Thursday, March 31, 2011

SXSW for Dummies and Newbies

I’m sure you’re probably still reading my last post on SXSW and so are probably SO STOKED for next SXSW. Maybe you’re already making plans, I don’t know, I’m not you. Or maybe you’re over it already; SXSW was so two weeks ago. But before the bloom is completely off the rose, I’d like to take the opportunity to share with you some hard-earned tips for surviving SXSW in its current incarnation. (And I won’t lie to you, mostly I want to post this now so that I can link back to it next year…)

Think of it as a sort of beginners guide to SXSW: for beginners, by beginners (I’m no jaded veteran, this was my first SXSW and I’ll be the first to tell you how incredible and how daunting it is)

The usual recommendations? They apply.
Drink Water – I mean, let’s be logical here. You’ll be walking around, standing around, in the sun, drinking. You will get dehydrated. Not all venues will let you bring in a water bottle, but you have access to water everywhere. Take advantage of that access.

Use Sunscreen – Protect your snow-white winter skin, the sun is damn unforgiving. Don’t let sunburn ruin your week-long bacchanalia. And this applies to performers too. You know who you are. I saw you; you were lobster red and looked REALLY uncomfortable.

Stock up on Food – I don’t care if you live here or if you’re renting or at a hotel. Make sure you stockpile good, healthy food before SXSW begins. While there is a TON of free food during SXSW, tacos and beer aren’t going to sustain you for a whole week, you’re not going to want to take a break to go to the store, and you’re going to need all the energy you can get. Eat your veggies. On a similar note,

Take Your Vitamins/Meds – vitamin B, iron, vitamin C, midol, whatever. Know what you need and take it. Got a headache? Take aspirin, A.S.A.P. Heartburn? Find some Tums. Don’t try to play through the pain, it’s not worth it. Take care of your body and it’ll take care of you (or at least you’ll have less of a chance of collapsing from exhaustion and missing something awesome).

Have a Bike – Seriously, if you are anywhere within biking distance of downtown, have a bike. Parking is near-impossible and, while public transportation rocks, biking gives you more control over where you go and when. Plus it makes travel time faster and gives your tired tootsies a much needed rest.

Be Comfortable – I don’t really care what this means to you. If being comfortable means wearing loose clothes that you can move in, wear those. If being comfortable means looking awesome, do that. If you will be most comfortable in running shoes, wear them. If you’ll just feel better wearing sandals, wear sandals. You know you. You’ll be out for most of the day so if you are wearing something that doesn’t make you happy, you’ll spend more time thinking about how much you hate what you are wearing than you do enjoying the moment.

Get Up Early – I found this impossible, but then again, I can’t wake up before 11 on a normal day. But SO MUCH good stuff goes on before 1pm during SXSW, like panels (if you have a badge or can get around security) or day parties with free bloody marys and/or mimosas. If you’ve got a badge* you can chill out on beanbag chairs in the convention center in dimly lit rooms listening to bands perform. If you haven’t got a badge, you can chill out on benches in dimly lit bars listening to bands perform. Plus: day drinking. And I’ll tell you a secret: the best part of the fun is shuffling around in sunglasses, hung-over as hell, just like all of the other rock stars.

Wear Sunglasses – See above. Plus, all the cool kids are doing it.

Have an iProduct – or some sort of a smart phone. Besides being the way of the world, constantly being connected to the internet means you’ll be one of the first to know about secret shows, surprise performers, sudden parties and free food via email and twitter updates, PLUS you’ll be able to locate any venue or R.S.V.P. to any day party whenever you want to. If you needed more convincing, there’s an app for that. It allows you to search for bands by genre, check the official schedule and make your own schedule, so you’ll never end up at the wrong show or, you know, lost. Just try not to lose your iProduct.

Take a Nap – Absolutely crucial. You don’t actually have to nap, but you are going to need a break and if you don’t take this into account you may end up taking said break without meaning to. You may take your break wherever you want, whether this means heading back to home base, or passing out in a dark corner of a bar, one of the lounges, or against a tree in the park. Heck, you don’t even have to sleep if you don’t want to. Sometimes just finding a bar without a show or party going on, sitting on the fringes and having a drink in peace is enough to recharge your battery. Because honey, it’s gonna be a long night.

