South by Southwest is the most emotionally specific musical gathering there is. Part industry feeding trough, part hyper self-aware band camp, it’s a week-long gauntlet that most bands, writers, and publicists find themselves limping through at least once—or, if you’re really submersed in the scene, every year. More so than any other music event of its kind, SXSW tempts creative types that fall within its grasp to spend a lot of money on the hope that, out of the thousands of like-minded hashtags in attendance, their attendance will somehow make a difference. And what keeps them going back is the infrequent proof that sometimes an up-and-coming band does make a ripple in the water, once everyone flees Austin and returns to their laptops to click out post-event coverage. In a perfect world, that’s what would happen every time. The intended purpose of showcases and festivals like SXSW is to turn everyone on to new stuff, but 98% of the time we send writers out to forge for gold, only to return from the dusty Texas hills with yet another think piece about Drake.
A lot of people genuinely love SXSW, or at least love to go so they have a fresh pool of scenarios to make fun of and/or bitch about. A lot of hilarious things happen in downtown Austin during that week, like someone you’ve only briefly exchanged pleasantries with on social media finding you in a music venue on Red River and talking as closely as possible to your face about who-knows-what. You’re supposed to be out there networking. You’re supposed to be out there “making things happen.” Your feet will hurt. You’ll be bloated from too many Lone Star beers and free breakfast tacos. And your answer to someone asking “why come if it makes you so uncomfortable” will very earnestly be “because if I don’t I might miss something!”
At musical gatherings, as well as life in general, you will find two very different kinds of people: those who are fueled by direct interactions with others, and those who feel physically and emotionally drained from being in crowds of other human beings. I am, have always been, and will always be the latter. Having just returned from a week at SXSW, I feel like I need to plug myself into the wall for a month. But I’m still glad I went, and I’m sure I’ll go back next year. Someone’s gotta take home those free backpacks and koozies.
Here’s a play by play of my most recent SXSW experience. Feel free to use this as a guide for how to make the most out of the event, while also avoiding as many people as possible. #Doritos #LadyGaga #NeverLeaveTheHouse
Out of the gate this SXSW was set up to be my favorite of the six I’ve been to, because this time around I was going with my favorite person on earth: my wife. She performs music under the name Guts Club and was offered a few shows this year, so we were lucky to both get passes for the full week. She plays music, and I write AND also do music publicity sometimes so that either makes us a power couple or the most nary a fuck-giving conflict of interest there ever was.
We don’t have a car so we rented some little gray thing from Budget on Canal Street and set out from our home in the Bywater on Tuesday. The drive was supposed to take about eight hours but ended up lasting 829 years due to the flooding on 1-10. By the time we pulled up to our bed and breakfast rental, The Star of Texas Inn, we were dying to take our pants off, eat something greasy/ cheesy/melty, and have a drink of some sort. We dropped off our stuff and walked down the street a bit in search of cheap wine and food. We found a bottle of wine at a corner store pretty much right away, but had difficulty finding a food place that was still open. Then we spotted Qdoba’s lights shining bright and true off in the distance and collectively screamed. I was so excited that I dashed into oncoming traffic and a car honked at me. We took our burritos and booze back to the room and relaxed while watching an episode of House of Cards on my laptop. Can I get a quick “YOLO!”
Woke up fairly early and had coffee in the room. Watched the news for a bit and then we both showered and took one of many Uber’s over to the Convention Center so I could get my badge and Guts Club’s artist wristband. I somehow landed a platinum badge this year so I was given three tote bags. I ran them outside like a dog with a bone to inspect them and ended up throwing all but one away. As I was doing this, a lady came up and gave me a free Take5 candy bar the length of my arm. The scenario I just described is the most SXSW thing that could ever happen. While still at the Convention Center, Guts Club tried to go up to the fourth floor because that’s where the artist gifting suite was, but the whole floor was blocked off because Michelle Obama was up there. We left the Convention Center in search of tacos, and then walked a ways out of the downtown area so Guts Club could do a BreakThru Radio session in a really tranquil backyard. There was a nice breeze and I almost fell asleep in the chair I was sitting in.
In the early evening hours we got some food from food trucks and I really regret not taking a picture of my chicken and waffle sandwich. Don’t ever stop yourself from taking a picture of your food because you don’t want anyone to see you taking a picture of your food. You’ll just be sad later.
After eating, we stood in a very long line to get into Stubb’s for NPR’s show. Guts Club was in a different line than me because she had an artist wristband. I stood in the middle of a gaggle of confused-looking men who were, for some reason, all eating ice cream bars. Once inside we claimed our free NPR fanny packs and then I really let my new Nikon CoolPix stretch its legs while watching Charles Bradley, Mitski, and Margo Price. At this point I have to say that I’m basically a professional photographer. I’m like REALLY pleased with myself.
