SXSW 2003: Day One

Thursday, March 13, 2003
@ the dorm room | 1:12 PM
SXSW 2003: Day One

Had there been a thriving music scene in Beirut during the war, it probably would have looked and felt a lot like Austin during the South By Southwest Music Conference and Festival. The frenetic energy buzzing about the town is akin to that produced by the constant dodging of sniper fire, the lines of townies fleeing the city center while all the out-of-towners take over resembles that of a poorly organized refugee effort, and the sight of those same New Yorkers and Los Angelans crawling all over one’s dearly-held city evoke the tears of a patriot watching the invading army replace his/her motherland’s flag with their own.

I’ve never been particularly interested in attending South By Southwest (SXSW), personally. It seemed like an interesting idea until I moved to Austin, the Live Music Capital of the World, and witnessed it for myself. There are three parts to SXSW to it, in all: the Interactive Conference and Festival, the Film Conference and Festival, and the Music Conference and Festival. The Music Fest is the largest draw of the three, though the Film does debut some really great movies. Ultimately, though, the town isn’t taken over (any more than usual) by digital media nerds or Super8 filmmakers, it’s overrun by record industry A&R folks, musicians and awfully misled fans.

Hundreds of unsigned bands from all over the world apply and, if accepted, attend SXSW in hopes of coming out with a record deal or, at least, style tips for next season’s thrift store threads from their fellow trendsetters. Hundreds, if not thousands, of industry A&R personnel swamp Austin’s bars and other music venues in relentless pursuit of the perfect drunk and the highest company-covered tab. Thousands of music fans clog the entranceways to clubs to see bands they could see for $5 any other time of year and haunt the lobbies of the large and expensive hotels in vain attempts to catch a glimpse of Liz Phair or Chan Marshall (last year it was Courtney Love).

Who are these people? Why do they come here? What drives them (or their companies) to spend some $500 on a badge that gets them into all the music conference panels and showcases or a $100 wristband that might get them into anything not already filled with badge-holders? And why do they all dress in black and dye their hair jet-black before boarding their planes at Newark and La Guardia and Burbank and LAX? Why is it that you can always tell SXSW-goers by their rockabilly, liberal arts student, glossy gothic dress or the fact that they’re walking west down West Fifth Street past Lamar where nothing worthwhile lies or the ever-present laminated badge swinging about their neck? Is it some hidden desire to be part of something larger than themselves? An honest attempt at discovering The Next Big Thing? Pure Capitalism? Social Darwinism? Alcoholism?

These questions and many more I allowed to compromise my values and drive me to attend this year’s SXSW. Without a badge and without a wristband I decided to seek out the answers by the mere steel of my nerves (after a few drinks) and the inspiration and motivation produced by my love of the dark underbelly of existence. I am a fringe observer of that incestuous pool of elemental gatekeepers in the music business.

I started my descent into SXSW at Jo’s Coffeeshop on persistently trendy South Congress Avenue. Snuggled between the San Jose Hotel and Austin Motel (Corporate Free for Fifty Years!), Jo’s is frequented year-round by allegiants to all that is trendy and, I was sure, would be a satellite epicenter of SXSWdom outside the downtown venue-dominated scene. Across the street lay Amy’s Ice Cream, Zen (sushi, quick!), and the famed Continental Club providing even more draw for SXSWers.

I spoke to no one, save Brian, and instead sipped my mocha while listening and watching. I was not disappointed. Though it was hard to tell all the SXSWers apart from the usual hipster Jo’s regulars, conversations flitted about my ears of “shows,” “hangovers,” “indie rock,” and “albums,” badges threw glares from the fading sun’s light into my eyes from their wearers’ midsections, and there were more black hair and large plastic eyeglass frames than one could shake a white belt at. I was not ready for SXSW, I knew. I felt it deep in my bones. I was excited but unprepared. I needed food and mental preparation. I decided to head home and then to Ruta Maya for these essentials and return later when I was better outfitted for this endeavor.

On my way to my car parallel-parked along S. Congress next to the San Jose, I noticed another vehicle in front of my own attempting to park. It was obvious that he was too close to my car, that the space was too small for him to pilot into without damage being done, but he continued anyway. About ten feet from my car, a loud crash occurred and I hurried my step. He’d backed into my car. I kicked his rear bumper and caught the fact that the car had New Mexico plates. Fucking SXSWer.

“Did I get you?” the driver asked as he exited the car.
“Sorry, man. It’s a rental. I don’t know how to drive it yet.”
Yeah, or maybe it’s the fact that you’re parking in too small a space, dumbass.
I got in my car and drove home.

—After a decent five hour lapse wherein I ate and drank coffee at Ruta Maya (which is far enough away from downtown not to attract SXSWers), I headed back to the city center for the festivities.—

I grabbed a perfect parking space on the corner of Fourth and Lavaca in front of the now-defunct Club M&M (Men & Martinis) and walked over to Halcyon (old Ruta Maya). I made a quick flight inside to see if any of the people I know were behind the counter, satisfied myself that they were not, and headed out. I ran into Brother John from last semester’s Comp. I and Matt from my pre-withdrawal Comp. II class on the patio. I sat down and chatted with them for a while. Aimee Bobruk and her friend, Jeremiah, joined us for a while. Aimee set me straight as to her show schedule this week. She’s playing Thursday at B.D. Riley’s from four till seven and then a short set at Ruta Maya on Friday night. Shortly after they left to catch a showcase (they had wristbands), I headed out to the Driskill Hotel bar. It was 11:45 PM.

