Page Two: Love and Badges
The last 'Page Two' on SXSW 09 (probably)
SXSW is my favorite time of the year. I love every aspect of it. Preparing for the event is challenging and exciting. Once it begins, there is this sense of overwhelming joy, a feeling I may actually come to appreciate someday. Within the world of SXSW in Austin and in the perception of it in the world beyond, the Festival is well-loved, earning mostly enthusiastic praise. National and international press is amazing. The Music Festival is completely unique, the Film Festival has made it into the upper ranks of festivals, and Interactive has become a crucial major new media event.
The idea and spirit of SXSW magnifies Austin but is still always Austin. Everything great and unique about SXSW is rooted in Austin. SXSW visionary and Managing Director Roland Swenson, Senior Director Nick Barbaro, the rest of the staff, and I never forget that it is of and out of Austin.
But what fun is there in that? Despite my best efforts, rather than celebrating the massive, exploding fireworks, I obsess over minor squeaks and discontents that I have to ferret out. In dealing with criticism, I get overly defensive; I know that, but sometimes I can't help myself. The contrast between SXSW as I experience it and its negative perception by others is what drives me there, even though trying to bridge that gap is a futile effort.
One evening some years back, I saw The World's Fastest Indian. A period piece based on a true story, this marvelous New Zealand film (made and set there) stars Anthony Hopkins as an obsessed motorcyclist determined to take his beloved 1920s Indian Scout motorcycle to the States to race at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.
(Films based on true stories often have to place much more significant weight on certain incidents and overly dramatize real setbacks and/or obstacles – or even entirely invent other ones – in order to shape the narrative, heightening the tension and driving the story's dramatic arc. As I know nothing of the actual event, my understanding of it is entirely defined by the world of this film.)
Getting to the States in the first place and then making his way to Utah from California, Hopkins' character is constantly beset with problems. Invariably, one person or another, each a unique individual, goes out of the way to help. In a sense, this community of odd travelers works together for his success.
Finally, against all odds, man and motorcycle make it to Bonneville. It turns out that, because he had not preregistered, he's ineligible to race officially. He appeals. He makes friends with some of the drivers. They appeal. The rules are set, unchangeable, and against him – at least at first. Eventually, he will prevail, but only after a struggle.
A flashback from the above flashback: By the time I saw that 2005 film, the following had already occurred:
Five members of an Uzbekistani band misunderstood the SXSW rules. They assumed that by registering all members of the band for SXSW, they would get a Music Festival showcase slot. When it was explained to them that this was not the case, as one can imagine, they were quite upset. At least I figure they were, because before the story even came to anyone in upper management, staff members had taken it upon themselves to remedy the situation. The band got a slot on a bill that included Red Elvises; it was booked on John Aielli's Eklektikos radio show on KUT; it got a paying gig at a party and TV coverage. The situation was immediately addressed and handled by a staff that cared more about music and people than about rules.
Watching the ordeal Hopkins was put through in The World's Fastest Indian, I thought that if it were our staffers, they would not only have registered him but would have found him a mechanic. In every way, this story illustrates that probably the best part of SXSW is working with the staff and the volunteers.
The overall dynamic of the SXSW Music Festival seems relatively simple to me, but the number of people who don't get it makes it worth going into. Over the years, the registrants with badges have come to include representatives from almost the entire range of music-business professions. These include indie and major label representatives, club bookers, talent buyers, and club owners. There is broad selection of national and international radio and new media – as well as print, with almost all the best music and mainstream entertainment publications represented – along with traditional music retail, as well as most newer music-distribution methods. The European music press is here in force; the BBC sends more than 50 people. There is no gathering of such folks that comes close to the size and scope of SXSW.
The "Badges" both attract and are attracted by the talent. Upward of 10,000 bands applied this past year; almost 2,000 performed. If the band list were less interesting and less diverse, the Badges wouldn't come in such numbers. If the Badges weren't here in such force, far fewer bands would be interested in playing the event.
Being well aware that one of the most important ingredients that makes everything work is the Austin audience, we spend a lot of time aiming for a mix in the clubs of Badges and locals. The first and largest lot of wristbands is sold to Austinites at a much lower price than the rest. In the past two years, we've doubled the number of these. The week of the event, more are put on sale but at a higher price.
