South by Southwest 2000

The St. Louis Airport at noon is a packed place. But none of the little eateries — not Pretzel Time or TCBY Yoghurt or even the bite-size Pizza Hut — is as packed as the smoking “lounge” near Gate C17 where the flight to Austin is scheduled to depart in an hour. More than 7,000 pop music-related people — musicians, journalists, industry executives, interested others — are headed to Austin this afternoon, and a handful of them have gathered for a quick smoke in this airport. “Hey, man,” the thin guy in the black suit and skinny tie shouts to a buddy who’s just stepped in. “Is this going to be cool or what?” With his dyed-black-mussed-up-mop-top haircut and guitar in a soft black case, he looks like an early-twenties version of the Verve’s Richard Ashcroft — all limbs and sharp angles and an excited energy that draws the attention of the others in the lounge. “You bet,” beams his friend.

I’m betting that South by Southwest, “the most comprehensive music industry event of the year,” will be as interesting, as complicated, as curious an event as it was the first time I went a few years ago. It’s a couple of thousand people bigger than it was that year and while there have been changes — signaled in part by the stream of e-mails I’ve gotten the last few months since I registered (all communication was done by post last time I went), and the elaborately detailed (and ever-changing) Web site (the Web site was helpful, but not artful last time) — the framework remains the same. The conference proceeds all day (mostly talk-sessions) from 11 a.m. till 6 p.m. and the a couple of hundred bands play every night at the 30 or so clubs SXSW books for the week. The last time I was here, the hot tickets were Yo la Tengo, Atari Teenage Riot, Moby and others: Yo la Tengo were a holdover from earlier times, but most of the must-see bands that year were somehow connected to “electronica” — it was the year MTV had realized grunge was over and was trying (not very successfully it turned out) to hype American interest in electronic and dance music. This year it’s hard to tell in advance what the industry is trying to jump-start. The hyped stars, pre-conference, are Patti Smith, Elliott Smith, Modest Mouse, Roger McGuinn…. hard to say what the theme is here, nor the genre. Perhaps the Web has indeed created so many niche audiences that the industry is hard pressed to develop a plan? Personally, I’m also looking forward to Sally Timms from the Mekons, Richard Bruckner, Bevis Frond, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Kim Richey, none of whom I’ve seen play before……

Last time I flew into Austin it was into the funky-in-the-extreme Mueller Airport where, upon arriving, I walked into a little mob of people who had gathered around Sandra Bullock who’d stoppped to sign a few autographs on her way to a waiting limo. (I never learned why she was at this conference.) This year it’s a brand new Bergstrom Airport, all shining chrome and better baggage machines, no doubt — but alas, I suspect, no Sandra. But onwards — from St. Louis to Austin, then the conference center to pick up my badge (and the huge bag of promo goodies and CDs that come with it), on the way to a quick dinner and then to Elmo’s: as good a place any to begin SXSW with tonight’s lineup of The American Analog Set, the Dylan Group, and Macha.