photo by Bridget McQuillan
[Editor’s Note: Dan Scheuerman is the singer and frontman of Deleted Scenes. He wrote this column for Hear Nebraska about South By Southwest from the vantage point of a participating musician.]
Everything strange, surreal and ego-warping about SXSW is captured in the song “600,000 Bands” by Felt Letters. Let’s pause and listen to it.
In the song, psychic communist, former FBI target, punk guru and general zeitgeist prophet Ian Svenonius captures the frustration, desire and existential despair felt by a band in the world, and most acutely by a band at SXSW, where every band in the world goes to feel bad about themselves for a week.
“600,000 bands. Each one makes a sound. Well everybody wants you to listen to theirs, but you can’t right now ‘cause you’re listening to this.”
Even within the song itself, there is a desire to be listening to something else. There, in its compound ADHD, Svenonius conjures up a crowd of concertgoers texting friends to find out what show they are missing or checking Twitter to find out what everyone’s doing after this or, best case scenario, and the show’s really good, watching the show through an LCD screen.
These are old complaints, but they weigh heavily on a musician at SXSW, where last week 2,000 bands, including my own, traveled from all over the world to play shows in the 200 or so square blocks that make up downtown Austin.
Before I go any further, I want to emphatically state that I’m not complaining. I went to SXSW for my own reasons, and it might have been worth it on some level. I am writing this because Hear Nebraska wanted to know how it feels for musicians in Austin during SXSW. After attending the festival for five of the last seven years, I am deeply ambivalent about SXSW. It’s a surreal jungle of booze, ego, lust and consumption that Hunter S. Thompson would have loved.
At any point along 6th Street, the backbone of SXSW, it’s possible to hear the colliding strains of 30 songs being played at once. Every bar, parking lot and spare room is repurposed as a music venue, each featuring a numbing succession of bands playing half-hour sets to music-saturated audiences. Along the street are barkers giving away samples of energy drinks or bags of chips. The gutters are littered with these yellow chip bags, scattered unopened like unread flyers.
For music bloggers, record labels, booking agents, publicists and a few select bands, SXSW is an annual trade show — an opportunity for trendsetters to find out what this year’s colors are. Each of these industry groups holds a showcase or a series of showcases — day-long shows played by bands they have discovered and want the rest of the industry to discover, too. Since all these parties end up being played by roughly the same handful of bands (some of whom play up to 20 shows during the week, or three a day), the term “discover” is misused. Their discovery during this week is preordained. At SXSW, they are crowned.
For the rest of the bands, it’s hard to say why we go. It’s a big topic of conversation in vans on the way down, in bars, in line for breakfast tacos, over brisket dinners. Since 99.9 percent of bands aren’t preordained, it’s hard to say what the point is, or to justify the considerable expense of driving there.
Some go for the party. There is a lot of free beer to be drunk. And the weather is fantastic in Austin in March — just before the mosquitoes come out, and well before the rest of America becomes habitable outdoors.
Some go to see their friends. That band from Portland that slept on your couch is there. So is the guy who always books your band whenever you play Orlando. Seeing genuine friends, hanging out, taking ritual shots of Malort, making tentative plans to do tours together, watching each other’s bands, cheering each other on in the case of a distressingly low turnout — these are some of the great things about SXSW.
But the idea that bands go there to be discovered — this is, I think, a myth. Yes, it’s possible to be seen, to make connections, to walk away knowing a few more people who can help you.
That a band appears out of nowhere, is seen at SXSW, and subsequently has a career — no.
But for whatever reason, we do it every year. It’s fun. It’s exhausting. Sometimes it’s catastrophic. (I blew out my voice one year and had to cancel a show; and the population of competent sound guys in Austin is necessarily much lower than the number of shows happening at any one time.)
One thing I’m sure of: the further I get away from the idea of being “discovered” at SXSW, the more I enjoy it.
Our experience this year was our best yet, mostly because of friendships. The more friendly and cohesive the shows are, the better we perform, and the better the shows. Two of our four shows were put on by people we’d known for a long time — a guy in Orlando who runs a small record label and a blogger from Austin who put on an annual showcase of bands from DC, where I’m from originally. Those shows — Wednesday and Thursday — felt like big musical hugs, and had me in great spirits for our day off on Friday.
On Friday, I had the whole night to experience the festival as a music fan. I set off wandering the city a little after 7 p.m. I knew my friends’ bands were out there playing, and I would find them.
After a GPS typo sent me walking 10 blocks in the wrong direction, I sat on a curb to tried and figure out where I was and where I was going. Soon some guy sat down next to me.
“You look like you in a dilemma,” he said.
“I think it’s just my face. I have dilemma face.”
“Dilemma face, eh? You smoke weed?”
“No, thanks.” I think he wanted to sell me weed. “Do you know where Guadalupe Street is?” I asked.
