6th street in Austin, like Bourbon St. or Beale St. or any of the other storied party streets around the nation, is a little much for me to take. I’ve never liked crowds, and my agoraphobia has only gotten worse in the past few months. I can teem with the best of the masses, I can push my way onto any overcrowded train or to to the front of a crowded lunch-cart line without much trouble, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. I spend most of my time inside “Friends”, the location of the Buffalo Lounge, our little embassy of Okieness in the heart of Austin. (That the sign for “Friends” is in roughly the same font as the title card for the 90s sitcom of the same name should tell you how touristy this part of Austin is. Fittingly, it’s just down the road from Cheers.) The folks behind the Buffalo Lounge have done a great job decorating it. It feels roughly 33% more intimate than most of the other bars I step into, and it’s easy and comfortable and friendly. It feels like home, and I like it.
It’s my 29th birthday, and this week feels like a distinct bookend on part of my life. A decade ago, I wouldn’t be feeling so alienated from all of this drunken debauchery. I wouldn’t have been so cynical about the public relations and marketing people shoving fliers in my hand as I walk. I would have just been overwhelmed, pleasantly awash in a sea of music and free drinks. I wonder if the fact that I’m having a midlife crisis at 29 means I’ll die at 58.
An Australian lady on the bar stool next to me notices me staring into the middle distance.
“Why ye looking so sour?”
“It’s my birthday.”
“Hey! you don’t get to bitch about yer birthday until you’re my age. How old?”
“Pssh, that’s young, innit? Not even 30. What’re we drinking?”
I asked her if she had been to the showcase the night before. She had.
“All I know about Oklahoma is the musical, but this is the best showcase I’ve been to this year. Now I have to go up there an see what the fuss is about.”
I see my friends Grace and Austin motoring around the theater trying to keep the chaos at bay. I hope they somehow overheard that, but I know they didn’t.
My new friend hits me on the shoulder and gets up to watch the next band.
Walking down the street with fellow okc.net scribe Sean Murphy, a man dressed as a giant sperm pushes a box of Trojan condoms into Sean’s hand. “Be safe!” he cheerfully shouts as he saunters off. This mix of tongue in cheek whimsey and full contact marketing is typical of our SXSW experience. I’m struck by how effectively the line between self directed DIY street theater and public relations has been blurred. 15 years ago there might have been something transgressive or funny or liberating about a man in a foam rubber sperm costume walking down the street in the capital of Texas. Now it’s just part of the background static of this merry carnival of capitalism. Sean, happily married man that he is, tips the condoms to a street musician. “She’ll have more use for those than I will.”
The carnival goes on.
Complaining about the commercialization of South by Southwest is deeply tempting, but I have begun to realize how silly it is. What we are really witnessing is not the commercialization of a freewheeling music festival (ala Woodstock 99) but rather another manifestation of the destruction of the major label system in the last decade. Mp3s and peer to peer file sharing get a lot of the credit (blame?) for this, but equally important is fact that advances in software and the democratic openness of the internet now make it possible for a 19 year old to do much of what a record label did 20 years ago from the comfort of her own bedroom, without having to sign an abusive contract or pay back a $40,000 advance. This puts South by Southwest in the difficult position of being a music industry trade conference without a music industry. As the dream of making it big with Interscope or Sony recedes to the horizon, the broader media universe has stepped in to fill the vacuum. Of the many showcases I happened onto, precious few were run by record labels, and none by the majors. Much more common were showcases sponsored by websites, iphone apps, soft drinks, and the tourism industry.
The Buffalo Lounge falls into the last category, and our state government deserves some praise for this. The people at the state Film and Music Office, TravelOK, the OKC Chamber and others seem to recognize that a vital music scene is an amenity that travelers seek out. What’s more, they didn’t stick to middle of the road fare, but gave a platform to creative, iconoclastic and original musicians. In this respect, our state is happily ahead of the curve for once.
I make a point of dropping into the other geographically themed side parties I see, just to see how we’re holding up. I sneak into showcases for DC, Florida, Quebec, the rest of Canada, San Diego, the Bay Area, and Belfast. Even the ones that are RSVP only are pretty easy to wander into. Generally if you stick close to the person in front of you and walk with a sense of purpose, you can just walk into the lower profile events. What strikes me instantly is the difference in atmosphere. Most other showcases were more interested in looking minimalist and cool than inviting, which gave most of them the feel and appearance of an airport bar. I’ll take a leather couch and a plastic bison over an oxygen bar with deeply uncomfortable bar stools any day of the week.
The musical offerings are a little better, but nothing overwhelming. (The best ones are Canada and the Bay Area). I suppose it shouldn’t shock me that Quebecois folk music sounds an awful lot like cajun zydeco, but it was enough to at least make me sit up and take notice. A few bands are worth a second listen, but it’s obvious to me that the days of Oklahoma being completely blown out of the water musically are gone and have been gone for a while. I still hear the same sort of grousing about the local scene that I heard in 1997, but I think that just means our standards have gone up. No one given a random sampling of the local bands from that period and the bands currently active would have any trouble distinguishing which group was better. Seeing a bar packed to capacity with mostly non-okies rocking out to our local scene made me deeply happy. It’s clear to me that Oklahoma music has aged more gracefully than I have. The most striking thing about the kids making these things happen is their confidence. How many 23 year olds can get on stage in front of 500 people and own the room like Jabee or John Fullbright or Ryan Lawson? How many bands can barely play outside of their hometown and transition seamlessly into full-on rockstar mode like Pretty Black Chains or The Boom Bang?
I’m proud of them, and I’m proud of Oklahoma.
I was afraid to go on this trip. I was afraid that I would get to Austin, partake of the festivities, and not want to go home. I thought that perhaps I would simply see the shortcomings of my home thrown into sharp relief, that I would realize I had bet on the wrong pony. That didn’t happen. I’m not sure what to make of South by Southwest. Much of it is, for lack of a better word, icky, but at the same time there is something magical about so many people converging in one place to discover and share music. It is, as a friend of mine put it, “a never ending cycle of elation and doomed hate-dread.” The fact that it’s in Austin, a city that looks quite lovely and livable just about everywhere but 6th street, makes it even harder for me to feel negatively about it. I want to try again next year, see if I can shake the existential dread and roll with the punches. I’ll need to get some tiny t-shirts and aviator glasses first though.
See you next year, ATX.