Line for the Fader Fort, 2010

South by Southwest is next week.  The deluge of showcase flyers and announcements started a few days ago and has now hit a fever pitch.  All hotel rooms in Austin are booked and have been for some time.  Flights are expensive.  Gas as well.

It’s hard to write a critique of either SXSW or CMJ without coming off as an over-serious petulant misanthrope.  So, for starters, a disclaimer: SXSW can be wayyy fun.  A lot of people are there, you get to meet and see tons of bands, and the weather in Austin is amazing (except for Saturday last year,  WTF was that).  Austin is also a nice town and well suited for something like SXSW, much more so than New York is for something like CMJ.  If you’ve never been and you feel a particular affinity towards what’s happening in music right now, you should go sometime.

But, more importantly for the purposes of this post, SXSW is representative of basically everything terrible about contemporary “indie” music and youth culture in general. I don’t really know how it used to be, but when I was there last year, my first and only time, I couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone in attendance was part of a gigantic focus group. Cruise through some music sites and check out the showcase names for yourself. There isn’t much point in parodying something that already reads like a Mad-Lib where every blank is marked “Corporation”. For example: The “Fader Fort”, which is sort of like the Kaaba of SXSW, is brought to you by Hennessy, Vitamin Water, Pony Shoes, Guitar Center, TDK, Converse, Pepsi, Myspace, New Era, and, most prominently, Fiat (?!). Last year there was a giant billboard of Neon Indian drinking a Mountain Dew and sort of leering down on the main drag. If you followed his gaze you’d find a Hummer pickup full of ice and energy drinks parked diagonally right in the middle of the street.

I don’t know how many millions of dollars the whole thing generates but I can say with certainty that the musicians, theoretically the point of the whole gathering, get something in the neighborhood of 0% of it. That’s sort of the essence of the whole problem: The vast majority of musicians have to pay out of pocket to attend, and the supposed pay-off (i.e. exposure, record contracts? hype) is pretty suspect. The internet is much better at generating hype than playing some no-soundcheck show in a parking lot at 1:15 in the afternoon is, and the idea that A&R guys are running around with pens and briefcases full of contracts for hot new bands to sign is a myth. Because of corporate sponsorship, probably 95% of the entire thing is pre-meditated now which really takes the wind out of the idea that it’s a place where bands’ dreams come true.

But it’s not just the economics that make me sort of hate it. Part of me wants to say “HAH Fiat, no one is going to buy your weird little cars because you sponsored the Fader Fort, now give me free beer” but the sad truth is that people WILL buy those cars because of that. People WILL just accept that whatever band is the new best band is good because it is suggested or told to them. They WILL wait in line for 4 hours to stand in a room watching a band that, deep down, they might think are horrible because it’s cool. They WILL buy plane tickets and hotel rooms and spend 30 hours in a car to wander around a college town in a perpetual state of hungover confusion for three days, just because everyone else does it and that’s where and when it happens. The autodiadacticism and self-promotion that the internet allows theoretically negate a huge part of the “taste-making” industry, but people want their tastes made and that seems sort of sad. What’s missing isn’t the ability or even necessarily the finances but the courage, and in general people seem to prefer it that way.

On the way down there last year, I remember being the only one awake in the van, and driving through misty, rolling hills about an hour or two north of the Texas/Arkansas border. I was terrified I was going to hit a deer as it leapt out of the woods in the night and I almost did (three times). It seemed like the only other cars on the road except for semis were other vans full of bands and their friends. The windows were steamed over and silhouettes of people were strewn around inside in such a way that somehow you knew they were young and wide-eyed and excited. I was struck by how important it was that people were willing to spend hundreds of dollars and hours and hours of effort and planning and dedication to be somewhere. I still think it is important and amazing. But as it stands, it’s hard for me not to look at SXSW as an event whose central characteristic is the squandering of that enthusiasm and effort. A parade of ignored bands. A sort of hipster spring break, made just unrecognizable enough in comparison to Cancun to perpetuate itself without anyone catching on. Whether it’s the fault of youth that we are so readily subsumed and suggested into a corporate agenda, or whether its the fault of corporations for being so insidious and relentless with their pursuit of said youth isn’t really clear to me, but it seems like a collective loss of nerve in the face of an era of much more interesting possibilities.

If you do go, though, check out Heavy Times. They’re totally great.


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