“Yeah, man, it’s nowhere around here,” he said. “It’s way over the other side,” he said, pointing to a spot on the horizon, over the highway, and miles away.
I thanked him, got up and started walking — 20 blocks west on 6th Street, through the heart of the festival, where the “official” showcases happen. Crowds thickened as I walked west. As the sun set, the festival took on a menacing air — a group of men shouted at a woman in white pants; from a large tent a rapper sang about pussy.
I started singing “600,000 Bands” to myself.
The show I wanted to see was on the 2600 block of Guadalupe — the Exploding in Sound showcase at the Hole in the Wall. My friends Grass is Green were playing. I hung a right, and started walking north. The bars thinned out, and before long I was in a deserted landscape of concrete office buildings. I walked 20 more blocks north, past nodding junkies and a pregnant homeless woman until I saw, on a building up ahead, an unmistakably good sign: a mural of Daniel Johnston’s alien with the words “Hi How Are You” above it. I took a picture, the only picture I took that week.
Six or so blocks later, and I was standing in the Hole in the Wall. The air was different. The place was only moderately crowded. People were watching the bands intently. Tyvek was on one stage, and Speedy Ortiz was setting up on another. I saw my friend from Grass is Green, who introduced me to the owner of the bar. Together we had a shot and a beer, on the house, and then we watched the bands.
Speedy Ortiz played about 17 shows at SXSW. Their label, Exploding in Sound, is starting to blow up. If this lineup had been 20 blocks south, on 6th Street, it would have been a mob scene. Up here, at the Hole in the Wall, it was just a really good show. Grass is Green played next, followed by Pile — who, for me, was a discovery. I don’t know if they’re popular, but they were awesome. I hope they get “discovered” … and then take us on tour.
The next day we played two shows, one of which was our official SXSW show. There are two ways to get an official SXSW show, and the split is telling. The public way is to create a SonicBids profile and pay $35 to enter your band into a contest pool. The other way is to have a booking agent.
For the first seven years of my band’s existence, we applied to SXSW through SonicBids. When we got a booking agent a couple years ago, I asked him if we still needed our SonicBids page to get into SXSW.
“Delete that shit,” he said.
SonicBids is a system for preying on the dreams, desires, delusions and desperation of unestablished bands. It’s the digital analog of the shame I felt walking down 6th Street, my brain scrambled by the overwhelming mess of bands and brands vying for attention. They claim to be the gateway to booking your band for practically every festival in existence, but they are not. I can’t make any factual claims about how many artists SonicBids books for SXSW, CMJ, Bonnaroo, etc., but I’m willing to bet very few bands are getting “discovered” through their process. Its reputation is as a hedge fund built on young bands with $35 to burn.
Our official SXSW show was a disaster from before the first note. A lineup of six totally unaffiliated bands were drawn, seemingly at random and put on a bill. In the days before our show, all six bands were sent a group email saying there would be no backline, and to sort out the gear sharing situation. Since a lot of bands don’t travel to SXSW with full gear, backline is expected — a drum set and a couple amps to be used by all the bands.
Unless some band was willing to come forward and lend their gear out for the entire day, this show was going to fall apart.
One band on the bill offered to provide backline for the entire show, as long as every band was willing to pay $100 for the privilege. That seemed to work for most of the bands. Then, an hour before the show, a representative of that band chimed in to say they would not be sharing their gear after all. All hell broke loose on the email thread.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” one person wrote.
(We brought our own gear, but had to leave right after our set and couldn’t share.)
The show itself, at Quantum Lounge on Saturday, was as anonymous and disconnected, and the vibes as negative as the Hole in the Wall had been connected and positive. The bill was chosen without any ear for cohesion, as if the festival had given up on curating shows and simply taken a scissors and cut the next six bands from a list. The stage was the size of a drum riser, so our bass player had to play from the floor. The venue was laid out in a dogleg, and the PA speakers were in the opposite corner from where we played. Understandably, the audience was disinterested, happy to talk over the bands with their backs to the stage.
As soon as we finished, we hit the road for Dallas and points north, the festival over, good times had, bad times endured, shoulders shrugged and high fives given.
My takeaway from the whole festival: SXSW doesn’t have to be anonymous and disheartening. It can be fun and affirming, and like everything else in life, it just comes down to friendships. The further away we got to personal connections and rapport, the worse time we had. The official show was bad because there was no camaraderie. The DC and Orlando shows were fun because we were amongst buds, cheering each other on, and making a scene. The Exploding in Sound show was fun because it was a scene, and in the best way.
I don’t know if we’ll play again next year, but if we do, I’ll try to remember that only a statistically insignificant percentage of bands who play SXSW get discovered, and for the rest, it’s just a good excuse to hang out and enjoy a little bit of springtime before anyone else.