The International Writers Magazine: Life: USA

Cool by Cooler than Thou: Lost in Austin
Sara Whelan

I. Orientation
There’s 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 you’re likely to hear all year.

You’ve decided to take off work (screw the boss if she’s annoyed with you), run to the bank for some dough (that’s what you work for anyway, right?) and jump in a car with a good friend (you don’t do this often enough anymore). It’s rejuvenating. It’s 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 doesn’t 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 schedule—100 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 them—They’ll know—The badges they wear with the large black print—SXSW—mark them as attendees. Clear your throat. Speak up as you pile into the car.
            “I’m new at this,” you say, “where do I get tickets?”
            Ha, ha—hearty ha ha. “You came here without a badge? Where are you from?”
            Ha, ha, chuckles the cool friend with the shaved head and sunglasses. “You should get a badge—If they’re still selling them.”
            Then the chubby friend adds. “You’re screwed.”
            But you try to stay positive. “What are you guys doing today? Who are you going to go see?”
            “Oh, we’re industry. We’ll be working.”
            And Chubby slides a book of papers over on your lap. “This is my itinerary,” he says proudly. You flip through the stack of pages—panels, talks, demonstrations, invite-only parties. “I don’t have time to see bands,” he adds.

This is where it begins—at a festival widely respected for its 20 year history, known for its focus on indie rock, named for a geographical location—South by Southwest—but I became quickly aware that there was another geography being defined by every conversation—Cool 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 Nether Region?

I opened the door to the convention center: crowds of what appeared to be people promoting fashion tips learned from a Japanese animated movie—people who might spit and correct me here, snarling, “It’s Animé—Japanese animation is called—Animé.”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 cases—music magazine hip—invoking equal parts Beatles circa 1964, Elvis’s legendary leather and Bono’s 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 (Yes—it’s 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 my chances.
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 kind—a 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 region—not for the usual reason, but on the networking hunt for credentials.

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 didn’t deserve and they simply couldn’t 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 badges—their plastic, protective coating glimmering in the sun—feeling 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 tonight—some secret party.”
The gentleman looked at me, glanced at my bare wrist, my badge-less neck. He sighed and answered dryly. “It’s no secret, but I’ve 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 you’re 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: Can’t 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 o’clock 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…after 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 I’m sitting geographically in an extraordinary place: Austin, Texas with dozens of bands at points of radius all around me. And though I know I don’t 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 won’t 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 doesn’t mean that the trip to SXSW isn’t worth making. If anything is learned by my impromptu trip, it’s the value of good planning.
Passes are far cheaper if you reserve them months in advance—by $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 conference.

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 doesn’t get you off, this won’t be your gig.

© Sara Whelan April 2006

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