Don’t forget the Eastside – I have a feeling that out-of-towners and beginners tend to miss out on the Eastside. I know I almost did. There is just so much to do around the Convention Center and on 6th street, and I’m talking a mind-boggling amount of things to do and places to go, that making it ALL the way over on the other side of I-35 (it’s not really that far) can be daunting. But there is just as much to do on the Eastside and more of it is free. Plus, because there are far fewer official events, there’s a more laid-back feel and less pressure to see this band or that band. It felt more like an endless summer and less like a week-and-a-half-long event.

Be Flexible – You can think of SXSW as one of those choose your own adventure books. Are you going to make a detailed itinerary or wing it? Is it all about the shows for you or are they more of an excuse to escape normal life and party like there’s no tomorrow for a week and a half? Obviously, there are going to be things that you’re going to want to do and see, but the bottom line is, you’re going to have to be flexible. Because SXSW isn’t like any other festival. It isn’t a giant concert; it’s a giant clusterfuck. It doesn’t span three days and three or even eight stages in a giant field. It spans a week and a half, an entire city and includes an overwhelming number of performers. There is absolutely no way to exactly control your experience. You don’t know, your two favorite bands could be scheduled at the same time on opposite sides of the city. So I found it was better to just let go, drift and enjoy the experience.
If there is a show that you absolutely have to see or you’ll just die, get there an hour early. Sure, you’ll spend an hour standing in line when you could be living it up elsewhere, but the venues are small and reach capacity quickly. If you have to see this band, you stand a much better chance if you’re first in line than if you show up 5 minutes after the set has started (when you will be S.O.L.). But the good news is that many bands play multiple shows. And don’t forget the day shows. I missed out on a few bands because I couldn’t make their night shows and couldn’t get up in time to catch them during the day.
Obviously, it’s your adventure. I’m not you. I can’t tell you how to best figure out what to do with your time. For my part? I found that the way to enjoy SXSW was to forget about seeing bands I knew or loved. If I ended up at their show, great, awesome. But if not, I know I’d be willing to pay to see them at some other time. Instead, I went through the WHOLE schedule and made a list of bands that I thought looked interesting or that were playing at venues, where they were playing and at what times. That way, if I ever ended up without something to do, I’d be able find something close and interesting that I knew I’d enjoy. And if I didn’t make it to their shows, it wasn’t the end of the world and at least I’d found new music to listen to. But for the most part, I tried to not stress about the shows. I tried instead to focus on just existing in SXSW, that fascinating drunken world unto itself. I focused on surviving. Aaaaand sometimes I just focused on putting one foot in front of the other.

*(NOTE - Badges vs. wristbands vs. nothing: There are pros and cons for each. Badges give you priority for shows, access to panels and lounges in the Convention Center and other such perks, but they’re expensive and I have a feeling you can end up skipping the free stuff because you have the badge and want your money’s worth. On the flip side, you could just not buy anything, miss out on the big-name bands in small venues, but instead focus on the (often free) fringe and unofficial events which are just as awesome, if not more so. And then wristbands are right in the middle there, because they cost less than badges you only get second priority and it can be frustrating when you pay for a wristband, but still can’t get into a show because the venue has reached capacity and badges get priority. Also, wristbands don’t get you into the lounges and panels.)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

As Excruciatingly Long as SXSW

The day after the South By South West Music, Film and Interactive Festival (or, as we cool kids refer to it, SXSW) is kind of like a holiday. It’s the day when all the performers and speakers pack up with relief and everybody who worked the event sobs with relief and everyone who attended secretly sighs with relief because they can finally put the bottle of tequila back on the shelf. And it’s when everybody can finally sleep for more than 3 hours.
For me, (and I don’t know about everyone else,) it was kind of like the day after Halloween, except instead of gorging myself on candy, I skipped around the internet listening to all of my new favorite bands like a 6 year-old hyped up on pixie sticks and milky way bars. I decided it should be a three-day weekend to celebrate and so took Monday off. But I can do that because I’m unemployed. So no worries. Tuesday I made “happy end of sxsw” cupcakes. I am milking this holiday (like all other holidays) for all it’s worth.

And truth be told, we all deserve to relax, even those of us who spent the entire time partying. SXSW was a stretch of 10 days in which I survived on nothing but free hummus and tortilla chips, occasional bowls of oatmeal or trailer tacos and, of course, plenty of gin and tonics. I have 27 new mystery bruises and 4 or 5 scratches of which I have no memory of receiving. More than once I had to stumble home to collapse with exhaustion and/or dehydration for an hour before getting up and going out again. I got food poisoning, I cried, I got lost. Twice, I thought my bikes had been stolen. I had things thrown at me (specifically a Monster). And I wasn’t even in the worst of it, my SXSW wasn’t the bacchanalia that it probably could have been, if only I’d tried harder...

