13 Mar 2013: Austin, TX
Through whatever snafu that I refuse to think through, my seal of music approval got lost in the Vatican-like reaches of SXSW. People I’m working with might feel differently, but that smells like fresh air to me. This is what happens when you’re dealing with an insanely rich Entertainment Leviathan, a brand with its own manifest destiny (Music, Film, Comedy, Corporate Utopia) that’s staffed entirely by volunteers. Volunteers is taken from its original context of offering your labor for a social good and implanted dead in the heart of a money machine with labor practices that are the envy of even military juntas. But in all honesty, it used to be worse.
The old SXSW only allowed the artists to play their events and only allowed you in if you fell in their expensive minimum tier. They also used to try to use the city code to break up events, as if they were steel worker unions, and as if the police were also “volunteers”. This was an industry vacation put on by Monti Burns; no one wanted to see the poors unless they were slinging the free drinks that they didn’t feel the need to tip for. Seriously, if you are not tipping the wait staff here, you are an evil dump of a human.
But it’s better now, and I think artists and the industry are smarter. SXSW’s profit monopoly could not possibly be sustained in industries with decentralizing money that depended on playing more gigs to sell anything.
The festival had to be opened to the poor to justify the expense and respond to the new structure of entertainment money. Maybe social media will lead to more discoveries of bands no one knows about, but I doubt it. This is, in part, because SXSW is a status vacation for concentric circles of industry people who don’t get to feel like the center of attention as much as they would like. So they go to the branded lounges to get called VIPs, get hammered on free booze, pick up something microwaveable presented to them as if it wasn’t.
You know who plays there? Whatever band everyone is already talking about that they flew half-way across the country to see because they can’t wait to see them play under better conditions next week. I had hoped that social media would make this concentration less relevant, but so much of social media is designed not to resist your desires. And so you are led by narrow, egotistical aggregation into the herd.
Let me give you two examples. Some websites in town are obsessed with tracking down, as secondary PR people, where Justin Timberlake is. Why? Nothing against the man, but did you hear ‘Suit and Tie”? I don’t even know what’s happening in that song. Do you know what it reminds me of? There’s an episode in The Jefferson’s where George hires somebody else to write a sorta-catchy love song for Weezie. It’s the Valentine’s Day song that middle management bought. The choices here are infinite and even the so-called hipster sites are “writing” about his possible whereabouts because its now meta ironic to eat shit while making money for said shit. I call that “the volunteer” mind.
I was also listening to some kids on the bus, curious to see what they were all going to see. It turns out that most of them were going to see “the Macklemore”, but almost all of them said “that song” or said “The Vintage Store”. I kind of like the Macklemore track, but cannot imagine pushing through the snaking meld of human flesh downtown to just to hear a “song”. I didn’t even know it was possible to be that disconnected from pleasure.
I’m not above any of the shit I’m bitching about. I started the fest standing in line for the Most Awesomest Journalist Party Ever. Forgive me, only now do I see the clues laid out so clearly. It took about 20 minutes to realize that I was in the “chump” section as other people confidently strode in, knowing instinctively that the line around the block was simply human garland, which served to show the more important people who to walk in front of.
When I asked a woman with a clipboard what was up with the huge stream of people going in, she said: “Oh, those are the VIPs.” I don’t remember that being an EventBrite option. There may not be a Fodor’s guide for these things, but I can objectively report that the party was somewhere south of awesomest. It can all get so Downton Abbey up in here.
So I have no official papers, but will still venture out to find great music, meet cool people, and now that I’m officially an angry old man, correct young people on the titles of songs they claim to love. I will also look for the holy Trinity of SXSW, the very reason for its existence: being very, important, and a person.