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SXSW 2006 – The Chaos, The Music, The Detox

Thinking back on SXSW circa 1996 when I first set my virgin sneakers onto the Austin concrete, I had no idea at that time what I should expect, but I felt like a kid in a candy store. I believe I found out about it through this cool thing called the internet or maybe it was the college radio station where I was a DJ. All I knew was, as a music fanatic, the concept of being surrounded by a full schedule of shows for five days straight was more than my little brain could comprehend.

At the time I believed it to be a launching pad for unsigned bands, providing them with an opportunity to get in front of a shit load of A&R reps over the course of a few days, instead of sending in their press kit with hopes that it may or may not get a listen before it was tossed.

As the years went by I saw that formula diluted with more signed bands on the official showcase line up than those looking to get their break. Maybe it was to ensure attendance with well known, familiar names for music fans, or pressure from the labels to provide their latest, hottest act with a slot, who knows.


In the past few years I have thankfully seen a higher acceptance of lesser known acts, but the biggest change has been the sheer volume of unofficial showcases and parties that have at times, overshadowed the SXSW schedule. It is no longer just a time for a band to get recognition and attention; it is a launching pad for new product lines, new magazines (or existing magazines trying to get in with the cool, hipster kids with cool, hipster parties), or a new energy drink.

The world has discovered SXSW and they want their piece of the pie, and like anything else, there are good and bad sides to the light bulb going on.

On the good side, it was great to see so many from our town spending the time and the money to come out and get behind our community, and also having all of us celebrating together. Many people may have felt like I did when I first went: eyes wide with wonder and excitement.

Shannon Stein, bassist from Bright Channel, has been going to SXSW for the past seven years and has known the frantic pace at which it runs. In the last two years, she’s also seen the increase in SXSW’s popularity, “This year was the first time I really felt the full force of Denver on Sixth Street. Seems like every hour of the day there was a Denver band playing somewhere,” which was so true. Her band and others like Born in the Flood, The Swayback and The Photo Atlas were getting well deserved, positive attention from many, just the way we wanted it to happen years ago.

It’s also fascinating to take in so much music from other countries, from our close neighbors to the north in Canada, all the way to Finland, Scotland, France, Japan, Ireland, the UK and Scandinavia, and to see the Australian invasion.

The corporate invasion, on the other hand, is what often times throws off the essence of why we are there in the first place – to enjoy art. Don’t hand me a corporate looking, logo embossed cell phone holder as I enter Stubbs, okay? The only people that may actually use this Verizon give away are people who work at that company. No offense, but their marketing people need to go back to the drawing board, as do others, because all the saturation could easily backfire. You can’t take a picture of a band without five different logos hanging from banners in the shot or turn a street corner without running into this or that company on a bus. In years past, it would be a band playing on top of the bus. I miss that.

Facing NYSponsorships of this level are nothing new. But in the past five years or more, this trend has rapidly grown within the center of our “won’t sell out” elitist, rock ‘n’ roll scene. So I have to wonder, is it because everything has gotten so expensive and this is the best way to ensure that art, music and culture can continue to be brought to the masses? Or is it the typical American habit of overdoing everything we do to the point of saturation? Maybe it’s a bit of both. And since MTV and other global media powers are now covering SXSW, the word is out that this is yet another channel to sell to the kids, a multi billion dollar demographic.

When it came to the actual music and party part of SXSW, it was “massive” as usual, from the number of attendees to the 1,500+ bands running from one venue to another to get in all eight gigs their manager or label had booked.

Along with a sense of humor and free drinks along the way, I took advantage of some tech tools help manage my schedule, ones that did not exist 10 years ago. Invention is typically derived out of necessity, and now more than ever, you need all the help you can get, from the “Add To Your Calendar” feature off the SXSW website to receiving SMS messages, like the one for the Beastie Boys “secret” show.

Many would make a conscientious effort to know a given band’s tour schedule, so the conversations often went off in this way, “I could go see Band A at 1pm but they’re coming to the hi-dive next week so I’m going to see Band B instead because I really dug the track I streamed off the SXSW website and they never tour here in the states.”

It’s still better than the other kind of conversation, “I’d grab a power lunch with you but I have a con-call at 1pm and Johnson doesn’t come in from the London office often so I have to catch him afterwards to review the Blah Blah Blah proposal.”

For me, it came down to lightening up on my incessant need to not miss anything, where I run myself ragged to see the bands that I’m a fan of (We Are Scientists, Nine Black Alps, Rob Dickinson) and balance that off by allowing myself to stumble onto happy accidents (The High Dials at the Vice Party, Lomeda at the ATX Magazine Party, Slow Motion Picture at Plush).

Beauty Bar DancersLife is a series of choices. At SXSW, months of show-going life is crammed into five days. Even if you choose to travel the slow lane, you’re still going to ride a rollercoaster of excitement and exhaustion, feelings of “that was the best show!” to “how the hell did this band get a slot to play, they’re horrible,” to the infamous, “I can’t look at another drink or listen to another band,” only to find yourself at the venue a few hours later…sitting at the bar with a drink, listening to a band.

This also goes for the people who throw these parties or play these showcases.

As a band, if they choose to invest their time and money in SXSW it’s wise to play as many gigs as you can while you’re there and continue with tour before and/or after it it to keep the buzz going.

And the corporate logo diarrhea aside, for a company launching at SXSW or using an event to get attention, they have to ask whether the time and money invested accomplished their goals, even if there was a line to get into their party. ‘Cause free drinks and food do not a customer make.

Even with all the chaos, the four hours of sleep each night, the one meal a day/liquid diet, the screaming legs and feet, the constant running and text messages, and all the sensory overload, SXSW is still an annual must for this gal. Now I have to go drink my vitamin water.

-Kim Owens, March 28, 2006


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