Page Two: Praying for an Early Death
Louis Black sucks, and he makes SXSW suck
"South-x-SouthPEST. I detest the PEST! It's only a matter of days before the next issue of the Chronicle is out with Louis Black's usual indecipherable drivel of excuses, justifications, and self-congratulatory plaudits. I'm sure this incident will be chalked up to a simple and rare incident of poor logistics. Instead, it's the same ole story of the fat cats with privilege, access and Super-Duper Badges crowding out the poor saps who have to settle for general admission and lower tier badges. It's all disgusting to me."
"SXSW is more responsible for turning Austin into Los Angeles than anything else. It's 1% artist, 99% greed."
"Disgusting. Pray for an early death for SXSW. – Shout the Truth!"
All three of the above quotes are from posts on a non-Chronicle forum.
"Then I awoke
Was this some kind of joke?
Much to my surprise
I opened my eyes."
– Bill Wyman, "In Another Land" (Rolling Stones)
Saturday evening, March 20, was surprisingly cold, but I was still pretty damn happy as I walked back from the Austin Music Awards show at the Austin Music Hall to the Hilton hotel on the final night of South by Southwest 2010. Although for years I was a hands-on producer of the AMA show, I actually had missed the last two or three. The ways and wheres of SXSW had led me away from the show, but I really had no worries about it; I knew it was in the very loving hands of Margaret Moser, with whom I had long co-produced it.
I loved the briskness of the cold: The warmth was within me, having just witnessed original Moby Grape member Peter Lewis' propulsively rocking performance of his two songs from the band's first album – "Sitting by the Window" and "Fall on You" – backed by the ever expert Explosives. Washed in the water of that untainted rock, I was ready to leave, but Moser insisted I stick around for the set by Mother Falcon, winners of the best None of the Above category in the Music Poll. They ripped the top of my head off, earning a standing ovation from the crowd. A power-driven string orchestra, they followed no known course but instead kept pushing to edges that weren't even obviously there. Completely unique, they vaguely reminded me of The United States of America and Van Dyke Parks' Song Cycle, not that I would claim that they had necessarily heard of either of them.
"Black and white were the figures that recorded him
Black and white was the newsprint he was mentioned in
Black and white was the question that so bothered him"
– The Association, "Requiem for the Masses"
The cold Austin night did not coddle but instead kept me quite alert. As editor of the Chronicle and a director of SXSW, among other things, I've long realized that I'm perceived by some as a two-dimensional character straight out of a potboiler stage melodrama. More often than not (actually most often), when I say my name, the response is, "Did you know there is a comic with that name?" Still, throughout the year but most frequently around SXSW, my name is used in Internet posts, sometimes in positive ways but more often to evoke villainy and corruption.
"SX sucks for Austinites. We have an incredible creative community here, yet if you're from Austin, you likely won't be accepted into film or music. It's politics mostly, but the screening team sucks too. But it sucks the most because of Louis Black. Louis sucks, and he makes the event suck."
– Post on a non-Chronicle forum
Without asking for, expecting, or even welcoming any sympathy, I bring this up as a way to think about what it is like when one becomes a "Bad Guy," with one's name a connotation for evil. Given my career, there is nothing new in all this. Divorcing it from me, however, should make it at least interesting to think about what it is like to become the villain in a narrative that mostly exists on its own. This is not even an accidental villainy; the very condemnations offered are largely expressed as a consequence of my knowing and deliberate, exploitative corruption: Snidely Black-Lash here, chuckling and rubbing my hands with glee as once again I've tied the Austin creative scene to the tracks with the locomotive roaring down.
"If you actually knew a working musician or artist or soundman from Austin, you would know that the vast, VAST majority of them despise Louis Black and his cohorts and their music/cultural festival SXSW for the interference and disruption that SXSW causes to their livelihoods."
