South by Southwest, now as gangly and awkward as any 15-year-old, doesn't take place in Austin--not really, not anymore. The music conference--which has become the climax (or anticlimax) of a film festival that draws the likes of Ann Richards, Sissy Spacek, Batman Beyond creator Paul Dini, two-thirds of Larry Sanders' crank geniuses (Rip Torn and Jeffrey Tambor), and three-thirds of the Indie(Co)Dependent Posse (Tarantino, Linklater, and Rodriguez)--unfolds in an alternate universe. It's a place where yesterday's heroes and tomorrow's legends stand on the street corners, gawked at by passers-by; last Friday afternoon, Ray Davies and David Byrne stood at the same street corner, at Sixth and Congress Avenue, waiting to head in different directions, as usual. It's a place where people line up for hours to catch a whiff of Robyn Hitchcock and the reformed Soft Boys, who now sound like a corroded cover band playing catch-up with its own misunderstood and underappreciated history. It's a place where the BellRays, the Morells, The New Pornographers, El Paso's Universal Recovered, Pete Yorn, Tiffany Anders, The Shins, the White Stripes, and several hundred other bands you've never heard of (yet, of course) draw the laser-beam buzz for a half hour or so; where the Black Crowes and The Cult and Ike Turner and Dave Wakeling and other has-beens and never-should-have-beens reclaim moribund fame; and where Sharon Osbourne, wife of Ozzy, borrows the spotlight her husband's been hogging too long.
But more than anything else, SXSW is where the music industry skulks out from the shadows and stands in the sunlight, revealing all the imperfections it prefers to keep hidden the rest of the year. Louis Black, editor of the weekly Austin Chronicle and cofounder of SXSW, constantly harangues writers who are, in his estimation, critical of the conference--those of us who claim our free admittance badges worth hundreds of bucks, only to return by week's end to the safety of our homes and report back with damning, dismissive missives from the front. But Black really shouldn't take personally any criticism steaming forth post-conference: The problem has never been SXSW, but the music industry itself, which has become so thin-skinned it falls apart in a spring rain shower. SXSW just happens to be one of the few--if only--times each year the industry converges in a single place, and the confab serves merely to magnify the problems with the music business, which hasn't actually been about music since: a) the death of Kurt Cobain, b) the death of John Lennon, or c) the death of Beethoven. Take your pick.
For four days each year, Austin becomes the center of the musical universe; from sun up to sun up, bars from Sixth Street to South Congress to Guadalupe resonate and rumble with, for the most part, bands that sound like the Stooges turned up and inside-out. That's the fun part--the endless Swedish loop of invite-only parties, the high times at the dope High Times bash, and the free and free-flowing Shiner that renders Austin the world's biggest kegger this side of South Padre come spring break; the endless echo of bands playing morningnoonnight in clubs, the Mexican restaurants, the honky-tonks, the Austin Convention Center, some dude's East Austin back yard; and the endless chatter of con-goers debating the merits of Mike Watt and Mogwai, like Star Trek fans arguing Kirk vs. Picard. Amid the construction and destruction that has rendered Austin the impassable Baghdad of the South, you can, if only for a moment, still pretend Austin is the "live music capital of the world," even if, in reality, it's become Dallas with more scenery and traffic.
But the cheerful façade of SXSW--Davies' garrulous keynote address opened the conference Thursday morning with a self-deprecating grin--lasts only so long before the smile starts to look like an open wound. Byrne said it best Thursday afternoon, during his "SXSW Interview" with Chicago rock critic Greg Kot: The worst part of the music business is the middle--being caught between "success and failure, between fame and freedom." SXSW gives you the false impression that success and fame are within striking distance, that a handshake means a deal means a lifetime of fame and fortune; just ask Veruca Salt, once the sweethearts of SXSW, if that's really true. The conference-cum-music fest began in 1987 as a way of bringing local and regional bands to the attention of industry folk missing the hot and happening unfolding in the flyover; 15 cons later, it's become something of a dumping ground. Labels, big and small, showcase emerging talent in hopes of a little promo press (prediction: Pete Yorn, about to release Music For the Morning After on Sony Music, will emerge as this year's pick to hit), while everyone else pays big bucks to schlep from Georgia and Japan to sell a few discs from the merch stand, in hopes of making enough money to get back home. You can drown to death in the in-between.