Page Two: On Topic
Wading into the SXSW vitriol, despite repeated warnings
Something you could depend on
Lawdy lawd, woe is me
Ain't a body would care
I got a slow rollin' low
Forgot the words to my song
Ain't that just like a fool to want a ride on them trains
When the train is all gone
– Billy Joe Shaver, "Slow Rollin' Low"
Ooooow, it's a happy time inside my mind
When a melody does find a rhyme
Says to me I'm comin' home to stay
Oh, Lord, home to stay
I'm comin' home to stay
– Tim Buckley, "Happy Time"
Certain topics are especially ill-served by my inconsistent and distorted linear skills – which are further impaired by sporadic, unpredictable disconnects, wherein my inner and surface realities drift apart. South by Southwest is a topic that co-workers, family, friends, and professional acquaintances have wisely and compassionately advised/begged/insisted that I consider off-limits. (Chronicle Publisher Nick Barbaro and I are SXSW senior directors.) They are right. If only I could. The following column is an object lesson as to just how right they are.
It's obviously foolish to address Web attacks on SXSW. Any kind of conscientious reply would be as if one responded to a 17th century novel in the language of a beat poem. Obviously, there are concerns we help perpetuate by not addressing frequently posted misunderstandings, misconceptions, and outright lies, but there is an equal concern that, if we did respond, our efforts would be meaningless at best and encouraging at worst. Without any desire to try to change minds, I decided to offer, in last week's column, SXSW's take on some of the major criticisms.
One of the first posts responded: "Wow, so all of those who dare to exercise their freedom of speech rights and say they don't think much of SXSW are sneering, insulting, spreaders of vitriol! Nice generalization, Louis!"
What I had written: "Clearly, many of them are absolutely not about information but instead exist to spread vitriol. I say go for it, although how much fun can it be traveling in the wake of Limbaugh (sneer, insult, condescend, misinform, and then repeat)?" Is accusing someone of sneering, insulting, and spreading vitriol really that outrageous? Is the writer even vaguely implying that someone exercising his or her freedom of speech shouldn't be criticized? Or is it really something more, a gratuitous reference being used to indict me further while suggesting the writer is on higher moral ground?
After reading that post, I thought that my going for the more reasoned response was in itself unreasonable. I decided to tell the truth.
I'm in love with rock & roll. I have been for a long time! And I'll be out all night!
I'm in love with film, filmmaking, music, media, the rant, prayer, books, and this paper. The only way to lead is with your heart; nothing else makes sense. I really think most of the criticism of SXSW tells us more about the author than the event. SXSW and my involvement with it are both gifts in my life. Austin saved my life and changed it for the better. My work, SXSW, the Chronicle – all are very much site-specific. My heart and work are as one. Creative Austin is not geographical; it is an approach to life, art, and creativity. SXSW represents Austin, and the Chronicle is of Austin's fiber. SXSW is out of Austin; it is of the things we do here and the ways we live here.
To a point far beyond reason, I've been blessed by being here and by getting to do what I've gotten to do. I love getting to work year-round with the people at the Chronicle and SXSW.
Here are the dirty secrets of SXSW: Dream! Dream, and then do! Joy! Love what you do! Honor those whose work inspires, excites, entertains you. Respect past generations; do what you can to aid future ones. Remember: Insisting on quality is in every way painful, but without quality, none of it has meaning.
The secret isn't power, money, corruption, or cynicism. It is passion, joy, belief, and cooperation.
The truth, the one we hide and don't share, is simple: Obviously, SXSW works! Why do 10,500 bands apply? Why are more than 3,000 movies submitted? Why do thousands of musicians, filmmakers, critics, writers, media folk, bloggers, and hard- and software visionaries show up? Isn't it a bit ludicrous in the face of this overwhelming testament to SXSW that a handful of locals work themselves up into a snit? It's only by ignoring the obvious that they can pass such vicious negative judgments. Those who, without offering a hint of their reasoning, denounce SXSW should be aware that they are insulting thousands and thousands of creative talents from around the world – so much more than they are indicting anyone who works for SXSW.
