So there I am in the palatial Cattle Baron’s Suite at the five-star Driskill Hotel, at a party honoring the biggest names in the music licensing world, the guest of friend who is an important PR person in New York and who every year comes down to Austin with her Blackberry and her list of contacts and her list of things to do and who is kind enough to grab simple, insignificant me and drag me up up up into rarefied air where I get to hang out with the lead singers from Echo & the Bunnymen and the Buzzcocks and go to parties at the Four Seasons and backstage at big concerts where drinks are free – into a world where people ride in taxis. So there I am, baron for a day, schmoozing with the muckety-mucks and nabobs who control the music industry, and I’m shaking hands and making jokes and drinking free drinks and eating free finger foods and wealthy people with power I can’t even begin to trace the extent of are listening to what I have to say and I’m listening to what they have to say and a television is looping a reel of corporate logos and huge speakers are blasting what I can only assume is the latest in reality-TV-ready pop music and a New York photographer is taking our picture and one of those pictures might just end up in Billboard magazine and – look there! – that’s the guy who decides what music plays over the closing credits of True Blood and – what do you know? – I’m having a charming conversation with the head of music licensing at NBC and why yes, I do have a copy of my band’s CD, right here in my bag as a matter of fact – a happy coincidence, wouldn’t you say? – and I’m getting a little drunk and the room, which is bigger than my whole house, is spinning, and we’re all laughing and basking in the glow of success and money and achievement and SXSW, and for a fleeting moment I can see what my life might have been like if I had ever bothered to get business cards made.
Flash forward 17 hours.
Now I’m on the East side, across Interstate 35 in the “improving” part of town. My band, Low Line Caller, is playing a day show at something called Baby Blue, which isn’t an official SXSW showcase so much as it is a converted garage hidden behind a barbeque cart three blocks from Austin’s most notorious open-air drug market. Inside the dank, dimly lit room, a band called Dark Dark Dark is playing the sweetest saddest songs you’d ever want to hear, and its sounds perfect in that lonely space with those beaten-up microphones and that out-of-tune piano. Better seeing them here, I think to myself, than any concert hall in the world. Too bad there are only three people in the audience. Backstage, they’re serving the bands turkey sandwiches. By the time we play, the room has filled to near-capacity – eight, nine people perhaps. We play our set and you can barely hear the drums because there aren’t any spare microphones, and anyway even if there were, the mixing board doesn’t really work. So we play on louder and louder and our singer, who came down with poison ivy earlier in the week, has apparently gone loopy from a recent cortisone shot and is rambling to the audience between songs about god only knows what. Not five blocks away hundreds of thousands of people are clogging the streets of downtown on a perfect spring day. And somewhere in all the clog, bands are signing record deals and meeting with managers and talking about placing their songs in Ivory Soap commercials and teen romantic comedies. And executives like the ones I just had drinks with the night before are trading cell phone numbers and making deals at concerts featuring bands that have reached levels of success mine could only hope to one day dream of going to bed wondering about. Yet here we are, five blocks and a thousand miles away, playing in a room with no windows, not a single corporate banner on the walls, 10 people in the audience, and we are what we are, and I decide I don’t want to hear my music on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy anyway.