Adam Schatz is a musician. His band Landlady has just released the album Upright Behavior on the Hometapes record label. His saxophone and keyboard sounds have appeared on albums by Vampire Weekend, Those Darlins, Hospitality, Sleigh Bells and Quilt. His previous published works consist solely of a column about donuts and not-donuts for Brightest Young Things. You can follow him on Twitter here and hear Landlady here. (Photo credit: Sasha Arutyunova.)
This tour diary was found stuffed in a corked Topo Chico bottle floating in Barton Springs. The pedicab driver who found it bravely copied the text. Whoever this band may be, let us hope they never give up.
— Adam Schatz
A DAY AT THE SXSW MUSIC FESTIVAL
It’s day three of the South by Southwest Music Festival. We all slept on an air mattress that deflated so much during the night that we woke up beneath the floorboards of the house we’re sharing with 43 other musicians. It is cramped and filthy, but we know we can get cleaned up downtown at the Scion Anti-Cobweb Garage.
We’d all heard of this groundbreaking festival as we moved away from home and formed bands and wrote songs, hoping one day to get to play, to show up, throw down and hopefully be discovered. All anyone wants is to be elevated to that next level where vast numbers of strangers care about your music. And the strangers who bring your music to greater numbers of strangers go to South by Southwest to find out What’s Next. This year, What’s Next appears to be 2,000 bands. Two thousand bands, averaging four members each — that’s roughly 8,000 people contributing $160,000 to the local breakfast-taco economy over a four-day stretch in Austin, 2015. It truly is a legendary festival if that much money can be extracted from the pockets of musicians.
But these tacos are really good, and we made it this far. I had some friends who played SXSW, as it’s known to insiders, last year but they broke up shortly after, dying from overexposure. In their honor, we march down the street, looking for our van, which is hard because there are lots of vans around. With this many bands in one place it’s fairly common to get two miles down the road before you realize you’re driving someone else’s vehicle with their bassist asleep in the back, or even to get halfway through a performance before you realize you’ve been drumming on stage with Ruff McGuffins when you actually play drums in the Tough McMuffins. I can’t tell you how many times that’s happened to us, because it’s embarrassing, and the number escapes me due to trauma from the nightly contact my head makes with the floor when the air mattress deflates.
We find our van and drive two blocks, where we park again and then must walk our equipment another few blocks. It would be simpler if every venue had backline equipment — amps and drums available to every band, so they don’t have to bring their own — but if you give a mouse a cookie then he’s gonna want a record deal, or at least some bottled water, and multiply that by 2,000… well, it just gets very hairy.
Today’s show is at 1:00 p.m. in the Shaving Needs aisle of the CVS on Congress, and the crowd seems pretty into it. We hang out there for a while and then go to the convention center and the FreeCreditReport.com Artist Lounge, where we eat loose Kind Bars out of a trough. “There were way more flavor options last year…” I hear a British long-hair next to me gripe in-between mouthfuls.
We throw our gear back in the van and walk around, our artist wristbands gaining us access to any show, if we wait in line. We walk by the Hype Hotel but the line is 300 people long. There, at 3:00 p.m., Polly Harvey is hosting a live episode of Family Feud where all the contestants are given Oculus Rift goggles and YouTube is going to live stream the whole thing to a single Cornish hen in the Northern Hemisphere chosen at random, and I think everyone is showing up early for that.
The Hype Hotel is the pop-up venue run by the website Hype Machine. If you’d been at the first-ever SXSW in 1987 and told them you were going to sponsor a stage with your website, they would’ve thrown you in the Colorado River with a stack of zines on your chest to see if you were a witch. But this is how the music industry has evolved. For the bands, from 1955 to today, the dream has never changed. We want to make it. Hype Machine has helped bands make it, aggregating MP3s from every Blog, Dick and Harry who gives a damn about a band. And those bloggers have helped excited listeners discover new music.
“I hear Dwayne ‘The Post-Rock’ Johnson and John Lydon are the secret guest MC’s at Fader Fort today!” an excited listener tells her friend as she walks by.
Gawker founder Nick Denton explained that Hype Machine was “the future of all media” and “the best thing to happen to music since the Rolling Stones.” Normally that sort of talk would have us thinking twice about the system at large, but we’ve got to evolve with the industry and the Rolling Stones were pretty great. The only real problem for us is the venue being called a Hotel. It just stings, because we can’t afford any hotel rooms on this tour since the festival doesn’t pay us any money. We were offered $250 for our official showcase or free wristbands to the festival. We chose the wristbands because being at South by Southwest without a wristband is like being a website and not being called the future of all media. I guess. I don’t know, we’re just trying to do this right. We’ve made it this far.
Did we make the right choice by coming here? Being reminded of the potential magic when this many artists collide is exciting. But the quantity feels extreme, and more and more we’re treated less like human beings. Sure, we want to make it, and we want to elevate, but more than anything else, we want to survive. Playing for free feels counterintuitive to survival. So does playing for $250 divided by five.