Got up extra early because Guts Club had a show at 11 a.m. We took “Uber pool” for the first time, which is a horrifying invention that pairs you with other strangers in the same car for an untold amount of time. The guy we were paired with reeked of pot and was stressed out about getting to the airport. When he saw Guts Club’s guitar he asked her if she plays music, which is a thing that guys love to ask girls when they see them with instruments. “No, I’m just holding this guitar for my manly boyfriend, who’s a man” is something that she could have responded with, but she didn’t because she’s way nicer than me.
The Uber dropped us off at the Keeled Scales and Catamount AV showcase which was next to a video store claiming to be “the oldest video store.” Guts Club played her set, then we watched Dubb Nubb and had free breakfast tacos and the hugest slices of pizza I’ve ever seen in my life. My friend Matt Beld from high school, who’s in a band I work with called Vicky and the Vengents, showed up and we hung out in the parking lot talking about records. When he left I went back inside to watch some more bands and started to get crabby because people kept running into my bun as they passed me from behind. How hard is it not to touch a person’s bun? Around this point I found myself having to go “serious bathroom,” but unfortunately for me I refuse to do that in public restrooms so I just resigned to suffer for the remainder of the day.
Around 5:40 we left to go to the Market and Tap Room for the showcase being put on by Team Clermont, the PR firm I currently work for. Guts Club played, as well as another band I work with called Iska Dhaaf. Before everything started, Guts Club and I ate some hot dogs and mine made me feel like I severely smelled like hot dog, but everyone I asked said no.
Today was the day we most looked forward to because it was a whole day in which we’d get to escape for a bit and relax at Willie Nelson’s ranch.
We showered quickly, had our usual/ preferred breakfast of tacos, and then got picked up in a Hummer Uber (a first for both of us) to go to Arlyn Studios and wait for the free shuttle to take us to the Luck Reunion. After about an hour-and-a-half wait we were packed into an old school bus on which I took a little nap. Once we got to the ranch we got free cocktails and wandered around looking at all the booths. After exploring for a while we got hungry and I got a brisket sandwich from Slab that I took a picture of, much to the horror of the older gentleman sitting across from me at the picnic table we shared.
After eating, we went to the little chapel venue on site to see Liza Anne perform, and then a huge storm rolled in and the fire department made everyone either go out to the parking lot and wait in their cars until it passed, or—if you didn’t have a car (which most didn’t)—crowd around under any safe structure that could be found. We weren’t sure if the event would be cancelled or not because it was raining super hard and there was tons of lighting, but after a couple hours all the lights came back on and things started up again. Guts Club bought herself a fancy hat from one of the vendors and then we went into the revival tent to see Margo Price, John Moreland, Insects Vs. Robots, and Willie Nelson himself for the grand finale. I balanced on a hay bale to take Willie’s picture and it’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. He did pretty much whatever he wanted with his guitar, but his voice still sounded amazing.
The funny thing about SXSW is that you can drink all day long but not ever feel drunk on account of all the walking and stressing out that takes place. Today, however, we finally got drunk. Before that happened, though, we showered, had more breakfast tacos, and then went back to the Convention Center so Guts Club could hit up that artist gifting suite she missed out on the first day due to Michelle Obama being there. I waited outside and she came out the other end with a red Jansport backpack, some hand wipes, two bottle openers, a thumb drive, and three peppermint patties. Before we left the Convention Center we stopped in at the bathroom and as I washed my hands I overheard Meg from Handjob Academy telling a story about Popeye’s chicken. I didn’t say hi at the time, but tweeted at her later about it, which is my way.
In the afternoon hours we went to my favorite place in all of Austin, Cheer Up Charlies. The Brooklyn Vegan day show was happening there and we stayed for LE1F, Margo Price, and Protomartyr. Tamara, who runs Cheer Up Charlies, gave us a few drink tickets and we used them on these amazing habanero cocktails that finally, blissfully, made us very drunk. As I was enjoying my second one Bill Murray walked past me wearing a fishing hat and my natural reaction was to start crying.
After the show we walked around the state capitol taking funny pictures, then got nachos and took them back to the hotel. We ate, finished this current season of House of Cards, and passed out.
So there it is. All in all I’d say we had a successful SXSW in that Guts Club played some shows, we had all the breakfast tacos our hearts desired, and I spent enough money to satiate my shopping addiction. We talked to about 15 people on average, and I gave my business card out once. I’m sure a more savvy schmoozer banged out more of a schmoozing experience, but that’s not our thing. Being there counts for just being there, I think, and I’m happy with the way it went down.
My feet do hurt, though.