I’m in a plane right now headed to South By Southwest and since it’s a direct flight from New York to Austin at the beginning of the South By week there’s a ton of other industry people on my flight. However they fall into two types, the kind of people who are going to have full on artist passes and the kind of people who don’t. It’s the people who have bought into all of what, in my eyes, makes SXSW shitty, that is to say the bloated corporate structure, the mistreatment of bands and the dilution of the beauty of the underground versus the people who just want to have a good time and put on a cool unique showcase for their friends. Now I do genuinely believe we should all be working together, but I think that SXSW is a perfect example of how the mainstream music industry simply doesn’t get what could really happen if we let the underground flourish and how the underground is perhaps not well served turning up its nose entirely at this thing.
I think that there is a certain profound beauty to SXSW that we all need to admire. In a world where festivals are often cut of into micro subgenres I love SXSW simply because of its willingness to represent anything and everything. That in and of itself is a really exciting idea and one that I think attracts a ton of people to the event. I think that the willingness people show to go to mixed genre shows here is admirable and the fact that you can hear just about any type of music imaginable is really exciting. You need to embrace that. It creates an attitude of inclusion that we only rarely experience in America and having that sense of inclusion is, in my eyes going to bring us all forward. Sure, you might be going only for events in a specific genre, but the very nature f the event makes it impossible not to discover new stuff – and that’s really exciting for people like me.
By the same token having all of the unofficial shows is super cool – it allows the underground to meet the mainstream and if you have a festival pass it’s all for free. That’s pretty goddamn awesome, especially when bands play both official and unofficial showcases. This makes for a situation that is truly exciting and gets people going to underground shows who might otherwise have never considered it. That’s a hell of an achievement. It’s so cool to get to see all of your favorite bands converging on one city for a week – and if you like a certain band enough than it’s no issue to see them twice in a day and three or four times over the course of the week. South By Southwest is a breeding ground for fanaticism and hints at so many other powerful options in the music industry that we might have never otherwise had a chance to explore. There is so much potential here, and yet I think many of us feel it is routinely ignored.
The issue of course is when it becomes exclusive. It comes when the fat cats behind SXSW decide that they want to be able to decide everything that goes on and limit the unofficial showcases. It happens because as countless artists have informed me, the bureaucracy of South By Southwest makes playing it absolutely suck unless you are doing an unofficial showcase. It means that if you can’t embrace what they have to offer in a more concrete way then you are going to embarrass yourself and watch everything fall apart at the seams. South By Southwest could be a far greater event than it is but when it comes down to it most people who represent the mainstream have no clue what it means to play a house show, or to sleep on a crust punk basement or to play a show in Reno to three people. These people are from a different world, and when these worlds collide there is naturally going to be a lot of tension that is conjured up.
I think this just reveals another disappointing truth about the music industry. If we weren’t all so caught up in our own bubbles then we would find a lot more success. I know that I’m personally very guilty of this too. I’m sure you could read the note of pride I have when thinking about all my war stories, the crust shows, the thirty hour drives and the weird tattoos I got in the basement of Connie’s Rick Rack in the unsavory Philadelphia neighborhood of Kenzo-Fish. We in the underground tend to view ourselves as pure rock and roll badasses and a lot of our self image and our ability to deal with the inherent struggle of this music comes from the fact that we feel superior. So we need to make an effort ourselves to let go of this sense of superiority and instead work together to create a future where we can all be winners because I think that it’s possible. As pie in the sky as it sounds, there is hope for all of us sinners and rock and rollers to find unification.
Rock and roll is a weird and magical thing. It’s weird because though we might all have gotten into this for functionally the same reason we are still unable to come to terms with large swathes of the music loving population. We have a hard time realizing that we all have the same end goals and that if we sit down and work together on a better future then we are going to find success, but if we continue to harm ourselves by thinking we are superior for avoiding the mainstream at SXSW then we are just shooting ourselves in the foot. There are infinite possibilities available at this festival, but it’s only by coming to terms with the inevitable, the future, the bond of mainstream and underground that we are all going to reach our fullest potential.