We keep walking. On 9th Street, Doritos has constructed a pyramid with a fractal-based blueprint, atop which SXSW keynote speaker David Blaine is stepping into a sensory deprivation tank filled with Cooler Ranch dust.
At the Mohawk, the SoundClot/IHeartRadiators showcase is happening, with the Certain Deathers, Hardly Working, Bark and Sherpa John Sandy about to play 30-minute sets with three-minute changeovers, but the line is pretty long to get in there, too.
The guys from Quinoa for Breakfast bump into us, having just played underneath a bridge underneath an even bigger bridge, on a pretty sweet-sounding bill with the Tired Boys, Melody Korrine and Superbowl Sunday. It was a free, all-ages day party, though the eight-year-old sound engineer apparently did a pretty rough job EQ-ing the low-mids out of the one monitor being shared between their show and another show happening on the bridge above them. The big bridge show was headlined by Shotgun Pizzeria, who never disappoint, because they force all audience members to leave before they start.
McDonald’s is a new sponsor presence this year, and normally we avoid fast food on tour but it actually is pretty cool to see a big company like that caring about bands and their dreams. They didn’t originally plan to pay their bands, but given that their new “Pay With Lovin’” marketing campaign has random lucky customers receiving free meals in exchange for a dance, a song or a hug, it appears the corporation was actually just taking the concept of “cash” out of their business model. Our gold wristbands wouldn’t get us into that show because gold can only grant access to concerts, whereas silver wristbands grant you entry into activations. I don’t know what an activation is but it sounds mobile and present and engaging with the people and I just wish I could check if the Hamburglar is gonna DJ with vinyl or Serato.
Four days before the Music portion was the SXSW Interactive Festival, bringing together innovators and thinkers and drinkers from all parts of the tech world to… interact. Because that industry is so much more affluent than the one we’ve chosen to be a part of, many of the shows during our time here have been sponsored by brands not entirely related to music. It’d be nice to see more record stores get to curate shows down here but hey, I barely even remember what a record store is. Now, I definitely know what Gawker is.
Cramble is a service that allows your phone to become an older phone over time, and their Cramble Ramble has such a stacked line-up this year, 12-hour day-parties featuring free beer for anyone with a gold, silver or marble wristband. Just a few of the bands playing: the Locker Shovers, Peter’s Pants, Tylr Prry, Teflon Ron, the Redcoat Mafia and the newly reunited Beef!
Stumble Butter and Porkable teamed up to present a night party that I don’t think we’ll get into because it’s exclusively for canoe owners, but Custodial Staff are supposed to be amazing, and Turbo Tax and Rasta Mañana are opening. HurtLocker is a new website for cloud-based data storage and they’ve got a mostly metal showcase featuring Dingo Licker, the Minor Major Seven, Burnt Toast and the Ghost of Madeline Khan.
I log into Zucchinist to see if there are any food trucks without long lines. As we walk over to a 30-minute wait for the North Korean Waffle House Truck, I think about the point. We’ve been a band for five years and just want to get a leg up. The inspiration to start playing music comes from a time before everything felt quite so chaotic. There’s money everywhere but the bands who don’t have it already never seem to touch it. I heard the OrganDonor.com showcase paid their bands, but Hard Lemon Aides still barely covered their expenses for three days with the $500 guarantee they got. And the people from the tech world, from the advertising world, and their kids come to SXSW — they are all still enamored of the historic rock & roll blood that built the dream we’re all pursuing by being down here. Yet their mere presence seems to make the dream feel extinct.
And maybe we’re not good enough, but it’s hard to tell with all the noise. There’s just so much noise coming from everywhere except the amps, where it belongs. We have three more shows today. These performances feel meaningful, but the exhaustion and sheer volume of artists who were given a chance to come down and try, try, try — it begins to feel very heavy in a world that can already feel heavy when you balance the selfish needs of trying to build a career with the rotating truth that we’re a tiny insignificant speck of dust in a galaxy within a universe within something we’ll never get to touch.
Aaaand… we’ve made it to the front of the line at the North Korean Waffle House Truck. This waffle is really, really good. The SPD-S tech from Art Barf walks by and tells us to follow him to a show happening two miles away, without any sponsors or nonsense, he promises. We wolf down our food and speed-walk after him and, coincidentally, the Syrup Cramps are five minutes from finishing when we show up at the backyard. Those five minutes are transcendent. They’re loud and raw and personal, with the band on stage making sound the only way they can and the 200 people in attendance feeding off that energy. Carnivore Workers go on next, followed by Dumb Stir and the Cauliflower Ear. I don’t see a single lanyard. I forget to look at my phone. I go to sleep sore and wake up with a spider in my mouth.