It is important to me that SXSW work. It upsets me every time I hear of any kind of problem. I take it very seriously and very emotionally, betting that I'm in no way unique. In the first few years of the Film Festival, I'd stick my head in at a screening and, seeing only a half-full house, would just feel sick – feel like I had personally let the filmmaker down. Later, I would go looking for him or her to apologize. More often than not, again and again and again, when I started lamely apologizing, the filmmaker looked at me as though I were deranged. "That was the best screening of my life," was always the statement. They weren't getting bigger audiences anywhere else, and Austin audiences asked the best questions and made the smartest observations.
As to the claim that we're only in it for the money: Evidence – whether it be supporting or contradicting their positions – is of no interest to many of the most vicious SXSW critics. They are as uninterested in substantiating their claims as they are in truly examining them.
SXSW sells only a limited number of wristbands. We could sell more; we don't because we want them to be of value. The price is kept low. They routinely sell on eBay and Craigslist for between two and three times what SXSW charges. We could raise the price. We could raise it a lot!
Most major music events take place in parks or fairgrounds. Most of the revenue generated at least goes through the producers (I am not being critical of this in any way). SXSW takes place on about 80 stages in roughly 75 venues all over Downtown. Most of the day and non-SXSW evening parties are sponsored; this means that the hosts are being paid money, often from national corporations, to put on these parties. Sometimes the week after SXSW, I walk around in the general area to ask retail businesses how they've done (I don't identify myself). The consistency of positive response is amazing. In point of fact, everyone makes money at SXSW: clubs, bars, restaurants, retail, hotels, cabbies, etc.
SXSW does help Austin bands – the ones that showcase and the ones that don't. Not only because of SXSW, though it is a contributing factor, the international music business is aware of and pays attention to the local scene 52 weeks a year, not just one. SXSW has brought thousands of passionate music-business folks to Austin. Many of them come back again and again.
There is a great line in Bud Shrake's consistently great movie Songwriter. Kris Kristofferson is relating the tale of Willie Nelson and his character. He says, "Remember, they did it for the love ... but they were not above the money."
Lately, the scary monster invoked by those who don't like SXSW is the big-business monkey: Ohhh those evil SXSW staffers, truly demonic followers. First they stole Austin Music in the night while we all slept. Now they sell only the absolute worst parts of it to mammoth, soulless record companies. Evil cooperating with evil!
Well, not quite. SXSW has always been a music-business event. Its ethos and purpose since the very beginning, however, are that artists should have as much control over what they create as they want. One of the reasons for such sustained, unexpected growth over the last half-decade is that in a music business no longer dominated by major record labels, SXSW is the ideal event. It's not about slavers raiding villages for the masters. It is and has always been about giving artists the tools they need to do business the way they want as well as creating an environment conducive to such business.
Another complaint is that SXSW staff, being big, blue meanies, attack non-SXSW parties! They want to kill them all. Only we didn't, and we don't. According to the Fire Department, last year only three evening parties were closed. We were as surprised as anyone by the closings. I was involved in asking that non-SXSW events be checked. My concern was safety. Now go crack yourselves up, you wild kids. Laugh all day and all night. It was safety.
A not-uncommon post finds someone boasting about not buying a wristband, instead going only to the day parties and free shows. Usually, they can't stop preening; they are so proud they put this over on us. Only what wouldn't we like about this? We sell out of wristbands. Many of our shows sell out of single admissions. Someone who hears a lot of great music, has great times, and isn't around in the evenings is in many ways the model participant, not the enemy. Wait, forget that. Ohhh, we hate those who just go to day parties and free shows. We hate, hate, hate them! Keep up the great work!
SXSW is about joy. To me it is about the things that have mattered most in my life. Believe not a word I say if you wish; spread the vitriol. SXSW 08 is just around the corner, and there ain't no way you're going to turn it around.