Every year, the week after SXSW is one of sifting through articles and reviews, finding even more recommendations and confirming the special moments I was able to catch myself in the course of five days and nights in Austin. In 2014 there seems to be a consistent theme as I move from site to site, piece to piece. For every excited review of a life-affirming new discovery, there are tales of self-imposed misery from journalists and music industry heads overwhelmed by the whole SXSW experience. For the latter, I have a few words to share. In short – you are failing us.
Before expanding, it’s worth noting the multitude of industry and media folks that make SXSW what it truly is – an arena for new artist discovery in an intimate setting. Whether it comes with tossing energy drinks from truck or placing a stage in a gigantic vending machine, there are companies and outlets that are footing the bill for tastemakers like myself to indulge in what is truly a music lover’s dream. That term ‘tastemakers’ is purposefully applied loosely, covering veteran, respected journalists to the one guy in a group of friends that always has a band that you ‘have to hear’. The only price we have to pay is to withstand viscous marketing in our peripheral vision on the way from stage to stage. It’s the smallest price to pay and the eyes that can’t look past that, especially in what is essentially an aural experience, need to really keep perspective of the expected value of give and take.
This brings me around to the real point here – there are a lot of folks veering their heads out around SXSW that are frankly getting it completely wrong. “It” being what music listeners care to read and hear, or even which artists are chosen to get big-time promotion treatment in the coming year. Rather than being guided by passion for excellence, exhibiting the same traits you see coming off of so many stages during SXSW, it’s evident that this sense of drive, regardless the cost or barrier, has evaporated from the media and industry establishment. It has spread elsewhere, however, dissipating into a wider web of influencers, but it doesn’t excuse the attitude coming down from the top.
The most egregious piece, the real inspiration for my written rage, comes from a ‘music’ journalist that chose to flaunt getting paid to write what is essentially a few paragraphs of whining rather than attend a grab-bag week of new artist discoveries on a series of small stages. Vice’s publication of such an eye-rolling article is a curiosity upon itself, but Kathy Iandoli is certainly not alone in her viewpoint. The most entertaining, yet inwardly crushing, examples of these gut-punches come from SXSWhine, a collection of complainers from all over the world descending upon Austin with head-scratching expectations, doing their ‘job’ by thumbing through the SXSW Guide with a complete lack of preparation. At the same time, they are missing moments that are begging to be shared with listeners looking for something new, something challenging, something, well, good.
Luckily this is a limited population – most attendees at SXSW are all levels of awesome. There are so many people that just care so much about what these artists have to say through their words and music. It’s about having a good time, for sure, but SXSW is also taken relatively seriously by most of heads in front of the myriad of sounds happening at once throughout Austin. They are the ones who fully embrace what it means to be part of this whole musical complex, even if it is just as a rep for a few friends with Facebook walls. I was asked last week if I feel like I have a responsibility to my readers and social followers by recommending new artists while glossing over others. After much thought, I want to embrace this responsibility rather than dismiss it as subjectivity, and hope that other journalists and music movers/shakers feel the same – a responsibility that comes hand in hand with a flaming passion for everything that makes new music an invaluable part of everyday of our lives.
Personally, SXSW is the nucleus my music world revolves around. I work in the financial industry for my real-life job, but that didn’t sway me from picking up a mission a few years back to listen to all the bands on the SXSW roster. That’s about 2,200, give or take, over the course of four months, but most of the heavy lifting comes from roster additions going all the way up to the week of the conference. On a whim, I decided to capture this as a journal online, snowballing into Operation Every Band, a site dedicated to sharing SXSW recommendations to now over 35,000 Tumblr followers. This commitment has turned into hours every evening from November to March, for which no company or publication pays me a dime. My compensation comes from a wealth of new music discoveries every year followed by a chance to catch many of them live within city blocks of one another.
While that seems fair enough for me, it apparently isn’t nearly enough for others. It’s shocking to see the consistent surprise from industry and media folks alike when I speak to what I do. I’m equally shocked, but in a different light completely. I’m shocked that they don’t put in that same time and effort. For those heads and influencers, I question if nearly enough is begin done to not just be ‘the best’ in terms of prestige and vocabulary, but the most valuable, the most helpful to people that just want to know about good music.
Every night of SXSW also follows a pattern, best seen in the sociological microcosm that is the SXSW Line. It is a perfect example of where different segments of our music community seem to, well, stand. Around 7:30 every night, a few lines start forming at most venues, many of which keep up well past midnight. One line is for badges, folks who have either dished out some decent cash to get into the conference portion of SXSW or want to move towards the front of any of these segregated lines. A majority of badges are sponsored, added on company dime to report back on what they see and hear or maybe set up some relationships for future projects. If you have a badge, you have priority, clear as day. Unfortunately, certain laws of mass and physics prevent venues to fill above capacity, a fact that seemed to befuddle so many that spent their time trying to peek into a show with a current chart-topper about to take a stage at the end of a dive bar.
I waited in line for no more than twenty minutes total any day of SXSW, seeing top choices in most of the time slots and checking out artists-of-interest in between. Often a line would just cause me to shift to option two or three or ten. I spend five months preparing, so I have a pretty decent plan. In five days, my band count hit well above fifty, striking quality sets from noon until close from Tuesday through Saturday. Most notably, I didn’t even have a badge. So why was I capturing the next wave of indie and popular music while you were waiting in line or using your time to write about how much SXSW sucks now? It’s because I cared more, plain and simple. Every writer, listener and even the drunk guy stumbling back and forth to an open bar, got there before you. That reflection of status versus passion plays itself out in true form outside every crowded bar in Austin that week. Even more telling, social media outlets have pulled back the curtain that this isn’t merely a SXSW thing, it’s a reflection of what is happening in the music industry as a whole.