Some Austin natives might disagree (the festival has kinda sold out, gone mainstream. Check it out. ) but for me? Oh, it was all worth it.

Why? Allow me to tell you. (and hold on to your seats kids, it was a long week, it’s probably gonna be a longer post.)

So it’s almost cliché, but have you ever been to a concert in an old abandoned warehouse? A rave perhaps? I haven’t. But let me tell you, it is incredible. Walking into the abandoned power plant for a Diplo concert on one of the first nights, it hit me: the absolute magnitude of awesomeness that is SXSW. The power plant sits just outside the city center and is usually properly melancholy in the manner one expects of abandoned power plants. But that night it was like jumping into a LED display, a technicolored reality laced with adrenaline; even the air was throbbing and jostling. I remember it stilted, like it would be in a movie, flashes of people, so. many. people. all crushed together, teeming with life, pumping fists in the air and thrashing around, drowning in the music. It makes you feel like a part of something so Big and so Alive, so Real.

When I think of SXSW, I think music. But when I think of lots of things, I think of music. But for many people, SXSW is all about film and tech. Did you know that Twitter was launched at SXSW? I didn’t. I mean, even the Blogger dashboard is talking about SXSW. So anyways, the first half of the festival was ALL about film and tech, so it was naturally all about Things to Do: events, giveaways, sponsored parties with free food, meet-and-greets, and general networking opportunities. I mean really, that’s what people are there for; the networking. (I didn’t really network, unless you count pestering hard-working bartenders about whether or not their establishments might be hiring after the festival.) Music seemed inconsequential, or accidental.

I mean, we would stumble in to concerts that were half finished, or leave half way through. Long lines weren’t worth the wait, even if Prince did show up that one time after we left the line. And more often than not, if we made a concerted effort to see certain acts, we usually ended up somewhere else.

We did see Michael Cera and even that was an accident. I don’t remember why we ended up in the bar where his band was playing; but the point is, we all looked up and went “Huh. That skinny kid up there looks a bit like Michael Cera, doesn’t he?” Well, all except for me, because, of course, I know everything. “That IS Michael Cera, it HAS to be.” Then the guy standing in front of us turned around and said “yea, it is.” (But his eyes said “shut up, some of us are trying to listen to music.”)

***I’d like to take a moment during this transition to discuss something very serious.
This year, St. Patty’s day and SXSW coincided. Two reasons to party in the streets and drink heavily? Not a problem. Herein lays the problem: After making my way downtown, visions of Magners dancing in my head, I tripped up the stairs (as in skipped. Please, it was far too early to be stumbling, even on St. Pats) to the nearest pub I was stunned, STUNNED to see that there was a $15 cover charge at the door.
Now, my love for Ireland is well documented. As is my love for pubs. I’ve BEEN to Ireland, I’ve BEEN in Irish pubs. Let me be perfectly clear, a cover charge for a pub on St. Patrick’s Day is unacceptable. Absolutely unacceptable. It’s contrary to the whole spirit of the holiday. It makes me cranky. Also I couldn’t find any Magners. So that made me cranky too. But really? A cover charge? Just to enter the pub? That’s just purely offensive. ***

Music eclipsed film and tech on the 15th, and oh baby, from there on in was like mainlining music. It was like living the Doppler Effect: before you could out of earshot of one act, you’d find yourself immersed in another. It was everywhere. Bands in the streets, bands playing in bars; just walking down the streets, you could just pause and listen to a song or two on your way.


The problem with mainlining, is sometimes you can end up in the hospital. Fact of life. Have you ever been to a Strokes concert? They’re fun, energetic. I’d say peppy, but mostly just for spite. They played at one of the free outdoor concerts at Auditorium Shores. Luke Rathborne opened, I stood up near the front and he was fantastic. Here’s the thing about the Strokes that I forgot. They burst onto the scene back when my peers and I was 14 or 16. They were great. They’re still great, but their core constituency is still 14-16. Fine, there’s nothing wrong with that, but let me tell you, you don’t want to accidentally end up ANYWHERE close to the front at a Strokes concert. While whassisface is standing up there with a leather jacket and sunglasses on a night when it’s 80 degrees outside, you’re down in the pit with a bunch of teenagers and they are trying to kill you. They are trying their best to crush you to death and blow out your ear drums with high-pitched screams. Does that make me sound old? I don’t care. Do you know what it’s like to feel like you are going to die by teenager crushing? Absolutely terrifying. That’s how it feels. You’ll find yourself hoping beyond hope that security will kick you out if you crowd surf your way to the front because it may be your only chance of escape and survival.

