Feature Stories

What I Learned at My First, and the Darkest, South by Southwest Music Festival

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Before I moved to the United States from the UK, SXSW was one of the things I'd forever longed to attend. I'd spent days absentmindedly looking at the combined cost of flights and tickets every year, before remembering that I couldn't sell everything I owned and come close to the cost of spending a week in the impossibly fanciful Austin, at one of the biggest festivals in the world. It was a world away, and that world required really expensive badges.

Then, three years ago, I moved to Texas. So by early this year, when I was offered a press credential to cover SXSW, I was even more aware of how much fun could be had. I could go down, stay at a friend's, and be faced with the prospect of a week watching live music in Austin. Not a terrible way to spend an alleged work week.

Arriving via bus on Tuesday, I sauntered across First Street to pick up my pass. There were no lines in evidence either outside Austin Convention Center or inside for badge pickup. Sitting down after picking up the badge, I realized that I had absolutely no plan whatsoever. The music listings, contained in a book the size and width of a small child, pressed down upon me with a weight even greater than the mighty tome they were contained in.

I left the book on a sofa in the Convention Center. Who needs that kind of pressure? I headed out of the Convention Center and walked north. Upon approaching a club I had never noticed before, I heard a drumbeat. I stepped toward the door and people seemed to approve of my pass. Inside I realized I was at a music venue I didn't know the name of, watching a band I didn't know the name of. Perfect. There was a second band, a more country number, playing on the back patio. The venue buzzed with anticipation of the week ahead, hundreds of people even more excited about what's coming next than what's happening now.

Exiting the venue with a shrug, I'd learned nothing. There was another drumbeat over the road. I went there. A hardcore band was playing what appeared to be some sort of treehouse, designed to accommodate about 40 people, of whom I was the 41st. The venue was alive with movement, with shouting, and most of all with the repeated thwack of bass-drum noise into the skulls of music fans. This time I had arrived.

I spent the rest of the evening playing "follow the drumbeat." It seems that wherever you are in Austin during SXSW, there is either a man shouting into a microphone or a cymbal being hit really hard. I looked at some of the lines to get into some of the fancier venues -- you can judge exactly how popular an artist is by how many blocks are spanned by the line that artist has generated -- and decided that, despite my British heritage, queueing was not for me.

That's the paradox of SXSW. You have more possible choices than you know what to do with, but every choice you make renders another hundred outcomes impossible. It's actually stressful, knowing that staying for the end of this Lee Fields and the Expressions set renders it unlikely you'll catch any of X on the other side of downtown. Stressful in the best possible way, of course, but it seems that the worst possible choice you can make in these circumstances is to stand in a line for five hours. Doing so not only eliminates hundreds upon hundreds of possible outcomes, it means you've eliminated said outcomes while not actually gaining anything of any real reward, unless you'd swap those 500 bands for just 45 minutes with the artist of your choice, an artist you've likely seen before and will surely see again.

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Gavin Cleaver
Contact: Gavin Cleaver