You’re in a cramped space. The person next to you just spilt their drink on your shoes. Your olfactory sense is overwhelmed by the aromas of sweat, the vomit in the corner, week-old grease, and urine (for good measure). No, you’re not in a fraternity basement or a POW camp; you’re at any given business in Austin, TX, during the annual South By Southwest festival. Your basic human needs have been superseded by more primitive concerns: how you’ll beat the line for the next showcase you’ve got planned, where your next breakfast taco will come from, and (most importantly) where to find the cheapest beer so that you can stave off the dreaded 10PM hangover.
So why do tens of thousands of music fans come to Austin every year during spring break, abandoning their day-to-day first world struggles for more primitive ones? I think the answer is simple: it’s an escape. There may be more luxurious escapes for the working class, but SXSW provides a low cost barrier vacation with free music, as well as booze and food if you can find it. And it’s unlike any other festival worldwide: every business for miles in all directions must supply live music with no cover charge, or risk low sales on the busiest week of the year. The entirety of downtown Austin becomes a carnival, with people and sounds spanning the spectrums of businessmen to lower class people and country to electronic to rock to hip hop. There’s something for everyone during SXSW, and it’s beautiful.
Like every festival, there are multiple ways to experience the phenomenon. Badge holders have priority access to any show they choose (the most popular acts often opt for badge-only shows), but even these prioritized attendees may face lines spanning multiple city blocks. On the other hand, there are no shortages of smaller showcases, with small record labels or corporate sponsors providing multi-stage mini-festivals that are free and open to the public. These can be found in bars, record stores, the middle of the street, or in some random dude’s living room.
I opted for the small showcases this time, following around Coachwhips, a band who had been defunct for nine years but reunited for a string of shows at South By. Coachwhips captured what I find to be the essence of the fest: they never set up on a stage (opting to play amidst the crowd instead), their setup was simplistic (a lo-fi microphone, guitar, toy keyboard, three amplifiers, snare drum, tom, and cymbal), and their sets epitomized a no-bullshit, punk rock attack on your eardrums. From the moment their sets began, beer was slung, dirt was kicked up, and the crowd was engaged in a constant push-pull as the audience danced their hearts out. Leaving the concerts just as sweat- and beer-covered as the musicians and sharing cathartic release with hundreds of other individuals, either fans of the music or fans of the bars hosting the shows, was a truly religious experience that emblemized the escape I think most people seek out.
Creating a strict schedule, with many different bands at different venues can lead to a lot of waiting in line with no guarantee of entry, but structuring a schedule around one or two well-spaced out shows can optimize your experience and chances of seeing music. Thus following one band around for two days permitted me to see what the fest really represented to the musicians as well. SXSW is no longer about allowing smaller bands their ‘big break’ and enter into the mainstream; no, there are far too many sights and sounds around the city for any one band to really hope to make it big. Of course this happens for some, but the odds are stacked against them. It’s about musicians having fun at their shows, playing to as many people as possible, and playing with as many other bands as possible. Sure it can be an arduous ordeal, with multiple shows every day (some bands play upwards of 15 shows in as short of a time as 5 days) and little (or no) time to soundcheck and make sure their sound is perfect, but the bands playing SXSW sacrifice quality of presentation for a diversity and quantity of experiences.
What we’re left with at the end of the day is a social and artistic experiment whose scale is unparalleled the world over. The festival has evolved to no longer entirely be about the music, but about taking in the city and seeing what happens when a large group of people from all countries and backgrounds come together to make and observe art. It’s no wonder why people flock from around the globe to experience Austin, TX, during the second week of March. There’s truly nothing like it anywhere else.