Kathy Iandoli’s piece takes this unaware portrait of self-diminishment to a new level of transparency. She uses the term ‘bloggers’ as a derogatory descriptor, blaming this new wave of entrepreneurial spirits and self-guided writers for tarnishing something that was apparently so pure. The truth is that Iandoli, and the many industry veterans that follow her line of reasoning, are just revealing how lazy and formulaic they have all gotten. Why were you not in line ahead of me? Why, as a paid journalist or industry rep, do you care less than I do, just a guy who digs good music? Hopefully journalists have already reflected on Ted Gioia’s excellent reflection for The Daily Beast, which in essence makes the same argument, but from more of angle lifestyle reporting versus descriptive and helpful music writing. For SXSW, there are journalists who actually came back reporting primarily about the lines and the scene rather than the breakout artists that have their heads spinning and will jump into 2014 playlists across the web and waves. Question for you - do you even like new music anymore?
This attitudinal plague stretches well beyond the written word. I spent the weeks leading up to SXSW complimenting my daily new artist discoveries with a rare foray into modern pop radio. It was a mission without a clear purpose, but there was so much to learn from soaking in a world that I’m normally able to avoid given the unlimited musical channels lying in my pocket at all times. While there were some pleasant gems on the first couple days, a wall was quickly reached realizing how little songs had been in a repeatable rotation, and this was across six different channels. Is this all you have to offer? There were zero stretches into the unknown and then oversaturation of anything that has caught the masses as something great over the last year. While it was nice to see how a Great Big World ballad can be paired with the power pop of Bastille with ease, why not just take things one step further? SXSW is a perfect example of the open-arms attitude of music fans in 2014, from the insane variety of music presented, many times within the same party or showcase, even stretching to Lady Gaga’s artist-centric messaging of empowerment during her keynote address. Hell, even the artists that are mainstream mainstays are willing to take risks (Beyonce and Kanye both come top-of-mind for their recent explorations), but there’s an ever-present force that for some reason thinks that safe works and a marketing department that hasn’t changed it’s mold in the last twenty five years, except to add a hashtag in front of everything. What data are you guys looking at driving these decisions or is that you really just don’t care anymore?
My trip into Radio Land has ceased and it was a pretty easy divorce. There are so many places to turn for new music and somehow a programming language in Spotify is educating me more than the people that should be experts. They should be better than Spotify. They should be better than me. It’s that education piece that has been lost and that’s the real responsibility I was asked about earlier, that same responsibility we all should hold as a privilege. Listeners are turning to bloggers and friends to get their education, but they still look in some degree to a popular establishment and they always will. Get beyond the lifestyle, gossip and marketing gimmicks and let’s talk some music. There is a wealth of artists that could catch hold with a larger audience and there’s a looming opportunity to give them a chance. Just see what sticks and you’ll have your ‘hits’. Writers, programmers and industry alike, it’s time to pony up and get in line before us. Listen to music, see music and believe in the dream that you can see within grasps of so many guitars, keyboards and microphones across SXSW.
The week after SXSW is full of stories, so I’ll end with one of my own. I spent the bulk of my Saturday at one venue, a yellow and orange haven just a few yards from the site of unimaginable tragedy only days before. I picked The Wild Honey Pie and Pretty Much Amazing’s day party, aptly titled The Beehive, based purely on research, knowing I could catch eight bands that were on my radar in the space of an afternoon. A rainy entrance delayed things a bit, but looking up at the drops allowed me to take in a venue that had been transformed into festival with creative and comforting design. Paper and plastic cups turned a bar into a celebration, like a birthday party with a big gang of friends. In fact, Cheer Up Charlie’s was one of the few venues I saw decorated at all during SXSW and it was that little touch that made me put my schedule away and know that I wanted to spend my day at The Beehive.
Hours of enticing music and kind spirits followed, ending with a packed house for a de facto headlining set from recent indie breakout Kishi Bashi. The loose vibe in the crowd laid a great stage for Kishi Bashi to turn out an incredibly creative and energetic set, a true celebration in the waning hours of SXSW. The talented frontman paused the music for a brief moment halfway through to acknowledge the man who was throwing down enthusiastically at side stage, waving to the crowd as if he was receiving a tribute, a gift given back from a band and audience that obviously had much meaning to him. Kishi Bashi shared a story of his first entry to SXSW two years back, heading to Austin in spite of not being one of the artists making the cut for the official SXSW roster. One party curator gave Kishi Bashi a chance on his unofficial showcase’s lineup that year based purely on what he heard, like one of the many tastemakers like I spoke of earlier, just choosing one of his favorite new sounds. Eric Weiner, the leader of The Wild Honey Pie, took in the applause that turned towards him, a recognition for someone who obviously put his heart and soul into this party and continuously through his corner of the internet. Passion was seen all over the backyard-style venue and as Eric danced, we danced with him. This is what SXSW is to me, a moment that shows how close that connection can be between artist, tastemaker and audience, all in the same place at the same time if only for a few short days. I for one am already ready to come back to Austin next year and for once, I hope there are some people ahead of me in line. Hope you enjoy the show, there’s this other band I’ve heard of next door that someone told me I just had to hear.