Don’t worry, I escaped. There were riots after the concert. There were a lot of riots at SXSW. People tore down the fences and stole from the vendors. I bolted through what may or may not have been a new, hooligan-created exit and managed to get away before the police called a state of emergency. You see, I was late to The Kills concert, the only concert of the whole festival that I absolutely HAD to see. When I got there and saw the line stretching back from the door, I panicked. And when the doorman walked down the line and told us all that the chances of getting in were slim to none, I started to cry. I mean, not really of course, I just furiously blinked back tears. I was stunned, like a deer in the headlights and I stood there anyways, dwelling. Good thing I did too because 15 or 20 minutes later the line moved and I made it in for the last few songs of their set! Oh, I was SO happy, I almost cried again.
Then something seemed off. Here’s the thing, though I’ve tried three times to see the Kills, I’ve failed each time. So I’m not 100% sure what they look like live. It wasn’t until the set was over that I realized that I’d been in the wrong room and hadn’t been watching the Kills at all, and they hadn’t sorta changed their sound. I’d have cried again (no I wouldn’t) but She Keeps Bees are fucking AWESOME.

She Keeps Bees

And I’ll tell you a secret. Those are the moments that made SXSW worth it. The serendipity of stumping on a band you’d never heard of that was incredible and perfect and became your new favorite band.

Like when, one morning, I was browsing through the schedule and decided I liked the name of the band Fang Island. Long story short, I ended up standing outside their concert along with other intrepid fans, unable to get in but still able to hear the music. Like true, die-hard fans, right? (Except let’s be honest, true die-hard fans probably would have shown up an hour and a half before the show and waited to make sure they got inside and up front.)

Or how wandering aimlessly down 6th street one night, I heard something that fit my mood, slid into a bar and watched the second half of Stella Rose’s set. The drummer was wedged in the back, shirtless, dripping sweat and thrashing like Animal from the Muppets. The bassist was this little blonde pixie of a girl who was dressed like Olivia Newton John in the last scene of Grease, except minus the stilettos which somehow made the whole outfit sweet and who spent the entire show high-fiving the audience. The lead guitarist and singer wore Buddy Holly glasses and joked around like he was everybody’s best friend, but in a sincere kind of way. And in fact, you ended up feeling like you DID know the band, like they WERE your best friends and you found yourself pulling for them, wanting to see them do well, wanting them to succeed.

Or this one afternoon when I was wandering between outdoor shows in bar yards on the Eastside and stopped for lunch at a trailer park. I chatted with the guys at the juice trailer, I ordered French fries from a school bus and questioned the guy at hot dog stand about boiled peanuts. That’s about when I realized that I’d been totally digging the band playing in the next lot. And that’s how I found that I liked TV Girl generally and their song On Land specifically.

Trailer Park Lunchtime

You know how, on the last day of vacation, even if you’re absolutely exhausted, you feel like you have to cram everything that you did and didn’t do in? Yea, that was my Saturday night. Besides great music, I danced, I sprinted across the city to catch this band or that band, I met great people and made new friends, I ate fantastic late-night Vietnamese tacos (you thought Korean BBQ tacos were awesome? Yea, just you wait). And then when it was all over, I found that someone had locked their bike to mine with a U lock. After a solid 20 minutes trying to pick the lock with my bobby pins (because I can do things like that) I was rescued by a friendly pedi-cab driver. We rolled over the South 1st bridge at 3:30am with the reflections of the street lamps dancing on the water, and there was not a soul around. It felt like city was asleep for the first time in weeks and it was such pure relief.

Sunday couldn’t have been more perfect for a hungover holiday, couldn't have been a more perfect end. The sky was grey, not too bright, the warm Austin air coddled and everyone and everything moved slowly. In the late afternoon I made moves to a local coffeehouse and met a friend to see a recommended band. We lounged on a bench against the fence under palm trees and crossed strings of garden lights and listened to The Steelwells, and were lulled into a calm and harmonious peace.