Playing a SXSW slot does not guarantee anything, especially if a band is not ready or doesn't work its show before and during the Festival. SXSW is not a merry-go-round where getting on assures one a shot at the gold ring. It is just as misleading to claim that bands aren't helped by SXSW: They are, in any number of different ways. Now, even though bands have been signed at SXSW, that is clearly the longest shot. In the early years, the most common question we were asked was to name some of the bands that had been signed. We didn't – not because there weren't any but because we understood that usually getting signed is a complicated process. Sometimes, a band had been followed for a while, and the deal was closed at SXSW. Other times, bands playing the Festival first attracted attention at SXSW; subsequently their new music would be listened to while the band's career was carefully watched.
The entire SXSW staff meets on Saturdays starting the first week of February. Swenson, who presides over these meetings, invariably reminds us all that "SXSW is not for you."
This means that SXSW is our job. It is not an opportunity to hear music or watch movies. Instead, our priority has to be making sure everything runs smoothly, handling our areas of responsibility and helping out when we're needed. Especially egregious is being AWOL during the event because one has gone off to catch a favorite band or see a movie. This is never okay.
Except one year it was Johnny Cash, and he was playing at Emo's – one set with his traditional backing band and a set of the new material he was exploring. At Emo's: Johnny Cash in a relatively small, intimate setting. Feeling guilty, I still had to go. Seeing much of the SXSW staff there made me even more nervous. Relief came when I saw that even Swenson was there. After all, this was Johnny Cash. It was a magical, powerful, spiritual set – well worth having been missing in action to attend.
Right before SXSW that year, Creative Director Brent Grulke was on the phone with Eddie Vedder, talking about a number of different topics. Finally, at the end of the conversation, Vedder asked Grulke one last question: "Is it true that Johnny Cash is playing at Emo's?"
The relevant concerns about SXSW most often expressed have to do with local musicians, whether the complaint is as specific as a person's band not being booked or the more general charge that SXSW doesn't do enough to support Austin bands and the local music scene. Given the generally shared love for Austin music by the SXSW staff, as well as in many cases careerlong involvement with it, though not surprising, these complaints are still upsetting.
Not every Austin band can be booked, and not every band is ready to be booked. If it is booked, there are no assurances regarding how SXSW will work for them. Still, SXSW has brought the world's music community to Austin, with many so taken with the town they return throughout the year.
Regardless of whether they actually visit, the attention of much of the world's music industry is focused on Austin all year. Given its near-half-century history as a thriving music community – which has produced stars and cult acts known throughout the world – the Austin City Limits TV show, Austin City Limits Music Festival, KGSR-FM, KUT-FM, Waterloo Records, and South by Southwest, among many others – this should come as no surprise. If an Austin band attracts attention or earns notice, a lot of people will end up listening to its music. Most likely, not one of them will ask whether the band has played SXSW.
Mostly it is love – love of music, film, new media, people, parties, and ideas – that excites us. Still, SXSW is a business, and much of it has to run like one. There are year-round salaries, benefits, and enormous costs associated with putting on an event like this one. Whenever anybody comes across us running it like a business, however, they act as though they've pulled back the Wizard of Oz's curtain, only to find Hitler at the controls. It's not nearly as brutal as it looks.
Every year, within a few days of the end of SXSW, we have a dinner for the ever-larger staff. If things went well, there is a wonderful air of camaraderie, accomplishment, and pride. This is not Enron or Lehman Bros. There is no talk of profit, no talk of money at all. There are stories told, of course, and highlights recalled. The talk is of panels, new media, new ideas, speakers, films, happy filmmakers, pleased musicians, and great music.
It's about joy, and it brings us terrific satisfaction.
"You see in the music business just like in real life
It's a day-to-daily war between the sorry and the soulful,
And no rule says the righteous got to win. ...
And when it's all over they can say
[They] did it for the love
But [they] were not above the money."
– From opening narration of Songwriter, written by Bud Shrake, directed by Alan Rudolph