The SXSW Experience: “South by Spring Break”

M. Luke McDonell is a writer, artist, and photographer living in San Francisco. A veteran of South by Southwest, she is contributing diary bulletins from the 2014 show. The following report emanates from the weekend of SXSW Music.the final weekend of SXSW.

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The SXSW Music festival coincided with spring break in Austin

50,000 students attend the University of Texas at Austin. The week of SXSW music is the week of their spring break.

sxsw music 01So much good stuff happens during Music, but to get to it you’ve got swim through a sea of students. I understand why they choose to stay in town for the break. Free shows, free beer, free sunglasses/bags/hats/t-shirts/shotglasses and the chance to meet bands from all over the globe. A guy walking behind me remarked to his friend, “This is our town, man, and nobody parties like us!”

Unfortunately, I don’t want to party quite like this. I’d never intentionally go to a spring break destination.

sxsw music 02The kids weren’t badly behaved. In fact, everyone I met from Austin was nicer than they had a right to be given the added chaos the conference attendees bring their town. I’ve never been to event with so many people and so much drinking and so little trouble. I didn’t see a single fight or hear a loud argument. Granted every club had numerous bouncers and doormen and several police officers stood watch at every intersection. Austin knows how to handle a crowd and does it well.

sxsw music 03The good thing about Music is that most bands play multiple times, so chances are you will be able to see your whole top 10 list. It’s pretty easy to get into any venue earlier in the evening, but around 10pm, it’s probably time to get to the club you want to be in at midnight, when the headliners go on. People with music badges get in first, wristbands next, then everyone else. Also, though I had trouble getting express passes for film (front of the line privileges for two venues each day) it was easy to get them for Music.

sxsw music 04Plus, there are all the day parties. Many required an RSVP, but for better or worse, online businesses have sprung up that will RSVP to everything for you for only a small piece of your soul.

Status at Music is determined by the number of wristbands and VIP or special event cards you wear. My friend arrived late and said he felt naked with nothing on his wrist, and grinned in relief when he got his first from Hype Hotel.

sxsw music 05I met a man in the elevator of my hotel and asked him how he was enjoying South by.

“Great!” he said, and held up his arm, which held a dozen colored bands. “I can get into anything with these. Half them are out of date, but the door guys can’t tell. They just give up and let me in.”

If the chaos of Sixth Street is too much, you can head south to Rainey Street, an area of small clubs and bars and cute old houses. Though still busy, the vibe is way more mellow. Mø, a band I’d seen at Iceland Airwaves in a huge space played in what was literally a backyard at The Blackheart. The lead singer hung around and chatted afterwards, a phenomena that was not likely to happen at Stubbs.

I didn’t spend much time in the branded, off-venue mega tents that were open to anyone with an ID. They had great sound and lights but usually featured acts I wasn’t interested in.

sxsw music 06Panels at Music are much easier to get into than the Interactive panels. Only those with “famous” people fill to capacity. I attended several on copyright issues, and the lawyers all agreed it is a gray, muddy area. Thanks for that! 🙂 Panels during Music aren’t so much about learning, as they are about trapping panelists the audience might want to meet in a room so the audience can rush the stage after, business card in hand. Only one way out, panelists, sorry!

SXSW Music has gotten a little too big for my taste, and the heavy hand of the corporate sponsors meant I might not catch the name of the band but I’d certainly Catch a Chevy. One of the Directors of the show joked, before the Lady Gaga panel, that this was the “28th anniversary of SXSW and the 23rd anniversary of SXSW jumping the shark,” so yeah, I get it. It keeps growing. First-timers love it, then a few years later, complain. At some point, different for each of us, the signal-to-noise ratio goes wonky, and looking back on the event you admit the brief moments of connection and transcendence weren’t worth the physical, mental, financial, and professional cost.

Maybe you’ll see me at South by next year, or maybe you’ll find me at the next “small” thing.

M. Luke McDonell