Page Two: SXSW 09: An Intelligence-Impaired Introduction
In which six wise men give up on the elephant and go drown themselves
1) Silent Call and No Response: Hopelessly Lost in the Jungle, and Lost
The 2009 South by Southwest Music, Film, and Interactive Conferences and Festivals have now all passed, though they are not yet a full three days behind us as this is being written. The aftermath of this year's SXSW finds that instead of the uniformity and consistency of past years, responses, opinions, and critiques range wildly, covering broad and ever-widening areas. The many ways in which SXSW, in all its manifestations, has been experienced by different people was for the longest time tethered to a number of fairly predictable templates. Having evolved away from that model over the past years, responses are no longer anchored to repeating patterns but feature far more independent strands of thought, each growing off into space while spraying off newer, constantly changing fireworks, which then explode in space.
The classic, longest-lasting, most commonly seen SXSW template was that of music critics, most often writing for the alternative press. The first few paragraphs would point out that SXSW had grown too large (thus losing its soul), featured too many name acts to the detriment of all the lesser-known acts, and had gone terribly astray because of SXSW management (i.e., us) – because we sucked.
This would be followed by paragraph after paragraph about the terrific time the critic had that year at SXSW, despite how long and hard we had worked to make sure he or she wouldn't. The writer would review bands from his or her hometown, as well as big-name acts. The last paragraph would go back to how much SXSW and its directors sucked.
This is no longer the case. Now comments are more broad-ranging, less patterned, and more anarchistic, with attacks ranging from those that are almost pathetically nitpicking to some that, though ever-expanding, are untethered to any reality. Almost every writer who comments seems absolutely certain that, if only given the chance, he or she could do a much better job.
Tackling this unfamiliar, ever-changing landscape in trying to write about SXSW, I am lost. My hope is to offer some sense of the event as I regard and experience it, but this has become more and more difficult. Most frequently now, my tone is some mismatched cadence, which rarely serves my arguments well as they drift from overly defensive explanations to disproportionately aggressive boasting.
Snapping awake after the briefest of naps, I've too often found myself ducking and weaving as though boxing a particularly skilled opponent, but no one else is there. When abandoning all strategy to attempt a much more straightforward and honest account, I've been far more likely to implode rather than even approach coherence. This means that instead of mounting any kind of pre-emptive defensive strike, I helplessly splatter and harmlessly spin in such a way as to invite the most emotionally vitriolic and baseless attacks.
This self-defeating awkwardness in trying to be straightforward leads only to a self-defeating awkwardness that emanates from any number of sad, and then even sadder, sources. An encyclopedia of editorial weaknesses that puts the Britannica to shame, I am both too overly sincere and easily put on the defensive.
I'm proud to have helped further SXSW; those weeks are still my favorite time of the year. This love and support places me in opposition to any number of mostly local folks who represent a variety of differing opinions, ranging from the sharply critical to the openly, aggressively hostile.
Trying to be honest and less defensive, I have to note that too much of the antagonism toward SXSW seems to be driven more by a gut-based hostility than by any characteristics or circumstances of the event.
Having been willing – in fact, maybe far too willing – for years now to explain the model of how SXSW works and the reasoning behind it, I accept that I've accomplished nothing by these efforts. Repeatedly, points I am trying to make or positions I'm trying to explain are immediately called lies or refuted with a dismissive, hostile wave. I am wordy but without substance, long but without weight.
2) Out of Community
SXSW works because it is produced and organized by a creative community (SXSW staff and management), which is also part of an even larger, more diverse community (creative Austin) that represents a significant slice of the entire community. In the face of an attack on any and/or all of these communities, especially when carried out with a vicious joy and a terrible disinterest in logic, mounting any kind of point-by-point defense is not just futile but adds in its own destruction. Answers are not sought nor defensives considered. This is about intellectual violence and emotional rape.
Thus, I've been at a loss as to how to discuss SXSW. Obviously, as stated, the most straightforward response to the questions and comments of those most hostile toward SXSW (a relatively small number of mostly locals) is neither desired, treated fairly, nor productive. On the other hand, since I am a founder and director, my support of SXSW – no matter how genuine – can be viewed as more infomercial than editorial. Almost none of my hesitations toward this dialogue is rooted in SXSW, as I doubt I could be much happier with the event overall or more thrilled and satisfied than I was this year. Still, if I honestly offer a straight-ahead celebration of SXSW in this column, my head will fill up and my eyes will be blinded in anticipation of some readers' outrage.