Now, it is true that I'm overly defensive and sometimes surprisingly thin-skinned, but these qualities are accompanied by a kaleidoscoping sincerity. The discussion below is aggressively and sadly defensive, but it is not designed to either refute charges or change minds. It simply offers my quite different point of view on a number of topics. If nothing else, it should provide a few good snorts of derision from detractors.
A few years back, when I first read some of the vicious anti-SXSW attacks on the Web, I tried to address some of the issues they raised. This proved pointless.
One, for example, claimed that SXSW was of no benefit to anyone and any usefulness associated with it a desert mirage. I responded if that was the case, why did more than 10,000 acts and 3,000 filmmakers from around the world submit to be part of it? This was contemptuously dismissed with an "easy!" – a statement that it was all driven by misleading advertising. SXSW, for the most part, does mostly image advertising with dates, events, and a couple of quotes. If this is so effective it has conned a couple of generations of creative talents and industry involved with international media, then we are so damn good that we should immediately expand our business into commercial advertising.
Others claim that SXSW doesn't care about or do enough for Austin music. Given that the most shared characteristic of those who began and still work at the Chronicle and later began and still work at SXSW is an enthusiasm for music and culture (with a special and often criticized emphasis on the local scene), evidently this failure is among the most noticeable and tragic of flaws.
Is it possible that the 200 or so Austin acts booked at SXSW each year and the constant promotion of Austin music in the Chronicle somehow not only actually defames the scene but undermines it? Is it being argued that the year-round attention paid to Austin music from around the world because of Austin City Limits (the TV show), Austin City Limits (the live music festival), radio stations, world-famous live music venues, the literally dozens of Austin acts with national and/or international cult followings, Waterloo Records, SXSW, and the Chronicle, among other entities, leaves the local scene underserved?
"SXSW uses public resources to make immense (and unknown amounts of) money for the 3 people who OWN SXSW. It isn't a public corporation, so its finances are utterly secret. Furthermore, the owners exploit everyone else associated with SXSW: the musicians, their supporters, staff and fans; the 'volunteers' who actually put on the events in exchange for a badge that is now apparently useless because the organizers are so disorganized; the city government and the politicians who have sold their souls for essentially a free T-shirt and a chance to look 'cool' to their constituents; and let's not forget the hundreds of actual working musicians and technicians who LIVE here who must stop earning a living for about 2 weeks while this monstrosity SXSW hogs every available venue imaginable."
Bringing up that when SXSW began, those two weekends of spring break were the worst of the year for live music clubs (which is why we were allowed to book one of them) is as pointless as my performing a solo on a mouth harp.
Equally lacking resonance is if I point out that unlike almost every other major music festival in the world, rather than taking place in one very large but limited physical area, SXSW occurs in local venues, bars, and clubs, many of which support live music year-round. The vast majority of money SXSW brings to the city goes directly to restaurants, bars, clubs, businesses, local services, small retail, and individuals without ever being touched by SXSW. Those other kinds of music events are often quite terrific and wonderful, but ignoring the economic reality of SXSW is vitriolic fiction disguised as caring social criticism. The ongoing charges of the "uselessness of Badges and wristbands," despite music being played on more than 80 stages at any given time has been an accusation since the second year of the event. If it is as true as stated, SXSW Music must be dead by now.
"Widows face the future. Factories face the poor. The fact remains the peril strains the mind a bit. To have done and quit with it widows walk and wail among the willows. Widows walk ado walk on.
"I'm guessing this is called civil, regrettably strife. So lessen your appalled pall mall and middle life. Long last a hymn to Him to help you on your way."
– Van Dyke Parks, "Widow's Walk"
This year, SXSW Film had a very serious problem with overcrowding at venues. Obviously, some of this was anticipated, but the extent to which it ended up happening wasn't. On only a few occasions over the years has SXSW ever sold out the Paramount. This year, the first night it sold out one screening to attendees with badges only. This was not just the first time this had ever happened; actually, it had never even come close to happening before. Immediately, we took SXSW Film passes off sale (a week earlier than we ever had before), and the staff began intense discussions about how to handle this problem – with the options for SXSW 2010 being few but with a terrific amount of discussion already aimed at next year.
