On my second night taking the four eighty-five, after my aimless wandering turned into an uncontrollable spiral of negativity, I was looking forward to getting back to the hotel. My feet were on fire from standing so long. I anxiously checked my Google Maps every few minutes to make sure I would not miss my stop and be forced to walk further than necessary. I never wear my glasses so it was sometime before I realized that the three young men that were sitting up front were actually very young, they couldn’t have been older than 18. As the bus approached the Walmart, where Google had instructed me to get off, I pulled the cord which was followed by a computerized voice informing me that my “stop requested” had been acknowledged. I stood up, and like something out of a movie, one of the young men had opened his book bag and was losing his fourth meal. I didn’t want to make a big deal of it so I quickly hopped off the bus. I remember when I used to be the sick friend, it was something you dealt with, he would inevitably deal with it and would one day be in my shoes. As I briskly walked away from the bus across the expansive Walmart parking lot I passed a homeless man asleep face first in his shopping cart filled with his worldly possessions, and thought to myself, no hipster could ever be as ironic.
Like many of my adventures, my recent trip to South by Southwest (SXSW) was taken alone. Unlike my other adventures I always feel some sort of obligation to accomplish more than I would ever try to accomplish on a normal vacation. I don’t know if I would call it guilt but I inevitably always feel a weight on my shoulders when I visit SXSW. If I’m not maximizing my exposure to eardrum puncturing sonic waves I’m not taking advantage of my trip to Austin.
I know the reason we all go to SXSW is for the music, but I think there are more fascinating spectacles to behold. For starters, the reassurance that the majority of independent musicians across the planet insist on the most banal promotional strategies is surreal. I am sickened by the deluge of flyers stuck to my shoes that read, “get [insert artists name]’s new single on iTunes”. I would like to meet the individual who was motivated by that flyer and purchased that single.
I usually don’t get to see anything I want to see. This year was no different. With the exception of Bonde Do Rôle at the Natgeo showcase and Fatima al Qadiri I really cannot recall anything all that memorable I was able to see. I suppose this is what happens when you spend all your time interviewing, eating, and trying to get on the bus early enough so you don’t get home at 7am.
Being a second rate journalist does have its upsides though. I get to hear the word “no”. I think it is important to hear the word “no” often because it keeps my privilege in check. As an American I often take for granted the privileges I have, like struggling with weight loss and being able to play Western music for a living. I know you’re probably wondering where I’m taking this.
If there is one thing I learned from all my years at SXSW, it’s that American musicians take for granted that their mediocrity will still put food on their table. I know many subpar musicians in the United States who have been able to pursue music as a career. And I know many sonic pioneers from outside of the States who must continue their day job in order to meet their basic physiological needs.
Geographically and temporally SXSW distills the world of music into one festival for artists and fans. Prestige, power, and wealth are on display around every corner. Artists with mass appeal play for giant audiences made possible by brands such as Doritos and Yahoo. Less well known artists raise money through Kickstarter and chase their dreams across time and space for the hope they will be seen by the right people and alter their fortunes. The badge holding elite satisfy their hunger for inspirational stories of the marginalized, and assemble panels for a glimpse into the interesting lives of the starving artist. Fans line up around blocks across Austin to catch their favorite artists and everyone is seemingly apart of the same scene, if only for a week.
In 2010, I remember overhearing a couple artists discussing the benefits of SXSW for independent musicians. They concluded that it just wasn’t what it used to be. Despite my cynicism going into this year’s SXSW I will have to disagree. Maybe for independent musicians in the United States SXSW is a waste of resources, but for the musicians I have met from across the world there is definitely a value. International artists who create Western styles of music not only gain exposure but they are able to access a platform that was built for Western sound.
It was after realizing the value that SXSW offered artists, I more fully understanding of the value it offered fans. Nowhere else have I ever been able to sample culture the way I have at SXSW.
After the Bonde Do Rôle show, I boarded the seven and headed back to the hotel so I could pack up. The young man in front of me was wearing a sweatshirt I found amusing, and I asked him if I could snap a picture. After talking to them for a bit I found out that they were the kids who were on my bus the night earlier and their friend had been sick all day at the hotel. Their names were Adam and Liam and they were high school students from Kansas who spent their spring break at SXSW. I thought to myself how cool it would have been to spend my senior spring break at SXSW. Despite all my negativity leading up to the trip I had my hope restored. Adam, Liam and their teenage angst just had the most bad-ass spring break I could have only dreamed of at their age. Massive Scar Era (a group I interviewed from Egypt) were living their dreams on an international stage and receiving attention they could only dream about back home. SXSW is truly unmatched as far as festivals go. And I think all music enthusiasts should go at least once in their lifetime. I might even bring my dad next year.