South By Sell! Sell! Sell!
Late last month I dragged myself to a punk-rock show at a dingy bar on Austin’s East Side. Club 1808 is half a block from the corner of 12th Street and Chicon, an area known more for its crime rate and poverty levels than its live music. But there I was on a Thursday afternoon, surrounded by kids half my age in ripped jeans and black T-shirts, and all over the place banners were advertising some fancy new vitamin water.
Two nights later I went to an after-hours party sponsored by the energy drink Red Bull, way, way, way east of downtown in a part of the city too vacant to be dingy. The party-really more like a festival within a festival, with tents, taco stands, power generators, and portable bathrooms-had popped up in an empty parking lot next to a used-car dealership, just past the spot where the Colorado River leaves Austin and starts its descent toward Matagorda Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
After passing slowly through the security checkpoint (complete with police officers and a bank of laptop computers) and applying a 6-inch temporary Red Bull tattoo to my arm (which any member of the Red Bull security team reserved the right to inspect as long as I was on the premises), I found myself in a huge, self-contained, brightly lit fantasyland of corporate self-aggrandizement. Everywhere I looked neon Red Bull signs shined down. Every 10 feet, another bartender pushed Red Bull cocktails. Three video screens blasted Red Bull commercials. At some point I had stepped out of the Austin I knew and into some kind of parallel market-tested universe of product-performance synergy with its own laws and customs. It was surreal.
When I moved to Austin from Brooklyn six years ago, one of the first things I noticed was that the guys playing acoustic guitars outside the coffee shop near my house when I went to work were the same guys were playing when I came home in the evening. I don’t doubt they were the same guys playing the acoustic guitars I’d hear drifting through my window every night as I fell asleep. The constant soundtrack of old blues songs and original anti-Bush sing-alongs led me to the conclusion that Austin was a place where ambition was frowned upon, time held little sway, and people could apparently survive on no money. In large part, that impression has proven true.
During the week of South by Southwest, everything changes. Gone is the slow Central Texas mosey-and-drawl, replaced by the agitated pacing and rapid-fire ranting of people from the country’s right and left coasts: people who feel they have far too much to say and do, and not nearly enough time to say or do it. Gone is the sleepy town on the banks of a slow river, replaced by a bustling industry town filled with fast-talking marketing gurus and entertainment-industry representatives networking on their iPhones at all hours and figuring out how to turn anything and everything into a money-making opportunity. Everywhere you look, advertisements clutter the streets, the bars and the bathrooms. During SXSW, Austin becomes a corporate town.
I don’t usually pay much attention to locals who complain about the mob of industry outsiders that takes over the city during the festival, who bemoan the traffic and the increase in drink prices and the clogging of cell-phone service. People who complain about stuff like that are either squares from the city’s western suburbs or grumpy aging hippies who live across the water, longtime residents who can’t stop pining for the glory days of Austin, when the biggest celebrity in town was Willie Nelson and the Cosmic Cowboys ruled the nightclub scene. It’s been my experience that these people will complain about anything that’s changed about Austin in the last 20 years, so to hell with them. They can gather at the Continental Club and reminisce all they want over a bottle of Lone Star while listening to some band cover “Peggy Sue” for the 400th time.
The commercialization of the city during SXSW is different. True, the festival poured $110 million into the city’s economy last year, enough to pay for hundreds of thousands of Stevie Ray Vaughan statues, but real concern arises when a city famous for its devotion to local business joins with a festival that prides itself on promoting independent artists to sell nearly every inch of available space to corporations peddling wireless devices and soft drinks. Does every wall at every club need to be covered in banners? Does every party need to be sponsored? Isn’t it possible to create the kind of excitement and variety we expect from SXSW without offering our souls to any multinational with a cultural-investment budget?
Probably not. After all, we’re not talking about some cutesy little penny-ante gathering here. Last year more than 12,500 music industry professionals came to South by Southwest. This year 1,800 bands played and more than 100 films were screened, half of them world premieres. I can gripe all I want about vitamin-water ads on the East Side, but the fact is, without all that corporate sponsorship-without all those industry meet-and-greets, secret shows and invitation-only Playboy parties-SXSW would be just a pleasant little festival for West Austin suburbanites and the hippies down south. Only Jon Dee Graham and Redd Volkaert would perform, and the only screenings at the Alamo Drafthouse would be Slacker, Spy Kids, and old episodes of Friday Night Lights. Nobody would come, and nobody would come back.
If you eavesdrop on as many conversations during SXSW as I did-on Sixth Street, where the bands play; at the Convention Center, where the interactive innovators meet; in line at one of the Alamo drafthouses, where the movies screen; in various hotel bathrooms throughout the city-I guarantee you’ll hear some version of a sentiment that must be uttered by every visiting festival-goer at least once: “I love Austin; maybe I should move here.” Ahh, yes. Everybody loves Austin during South by Southwest. How could they not? Hundreds of bands are playing, the weather is perfect, the people are friendly, the streets are filled with artists, we have breakfast tacos on every corner, and everywhere you look the most beautiful women you’ve ever seen are strolling around in tight shirts and short skirts and platinum badges. If SXSW has taught me anything, it’s that girls always look better in platinum badges.
What these intruders don’t know is that, for whatever reason, God smiles on Austin every year during SXSW, blessing it with perfect weather. They don’t know that during the summer, even the nights are unbearably hot, that all that heat is accompanied by ungodly humidity, and that the only things that thrive in such heat and humidity are flying cockroaches the size of small dogs. They don’t know that summer in Austin lasts six months.
Tell them that and they’ll go away as soon as SXSW is over, back to New York or L.A. or London, where everything is louder and more complicated and the corporatization is more rampant and pervasive-where the world (and not just the week) is one giant billboard.
Maybe the best thing about SXSW is that it ends. Every year, for one week, I get to remember what it’s like to live in a big, bustling, commercial American city. At the end of the week, I get to thank God I left that all behind and moved here. Once again the streets are empty and the walls of my favorite bars are free of advertisements. Red Bull has handed East Cesar Chavez back to the mechanics and warehouse owners, and Club 1808 is again a place no vitamin-water drinker would dare to visit.
Josh Rosenblatt is a freelance arts writer in Austin.