I double-timed it up to Sixth Street and into the Driskill. The bar is as swanky as the hotel’s facade. Surrounded by lavish carpet and fully stuffed couches under a dim brandy-colored lighting, the bar was well-polished and manned by an ancient British fellow.

“Hello, Sir,” he said after a younger American lady behind the bar greeted me, intimated that she was holding up the bar by leaning on it and left. She looked drunk or tired or both.
“How’re you doing?” I replied.
“Quite well, Sir. Quite well.”
“Can I get a Crown and Coke?”
He made my drink stiff, as I like it, in the British manner, I’m sure, and returning with it, said, “That will be the last drink of the night, Sir. Last call was made fifteen minutes ago. The bar closes at midnight. Two on Fridays and Saturdays.”
He hobbled off to cash my ten and when he came back with my change I asked (more to hear the accent than for the actual information as I knew the answer anyway), “Is that just this bar’s policy? It isn’t the Blue Law all over town, is it?”
“Oh, no, Sir. That’s only here. Outside everything is open till two. Yes, sir.”
I put down a dollar on the bar for his tip and he smiled, palmed it, and went to the other side of the bar.

I drank my Crown and Coke while surveying the room. It was filled with SXSWers, as expected. They were huddled in groups on the couches. The smallest group comprised an older couple that didn’t interest me and the largest was upwards of half a dozen. They appeared as air-tight, secure units that would be impenetrable to my infiltration and observation. This was obviously the upper-crust of the SXSW crowd, though. They didn’t have the usual appearance of Midwest high school nerds transferred to one of the vertical coasts post-college graduation with a communications degree [Note: This is not intended to badmouth your chosen major, Jessica.] and now part of the ultra-trendy industry bunch. Undoubtedly many of themwere representatives of that group, but it was early and they were seated in a hotel bar with no live music, losing trendy cred. points for not being on the streets being seen and obviously just as happy among their cohorts as they would be out in the crowds. It occurs to me now that these might be the worst of the worst of the SXSW attendees. They aren’t even here to hear music or go to conferences as much as they are to sit around in little circle-jerk groups and bask in the light reflecting off their oiled hair. This is, of course, unconfirmed and maybe they’d only just arrived in town from their respective cities and were taking a breather before hitting the streets. Who knows. Further investigation is required.

I finished my drink, pushed it away from me and pushed myself away from the bar and skipped down to the street again. I displayed my status as a local by walking with a purpose toward Lovejoy’s: I know where I’m going if the rest of you damn idiot out-of-towners would just get out of my way and let me get there, said my feet and countenance.

At Lovejoy’s, the bar door was blocked by a large, rockabilly out-of-towner who’d forgotten his ID and couldn’t believe the doorperson wouldn’t allow him inside without it. The woman checking IDs glanced at me and I rolled my eyes at the guy for her benefit. Finally, I made it inside and sat down at the bar. James was working and gave me my gin and tonic. I glanced around and noticed that Sarah (girlfriend of Joe who works at Ruta Maya) and Victoria (a Ruta Maya barista) were sitting at a table with some skater SXSWers. I went over. Victoria hugged me and told me that we should be better friends and that I’m her favorite Ruta Mayan. She was very drunk, I think. Sarah was aloof, as usual. This dialectic of opposites attracted me: On one side I was praised and loved, on the other I was mainly ignored. I pulled up a chair.

The skater rats were from New York. Brooklyn and Manhattan, they said. One of them had an attractive girl on his lap. It turned out to be his sister. Apparently Southerners aren’t the only weirdos. They quickly all got up to leave (Victoria and Sarah with them). Sarah didn’t say anything to me as they left; Victoria hugged me and kissed me on the cheek repeating that we should be better friends.

A guy and girl asked if they could sit at my table. I obliged. The girl struck up a conversation with me and it turned out she’s a grad. creative writing student at Southwest Texas State. I named people in the program I knew or had heard the names of before or had seen at parties and a quick bond was built of mutual knowledge and mutual disgust with Tim [O’Brian]. Her name was Melissa and her husband was Josh. We talked for quite a while. They had wristbands and were showing their parents SXSW. “Showing the Baby Boomers South by Southwest,” as Melissa put it. Where were they? Asleep. “SXSW before ten o’clock,” she said.

It was the most interesting and engaging conversation of the night. They related to me how they’d met Liz Phair while she was hailing a cab and I shared with them the information that a guy at the bar had given me that Chan Marshall was staying at the Radisson at which he worked. They took my number, gave me their own and said they’d give me a call.

After they left, I returned to the bar and talked to another girl. We assured each other that we were locals and traded cynical comments. No amount of liquor could make her attractive and her compensatory trendy glasses didn’t help. After last call, we both headed to the restroom. I headed straight back to my car after emptying my bladder.

The night was a wash in talking to SXSWers, really, but I did meet some good locals. I’m back in the trenches tonight to figure out this whole thing.

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