wake up in the middle of the night because something is nagging at the back of your head to go over one operation or another in detail, because maybe you'll catch something you have so far missed. You want your stomach to always be turning, not nauseous but not calm, because that means you're always reviewing, re-reviewing, and then coming at things from yet another angle. An event like SXSW works only if tens of thousand of details are all regarded as serious. Relaxing costs details. The tension is more professional than neurotic, more results-oriented than paranoid. What is needed is constant focusing, assessing and reassessing, considering and rethinking, to handle the avalanche of the petty to the imposing, the trivial to the crucial that makes up producing SXSW.
So, please, even in the most well-meaning way, never ask us to relax. Under the circumstances, it really is a bad idea and counterproductive. And just because we're not relaxed doesn't mean we're not having fun.
SXSW starts next Friday. SXSW registration for all three events is still available.
SXSW Film passes are still on sale exclusively at Waterloo Video for $58 inclusive.
SXSW Music Festival wristbands are currently not on sale, though a limited number will probably be made available to the public on Wednesday, March 16.
The Austin Music Awards are Wednesday evening, March 16, at the Austin Music Hall. Please join us in celebrating Austin music and honoring its musicians.