One film critic complained: "This is basically why I decided to leave the fest early and skip the 'Saturday night' screening, which I really would have liked to see. Everything was overcrowded and oversold; the bigger titles were in some of the smaller venues; etc. (I barely got into a documentary about in vitro fertilization at noon today.) The organizers call it a 'democratic' festival, and that's a nice idea; but SXSW is only fooling itself if it thinks that's what's being practiced here."
Evidently, "democratic" means that film critics get in to whatever they want to see.
We were unprepared for the size of the crowds. Staff and volunteers at many screenings had to turn people away. As SXSW Film Festival producer Janet Pierson wrote in response to a complaining e-mail: "We knew we had a strong program and increased registrations, but we did not know in advance that this would translate into such difficult capacity issues. There isn't a lack of empathy, this was upsetting and frustrating for all of us. It wasn't anticipated. There was plenty of room at the Paramount and G-tech for all shows except Kick-Ass, and not all the Alamo shows sold out – however, we can understand there was a real crunch of Fri/Sat/Sun and how it would have felt to you."
What if the problem wasn't unmitigated greed but an unexpected significant jump in attendance, at least somewhat because of the outstanding programming job done by Pierson and the SXSW Film staff? What if instead of being callous or disinterested, we were overwhelmed, concerned, and quite sad? Couldn't it be pointed out that if one "barely got into a documentary about in vitro fertilization at noon today," instead of evidence of greed, it was instead indicative of fine programming and a seriously engaged audience?
Those who attack SXSW are quick to point out their own nobility as they dismiss and diminish any and all of its and its staff's qualities and contributions. Now, my flaws are legion and then some, my failings as a human being noted and inscribed, my motivations so commercial, conflicted, selfish, and base, one hardly needs expend the energy to condemn them anymore.
On the other hand, Pierson has spent her entire adult life supporting, programming, promoting, and loving film. The list of filmmakers – from the famous to beginning – and independent film industry veterans willing to sing her praises is literally endless. No one reading this may agree, but I think the biggest problems SXSW Film faced this year were because of the superb programming done by the SXSW team she spearheaded. Immediately, as soon as problems emerged, she engaged in discussions with SXSW theatre managers, venue staff, and film distributors, as well as with patrons in line and in theatres, about the extent and nature of the problems. She even posted online her apologies for and commitment to addressing the problem.
A post in response dismissed her concern: "Janet Pierson, you're so cluelessly pandering as to be insulting. What do you need further 'so (you) can understand the specifics'? The article makes that perfectly clear, along with the comments. You're obviously just posting to be posting, pretending that you're going to do something about it."
As we have so many times in the past, we will be doing something about this problem. There is an incontestable law of physics that means we can get only so many people into so much space. Whether it be for an act, film, or panel, invariably there are a number of times each year when there are far more of the former than the latter. Whereas as over the 24 years of SXSW, there is no other single concern we have spent nearly as much time considering, addressing, planning, and adjusting for, it is a problem that unavoidably continues and will continue to exist. What better reason for many to justify any hostility to SXSW, ascribing it as well to a callousness emanating from the most base and inhumane motives?
This isn't true – not that I expect my saying that to have any resonance or meaning for anyone. In reality, the staff works harder to address the problems and issues that they are most commonly and continually accused of ignoring than any others.
Hey, at least that's what I think. I'm usually way too busy in my string of mansions or on my fleet of yachts, torturing the young, exploiting the feeble, and crushing the dreams of creative talent to notice. Whether on land, water, or in the air (that fleet of private planes), I'm gloating over my thrillingly grotesque inhumanity and insensitivity. Having accepted callousness as a religion and greed as my God, I chuckle as I count every dime and pick up every penny so I can boast to Scrooge McDuck just how much more money I have than he does, even in all his vaults. Heh, heh, heh, heh.