Since defending against allegations is pathetic, juvenile, and inherently contradictory, and celebrating SXSW is equally if not more noxious (though in different ways), I retreat to montage and mosaic: telling stories, recalling moments, searching for clarity, and celebrating community.
3) Any Number of Jigsaw Pieces Offered as Baby Steps Toward Forming a Whole
Toward the end of November 1987, we firmly decided to inaugurate the South by Southwest Music and Media Convention in March 1988. All things considered, the first SXSW went very well. During the decade of our economic discontent, however, going well shone little light in the dark storms of a business not just plagued by intense periods of drought but also one for which, even in the best times, there were insufficient quantities of fertilizer, seed, and water. The environment for launching a new venture was not overly nurturing or fertile. But it launched.
In September 1988, The Austin Chronicle, which began as a biweekly in September 1981, switched to weekly publication. Demonstrating the same impeccable sense of timing that we so often have, this was at the very beginning of the post-savings-and-loan economic bust. In our print year as a weekly – from the beginning of September 1988 through the end of August 1989 – we printed twice as many issues but only earned about 25% more revenue.
After we had taken more than a half-decade to attain any kind of firm economic standing, going weekly immediately brought us back to the financial uncertainty of our earliest days, when nightmares may have begun in sleep but never stopped.
At the very time of our printing schedule shift, a Downtown Austin monthly also went weekly – but with far more resources and much more substantial funding. A number of weeks into our new schedule, I approached Publisher Nick Barbaro in a panicked state, waving a copy of this other publication.
"Look at this," I yelled as I waved it around. "They have more color than we do, more pages, and far more and more attractive distribution boxes. What are we going to do?" Whereas I lived in a state of panic, Nick was calm; whereas I was always scared, Nick was certain.
"Well," he responded, "I think we are going to do what we've always done: put out the best Chronicle we know how to do."
Three years and $2 million later, the other weekly was gone. We weren't.
4) Prelude to a Fall
The SXSW events stacked up, the movies seemingly multiplied, and a crowd of cutting-edge interactive savants indulged their inner Luddites, marching down the street with torches and axe handles while musicians were everywhere. But now SXSW 09 is over; all that is left is poetry.
"Found Poetry," from the Chronicle's online reader Forums, with a tip of the Hatlo hat to William Burroughs:
"fucking America in the ass, fear filled he-man pseudo warrior pansies, you are probable too stupid too realize it, the psychopath who wants to rape and then kill my family, the fuckstain who not only wants to steal my car but also kill me..., the government who wants to control every aspect of my life, 1984 Orwellian style, writers who don't have a clue what they are talking about, you all suck and I will never believe a word you write, screw you and your bullshit rag of a paper, bringing orangina for all the faggies, you liberals are so fucking stupid, a failure of a miserable man, ALL y'all are lazy ass wannabe-artist bums, when this country goes total Socialism it will be because the dems ... and when ultimately [it] goes communist ... it will never end because the libs will not take responsibility!!!!!!!!!, I honestly believe people like you just love being ... willfully ignorant, The TRUTH ... YOU WANT THE TRUTH???? YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH!!, Republicans hate truth almost as much as they hate America, In lieu of sound reasoning skills and clouded by steadfast preconceived notions, the ... acolyte will resort to distortions, name calling and threats, 'Mean ole elitist hater,' why do the ultra lefties use so much profanity?, in your response I see ... dribble. You accuse other people of 'not caring,' 'mad max country,' 'bitching and whining' ... you and you and you Hernandez, and shame on you Chronicle ... there's nothing wrong with razorboy cutting and pasting. ... pasting liberal drivel straight off the web ... adding coarse sexist to his racist and moron status. You don't even rise to the level of jackass ... And in the morning light I saw ... the queers stop sodomizing one another ... the junkies quit sharing needles, AIDS become eradicated in the United States. Then more research funding could rightfully go into ... both parties are loathsome ... patriotism, other than being the last refuge of the scoundrel, my patriotism is patriotism is the Constitution is I loving one's country and doing one's part to sustain, protect, and improve it. By hating. By shaping the Constitution to me."