by Eric Harvey
“South By Southwest is the ultimate middle-finger to the recession!” I’m paraphrasing Shilpa Ray, who gabbed this bit of wisdom between songs during the first of her eponymous four-piece band’s sets at the festival on Wednesday night. And sure, a fiddling-while-Rome-burns perspective (and of course I’m sure, somewhere this week, there literally is fiddling) on this iteration of the yearly throw-down isn’t too tough to swallow: tens of thousands of people—industry rats, artists, critics, pilgrims, townies—blowing money on bands and beer and bbq, instead of burying their cash in the backyard. Yet while I myself have certainly blown way more dough already that I planned to over the first four days, my most frequent transactions at South By Southwest (and the most rewarding ones, too) aren’t necessarily of the economic variety.
Binging on live music and (frequently free) alcohol, while hopping around a municipal area like a huge Monopoly board, does make downtown Austin feel like a hedonistic parallel universe. But, I discovered today (my first-ever SxSW!) that in order to have fun, I had to push money aside and concern myself more about the less quantifiable transactions I was making and witnessing, left and right. And indeed, most of the folks I witnessed across the 12 hours I wandered around town were much more interested in meeting up with friends from around the country, or catching an exclusive set: SxSW is, more or less, a huge social/cultural market. There’s even an ad-hoc class system: Patrons are divided into those with wristbands and those with badges (and those with neither), with badges coming with the highest level of privilege—a quicker line to the most anticipated sets. The festival typically runs pretty close to clockwork (especially compared with the 1.5 hour lag of “indie-rock time”), and the endless number of bands to see—often incongrously paired at venues to keep the crowds fresh—makes the whole experience at times seem as browsable and ADD-friendly as a binge through a deep iTunes library.
Which brings me back, momentarily, to Shilpa Ray. She’s an itty-bitty Debbie Harry with a crack pop-punk band behind her, who also happens to be Indian-American, and who plays a harmonium onstage—sometimes sensually. Yeah. I was definitely impressed, but I’ll leave you with this introduction to her and her band. Right as Ray’s last song ended, I split a few blocks over to catch Liverpudlian Hot Chip/Phoenix followers Wave Machines (toward whose Myspace I was nudged but a week ago) a few blocks away. Selfishly, I really wish that bands like Wave Machines—slick and funky Euro-electro-pop (see the above two references)—were the norm in indie-rock nowadays instead of endless VU retreads, but some habits are hard to break, I suppose. Same goes for jittery, diminutive Brit Ben Jacobs, who performed earlier in the day as Max Tundra, a name under which he’s now released two albums. I was psyched to see him make his irresistible new-romantic breakcore pop live, and loved watching completely spazzing out while doing so. There wasn’t a laptop in sight, but there were tons of toy instruments (a xylophone! A recorder!) and plenty of hard-wired electronics.
A few of the (lesser-known) musicians I talked with touched on the idea that they were really hoping to set themselves apart under SxSW’s magnifying glass. They’re of course not here for financial reasons either—their economy is based on grabbing and holding the attention of an audience in the midst of dozens of sets and hundreds of bands. Only a compelling text from a friend dragged my own attention away from the last third of free-jazz hippies Akron/Family’s set, which I was enjoying with a friend like Statler and Waldorf in Mohawk’s balcony overlooking the side of the stage. The band is down to a trio now after one original member left to become a full-time practicing Buddhist, but one would never know it judging by the number of friends they pulled onto the stage at one point, all of whom were shaking maracas, banging on floor-toms, or yes, dancing around in a Native American headdress.
A buddy of mine tipped me off to the Mayor’s “Happy Hour,” coinciding with the first day of the music part of the festival, and off we went in a shuttle bus. I drank a few somewhat stiff screwdrivers from the open bar, gazed at Austin from City Hall’s veranda, and grasped a tote bag full of Red Bull and a fifth of (good) vodka I received for being “in the media.” That’s the last, and definitely most prevalent metaphorical economy at South by Southwest: free promotional stuff, and lots of it. Sometimes its really cool swag like vodka, or beer, or breakfast burritos, yes, but mostly it’s flyers for shows, redeemable coupons for music downloads, copies of Paste Magazine, more flyers for shows you’d never go to, oft-lame sampler CDs, and so on. One kid who tried to pawn off a coupon on me while I walked down Red River Avenue last night actually started jumping up and down and yelling when I ignored his offer. He most likely was play-acting for his buddies and passers-by, of course: South by Southwest, let’s remember, only resembles a real marketplace.