International Writers Magazine: Life: USA
by Cooler than Thou: Lost in Austin
Theres a strange excitement, rediscovered youth as you find
yourself driving 90 across the flat black Texas night, rambling
towards three days of the best music youre likely to hear
to take off work (screw the boss if shes annoyed with you), run
to the bank for some dough (thats what you work for anyway, right?)
and jump in a car with a good friend (you dont do this often enough
anymore). Its rejuvenating. Its a festival. Visions of crowds
of music lovers united in their quest for their new favorite song dance
in your head. New people. New music.
Something to discover, and then eerie signs begin to make their presence
known: You miss the exit, your friend in Austin doesnt call, your
friends from the hometown are lost in a black hole of broken cell phone.
You arrive at your hotel, pick up a paper, gasp at the schedule100
bands in one day? Who do you see? How do you see them? Where are the
tickets? Are there tickets? So, you decide to get into a cab downtown
with some folks from the hotel on a journey for answers. Ask themTheyll
knowThe badges they wear with the large black printSXSWmark
them as attendees. Clear your throat. Speak up as you pile into the
new at this, you say, where do I get tickets?
hahearty ha ha. You came here without a badge? Where are
ha, chuckles the cool friend with the shaved head and sunglasses. You
should get a badgeIf theyre still selling them.
the chubby friend adds. Youre screwed.
you try to stay positive. What are you guys doing today? Who are
you going to go see?
were industry. Well be working.
Chubby slides a book of papers over on your lap. This is my itinerary,
he says proudly. You flip through the stack of pagespanels, talks,
demonstrations, invite-only parties. I dont have time to
see bands, he adds.
This is where it beginsat a festival widely respected for its
20 year history, known for its focus on indie rock, named for a geographical
locationSouth by Southwestbut I became quickly aware that
there was another geography being defined by every conversationCool
by Cooler than Thou. Standing on the corner of Red River and 5th, outside
of the convention center in Austin, I wondered: Had we made the 16 hour
drive to learn that on the cool map we were located somewhere in the
I opened the door to the convention center: crowds of what appeared
to be people promoting fashion tips learned from a Japanese animated
moviepeople who might spit and correct me here, snarling, Its
AniméJapanese animation is calledAnimé.At
any rate, for those of you who map in the Nether Region, you may have
not seen this type of film but remember some Japanese cartoon, like
Pokémon take over your living room and your children. Yes, these
people are wide-eyed, a colorful spectrum of hair sweeping across their
faces. Impeccably coordinated in most casesmusic magazine hipinvoking
equal parts Beatles circa 1964, Elviss legendary leather and Bonos
ultra cool mystique. They could have all been rock stars for all knew,
but are more properly referred to as hipsters. (Are you feeling the
lame cold of the Nether Region yet?)
So, I make my way to information and learn there that badges, which
cost over $500 are no longer for sale; most parties are invite-only;
wristbands, which can get me into a great deal of the venues for one
day will cost more than $100, but I have to find someone with a badge
to make the purchase and there will be limited admission (Yesits
left up to the venue. They can choose to only allow badge-wearers in.)
What are my choices? Well, I can go club-to-club, stand in a long line
with the leather clad and if the club is allowing the common folk entry,
I pay a cover charge (usually $10) and hope that I picked a good band
on the immense menu. Long story short: I have no options and must take
II. Define Latitude
Lucky for us my friend got an invite to an exclusive party, and so,
we started the day with a sense of hope and anticipation. We now had
a badge of some kinda laminated pass that would gain us entry
into a crowded party with free food and merchandise. Standing casually
against the wall, my friend comments, You notice that the badges
have their affiliation on them? Yes, take notice as Billboard
and Warner Brothers float by, and suddenly we feel naked without such
a resumé. People pass us, their eyes glancing near the chest
regionnot for the usual reason, but on the networking hunt for
After 30 more minutes, the event began to feel more and more like a
high school hallway. The popular kids soar by in quickstep, their eyes
fixed on some point just beyond your shoulder, careful not to make eye
contact, careful not to smile. The rest of us milled about the room,
our eyes darting, hoping to find someone to share a wall with, someone
to accept us in our mutual rejection.
We must have been something like the contest winners backstage after
the big concert. We, of course, were happy to be there and felt privileged,
but soon became acutely aware of how ordinary we were in light of such
extraordinary things. A room of fire flies, burning on their own sense
of accomplishment and admiration. Talking to us would only dim their
lights. They seemed sure they would lose something to the act of speech.
WE might have floated out on to the street with some flicker of theirs,
a sparkle borrowed that we didnt deserve and they simply couldnt
afford to fade.
