South by Southwest is the biggest, best music festival around. Sorry, Lollapalooza.


In comparison with most people I know, I'm a bit of a Luddite. I was an extremely late adopter on a number of fronts (cell phone, laptop, iPod). I only learned how to adequately text-message a couple of years ago. I still don't have a BlackBerry - or something similar. More often than not, I write with pen and paper. More often than that, I write with pen and the palm of my hand.

I'm truly embarrassed by most of this. I'm too young to affect a nostalgic, back-in-my-day pose. We're basically still in my day, and I'm behind the curve. Even if I wanted to cheat, guess what? The world wasn't better before all those things. Perhaps we've gone too far, with the Bluetooth earpieces and all, but that doesn't change my essential question: How did we used to do anything?

I always think about this during the annual South by Southwest Music, Film and Interactive Conferences and Festivals, which take place every March in Austin. Without a cell phone there, I would have been wandering around by myself. I would have had to rely on my friends and colleagues to be both punctual and unwavering in their plans. If you knew my friends and colleagues, you would know how hopeless that strategy would have been.

It's even simpler than that, though: If you've been to South by Southwest recently, you wouldn't even have to know my traveling party to know how pointless it would be to try to navigate that scene without the latest in modern technology. There are almost 100 clubs, close to 2,000 bands, and countless fans. It would be like trying to find a pin in a city full of haystacks. Here's a good example: At one point during this year's festival, the Who's Pete Townshend got onstage with the Fratellis (whom you may have heard via their insanely catchy iTunes spot). My phone instantly started buzzing. A decade ago, I wouldn't have found this out until the next morning, at best.

More Music Festivals

Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, June 14 to 17, Manchester, Tennessee
www.bonnaroo.com

Lollapalooza,  August 3 to 5, Grant Park, Chicago
www.lollapalooza.com

Bumbershoot, September 1 to 3, Seattle
www.bumbershoot.org

Austin City Limits Festival, September 14 to 16, Zilker Park, Austin
www.aclfestival.com

Keep in Mind for Next Year

Coachella www.coachella.com

Sasquatch Music Festival www.sasquatch festival.com

 




Somehow, we managed. When I started attending the festival, in 1995, I was still a student at the University of Texas. About a dozen or so of my friends would congregate in Austin for the week. None of us had cell phones, yet we all generally found each other amid the crowds. It doesn't seem possible now, but it did happen.

Back then, though, we were at a different festival; it was more of a music-industry-only shindig. This was back when South by Southwest (SXSW) was thought to be one of those fabled places where an upstart band could perform, and if the right people found their way to the right show, the band could leave with a major-label recording contract. This didn't happen too often, but the possibility remained, and that was good enough to keep those upstart bands coming.

After those kinds of hopes dimmed, the thinking changed, and the crowds did too. SXSW became a place where a band that had already secured its record deal could make a big splash. This relied less on the right people finding their way to the right show and more on lots of people, irrespective of their jobs or connections, finding that band. It seems counterintuitive, but the idea seemed to be to attract an interminable line of prospective audience members, few of whom had any chance of actually setting foot inside the venue. If you couldn't even get in, obviously you had to be missing something. Right?

Now everyone pretty much takes the festival for what it is - and really always was: spring break for the music industry. That's not to say that no one was working during this year's installment (March 14 to 17). Reporters had to file stories; publicists had to try to get their clients into those stories. But now it's less about the people working and more about the bands (the Fratellis, Mew, Kings of Leon, Spoon, the M's, and the Pipettes, to name but a very few that made a mark this year) and their fans. Even as recently as a few years ago, it was possible for a then relatively unknown group to take over the town for a few days (the Strokes, the White Stripes) and then leave as conquering heroes, on their way to bigger and better. These days, the victors tend to be long-established names. This year, for instance, the reformed Stooges were responsible for the biggest buzz (and the biggest crowd).

This current trend has turned South by Southwest into just another music festival, like Coachella or Bonnaroo or whatever. Except for this: In many ways, it's bigger than them and, I would argue, better. The bigger part requires no argument - more people and bands attend over more days. That's just simple math.

The better part? I think that's easy too. Unlike many of the other festivals, SXSW isn't located in the middle of nowhere. It's in a city with plenty of transportation, hotels, and so on. When you go to bed at night, you (probably) won't be in a tent in a field with a few thousand of your closest friends (Bonnaroo) nor have a long drive out of the desert (Coachella). It's during the spring, so the weather is better than average. When you go to see a band, the venues are small enough that you can actually see the band. If you can get in, that is.

That's pretty much the only knock on the festival. It sets a new attendance record each year, and since the clubs aren't getting any bigger, it's harder than ever to get into the most-sought-after shows. But I don't think that's too big of a deal, really. If you can't get into a particular show, sure, it's a drag, but there are at least 100 other bands playing at the exact same time. You can just walk down the street and see something else great.

That scenario happened to me this year on the very first night. I went with a friend to see two bands at a club called Emo's - the Mountain Goats and Blonde Redhead. There was a line out the door that blockaded the street. We could have hung around and maybe even gotten inside. But by then, we would have missed the Mountain Goats, and I'd already seen Blonde Redhead a few times before. My friend suggested a band he'd seen several times in Chicago, a sweet-sounding coed sextet called the 1900s. They happened to be playing just a few doors down, and there was no line. It ended up being the best thing I saw all week. At least, that's what I text-messaged to someone during the show.