The best thing about the South by Southwest festival and conference is the life-size animatronic LBJ that you can find at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum at 2313 Red River Street. Johnson, who in recent years has undergone a bit of a justified historical revision that takes into consideration his truly admirable civil rights and social justice record while still running into the inevitable wall of his own crapulence and, you know, Vietnam, is represented on the fifth floor by a folksy robot who will regale you with some down-home Texas humor and, if you’re open to it, a little wisdom. Animatronic LBJ will not sign your band. Animatronic LBJ will not read your blog. Animatronic LBJ will give you a 6.4 tops, because you are, in the eyes of Animatronic LBJ, a communist. But Animatronic LBJ will fill your soul and, with luck on your side and the wind at your back, help you kill a few hours before you have to go back to standing in line to get into the Fader Fort.
The second-best part of SXSW is choosing not to stand in lines. Have you ever felt self-righteous about something? I mean, really superior to people just like you? It’s a fantastic feeling and, at SXSW, it’s very easy to accomplish. Just don’t stand in line. Let Pailhead be your guide and just go see less popular bands. Because, here’s the thing: if you stand in a long line (and we’re talking a half hour or more; I’m all for orderly entering of venues), no matter how great the performance, no matter how much you love the band, the show will be about your having been there. A notch on the bedpost of your show-going life. Entire art movements and philosophies have been devoted to not just being part of the media herd; do you really want to be one of those people who are on the cover of the Society of the Spectacle? Of course not. You can see all the P4K-favored bands when they come to your town. Go hang out at Beerland. (You can have a perfectly enriching SXSW experience by only leaving Beerland to sleep and score.) Also, about lines, Mike Wiebe from Riverboat Gamblers says, “You also get what you pay for. You can wait in line for an hour to get a free Bud Light Lime in a Solo cup or go pay three bucks for a Lone Star tallboy. Up to you.”
SXSW is, as all the critics say, a corporate band suckling shit-show. For sure. This became the case roughly five or six years ago. Wiebe, who’s been playing and working the fest for upwards of 12 years, told me that he’s never heard of any band actually getting signed because of SXSW, but at least it used to be a bit more casual, and you’d hang out with all your band pals and maybe meet a cool booking agent. (Full disclosure: the only good SXSW “networking” story that I know is when my old band played Spiderland for eight people and one of them was the guy tending bar, and then Riverboat Gamblers took us on tour and became my dear friends and source for all SXSW-related articles I would ever write forever and ever. Thanks, SXSW!) Now, if you’re not an established band, good fucking luck becoming established by playing SXSW.
Wiebe is like a lot of musicians in Austin in that he’s generally agnostic about SXSW’s worth, but he raises an essential defense of it, even as it stands now. He’s not naïve about the “Doritos Presents: Coca-Cola” aspect of it all, but he, and many of his peers, get a lot of work during the festival. Either from tending bar or working on the production side of things (there’s a tent on every corner), members of Riverboat Gamblers, Flesh Lights, American Sharks, and countless other Austin/Denton bands make bank during SXSW. Not LA-stripper-commuting-to-Las-Vegas money, but not bad. Also Lori Barbero, who drummed for Babes in Toyland, is an assistant production manager for SXSW. I refuse to condemn anything that financially supports an ex-member of Babes in Toyland in any way.
On the flip side: “Getting a piece of pizza last night was a fucking nightmare.” So please keep in mind the plight of the pizza-less service-industry garage-rockers of Austin, Texas: If you don’t tip, you will go to a hell that you richly deserve. Dollar a drink too. And none of that “I’ll get you next time.” Cash on the barrel or it’s perdition for all eternity with nothing to read but SXSW parody accounts.
SXSW is great if you’re as stripped of illusion as the clean-up crew for the cast party of The Iceman Cometh. (I read it when I was a teenager so I could be getting this wrong, but I’m pretty sure it’s about people being stripped of their illusions. Let’s say it is. One of them hangs himself. But don’t do that; it’s just SXSW) Go to see your friends. Go to drink. Go to look for coke and not find it because most of your Austin friends are now in NA. Have a good time…. But, obviously, see the lie. It’s not a place to get discovered. That shit was predetermined in December by how much money your label spent on blog advertising and there’s absolutely no chance of it changing. Sorry. (There’s still some wiggle room for hungry up-and-comers like Lady Gaga and Coldplay, but I’m pretty sure that’s some sort of Doritos Presents: Willy Wonka Golden Ticket scenario. So good luck.) But there are a million great bands that you can see for free and, as people generally do as they’re told, if you have any curiosity at all, you can probably see awesome bands with 50 other people tops. On the mid-to-low-hype/long-ass-line spectrum, besides the aforementioned always unhyped and always wonderful Riverboat Gamblers, I’d check out Indian, Amplified Heat, Radkey, Liquor Store, Obn III’s, Tacocat, and Yvette. But that’s just from my admittedly rockist perspective. My guy Blockhead swears by the rapper Tree, so be more interesting than I am and do that. Also, every SXSW, Fucked Up play approximately 15,000 times. So you should maybe go see them 10 or 20 times.
And complaining about SXSW is good fun, even if you chose to be there. People will tell you that by attending something you give up the right to bitch to the sky like a redheaded step-child. Man, people will try to shame you about everything but, seriously, it’s your dime; complain, rejoice, live in a constant state of opinionated whirling dervish-ness because nobody who gives a shit one way or another about SXSW is the boss of you. Only the SXSW God can judge you… and he’s doing a panel on “new media,” so fuck that guy too.
Do you enjoy shopping malls? I do. I like food court Chinese food, loitering in chain bookstores and reading all the graphic novels, and the concept and sound of the word “kiosk.” Malls are great. I mean, in the experiential sense. Of course, they are detrimental to the universe at large. But they are fun to go to. And, eventually, sooner than later, we die; horribly and alone even when surrounded by loved ones, so I’m sympathetic to a good time. And SXSW is a mall. A big, hot, breakfast burrito mall, with public relations paid liars working the massage chairs. If I had money or a viable band right now, I’d be there. I’d be there right fucking now, walking up Red River Street, past Frank Erwin Center, past the Brackenridge Hospital, feeling the enveloping shade of the Texan oaks and highway construction towers, just shivering in anticipation when I could again meet the interactive automaton of our 36th president.