My people were clearly in another part of town, and so I departed the
party, leaving my friend to wait for the performance of her favorite
band and sought out comfort in the reaches of the city. Walking down
the street I began to notice more and more badgestheir plastic,
protective coating glimmering in the sunfeeling envious.
I walked from the downtown area on a mission to check out the local
independent bookstore. Step after step my hunger grew for the quiet
that could be found in printed pages. And though my walk lengthened
in quarter miles from the downtown locus of activity, the badges were
plentiful everywhere. Even within the stacks of books, I could see a
glimmering peak out between hard cover bindings. Soon all people were
defined by badges or wristbands, and I felt almost nervous when a badge
came to stand next to me as I perused the new releases.
Which bands were you hoping to see today? I casually asked,
eager for a recommendation. I hear the Flaming Lips are going
to play somewhere tonightsome secret party.
The gentleman looked at me, glanced at my bare wrist, my badge-less
neck. He sighed and answered dryly. Its no secret, but Ive
seen them four times already.
Was he a record producer? A rock star? Was it possible that I was browsing
a bookstore with some high-powered music mogul? He spoke to me as though
I should have known better than to ask, but glancing down at his badge,
I became aware that it had no credentials. He was nothing but a commoner
that had purchased the coveted music passport, and with it not only
came access without impediment but also, apparently, an unquestionable
authority on music, the festival and an attitude only rivaled by the
head cheerleader at Beverly Hills High School.
III. Define Longitude
Four hours on sixth street and I had begun nursing fantasies of mocking
up badges of my own that had SXSW Loser printed defiantly across the
upper portion. How about a SXSW yearbook? I thought. What a great gimmick.
I could just imagine the masses running from club to bar to annex eagerly
gathering autographs. There could be a section for new contacts and
personal messages. Great meeting you. Look me up if youre ever
anywhere near the top.
My friend was not as bitter about the social stratification as I and
busily engaged in making arrangements for our first night at SXSW. Enter
cell phone and text messaging: Where are you? Soon enough a reply with
a location. We have gained destination and make our way to the indicated
point on the map, where we hear No General Admission. So,
we send another message: Cant get in. and so decide to go to the
next club over where we hear: Stand in line, and so we do,
only to find that after 30 minutes, the band we were interested in is
no longer playing. Write another message: Where are you now? Another
location, and so it goes. Club after club greeted us non-badge-wearing,
non-wristband investing masses with a cold denial. In fact, by ten oclock
every venue we hit had turned us away and we were left to sit on the
sidewalk and enjoy the sounds that broke through brick barriers from
the street, while our friends (equipped with their badges and bands)
seemed to float effortlessly from venue to venue.
By 11 we had begun to snarl, mimic the casual encouragement we received
from our friends prior to coming. Sure, come on down! SXSW is great
you invest in a $500 passport to cool. On the upside, our sidewalk sitting
gave us plenty of opportunity to appreciate the impromptu acts that
cropped up on corners. Men playing drums on empty 2 gallon water containers,
barstools, trashcans; the solo bluegrass singer; two men playing 45s
on a portable record player. A colorful culture that reminds us of how
music, really is personal; how we love it independent of the rock star.
Suddenly it dawns on me that Im sitting geographically in an extraordinary
place: Austin, Texas with dozens of bands at points of radius all around
me. And though I know I dont even map onto Cool by Cooler than
Thou, I begin to realize that the last time I saw my high school year
book was when I threw it in the trash, and I resolve to save myself
the money and the hassle of begging a badge-wearer to purchase a wristband
on my behalf and enjoy the sounds of the gutter.
IV. Define Destination
There are many things one wont find in print at SXSW: clear policies
on the ticketing structure of events; secret performances and parties;
and, most importantly, a disclaimer about how badge-wearing may cause
psychological abnormalities in otherwise humble human beings. But this
certainly doesnt mean that the trip to SXSW isnt worth making.
If anything is learned by my impromptu trip, its the value of
Passes are far cheaper if you reserve them months in advanceby
$200. SXSW has a fantastic website that describes the schedule
in depth and provides a prospective attendee samples of the hundreds
of bands that will be featured. The site will even help you make your
schedule and suggests bands you may like based on your listening preferences,
and believe me, a real music lover could spend six months discovering
new bands and creating itinerary for the big event. In addition, one
may request text message alerts for new events on their favorite bands
that will be broadcast to cell phone users throughout the festival and
Booking a hotel within walking distance is also recommended. Cabs
were sometimes scarce and the public transportation leaves much to be
desired. Everything combined, SXSW is easily a $1,500 trip. But for
those budget conscious music junkies, it may not be worth the expense,
and if flashing a badge in a crowd of the overly hip doesnt get
you off, this wont be your gig.
© Sara Whelan April 2006
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