The Steelwells

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Another "lost" generation

Sometimes people ask me why I moved to Austin. Sometimes I answer “Why not?” and leave it at that. Some other times I launch into an explanation of how I’ve really been living in the Bay Area my entire life and how I needed a change and how Austin has a great music scene, etc., etc. Then people usually respond by mentioning that they are hearing more and more about how so many people are flooding into Austin these days.

I usually don’t say anything after that, but I’ll let you in on a secret: that is the real reason I moved here. It’s always uncool to admit to being a follower, especially in a culture that so encourages children to be individuals and cherish their unique idiosyncrasies, but the simple fact is that I moved here because everyone else is moving here.

I could throw out clichés about how Austin is a city like no other but that would be trite and boring. And wrong. It’s not unlike any other. In fact, it’s actually very like other cities. Sure, drinks are cheaper here and the weather is hotter and for some reason I can’t seem to adapt to the driving style here, but sometimes I forget that I’ve left San Francisco or parts of LA or Portland or parts of New York. That’s the thing, Austin is a trendy city, just like all those other trendy cities, it just happens to have existed fewer years in the role.
The one defining difference I can see is the unashamed hipster status of this fine city. (Though, like any good hipster, Austin would categorically deny any accusations of the sort, and I’m sure a majority of the natives rightfully disapprove of the label as well.) The last time I visited Austin, a friend of mine made an anti-hipster comment and another friend turned and replied with “Get over yourself! Of course you’re a little bit of a hipster, we’re all a little bit hipster. You’re in Austin, you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t a little bit of a hipster.” And how true it is. In Austin there’s a lot of bike riding, green-living, vegan-eating, thrift-store-shopping, artsy-fartsy, politically-progressive, creative intelligent types. Oh, and everyone smokes American Spirits. Just sayin’.
Of course, the word “hipster” is a bit of dirty word in the same way that the Beats of the 50’s probably hated being called beatniks because it was a mainstream label for their very anti-mainstream aesthetic. Not everyone here wears tight pants and a permanent look of superiority and boredom, nor does everyone obsess over appearing studiedly indifferent to their cherished individuality. But individuality is incredibly important here in Austin and it’s actually truly genuine.

Possibly too important. There’s a post over on Hipstercrite that is filled with absolutely delicious ennui. An Austin transplant (as most of us apparently are), she begins to realize that she is “losing [her] individuality in a competition for who was the most unique.” She points out that our generation has the luxury of an overwhelming array of options, and not just in the supermarket. We were raised to believe that we can be anything we want to be, go anywhere we want to go, be with anyone we want to be with. But I think it goes even deeper. Beyond just being raised to believe that we do anything we wanted to, we also live in a culture where we can change that anything whenever we want. Don’t like your major? Change it. Don’t like your job? Quit and do something else. Don’t like your career? Switch. Don’t like your location? Move, it’s easy to do. Don’t like your partner? Get a divorce/separate/break up.
Worse still, many of us young people weren’t brought up with the bootstrap mentality that our grandparents and to some extent, our parents were. Occasionally the message “you can be whoever you want to be” would end with “if you try hard enough,” but more often than not, it didn’t. Or we just got bored and stopped listening half way through. My own mother tried so hard to teach me the importance of hard work and the concept of starting from the bottom and working your way to the top. But I know that I never believed her. I actually remember listening to her one day and thinking “yeah yeah. That's not gonna happen. If I can be anything I want to be, why would I ever choose to fetch coffee as an intern if what I really want to do is be a CEO?” Sure, logically we know that you have to start somewhere, but let’s be honest with ourselves, how many of us believe that this doesn’t really apply to us?

So what with the sensory overload and self-entitled assumption in the place of ambition, we wind up lost in the aisles of the grocery store, trying to figure out which of the thousand types of soap to buy before deciding to buy the one everyone else buys. After all, if everyone else is buying it, at the very least, it must not be bad.

We move to the hip new place because that’s where the opportunities are. That’s where it’s new and exciting and fast enough that we can maybe jump into the surge and skip a few rungs on the ladder to the top. I mean, how many people moved to New York in the early 1900s to become millionaires? How many people moved to LA in the mid-to-late 1900s to become famous? When you’re young and still believe that you can easily achieve your dreams, you want to be where the streets are paved with gold. Sure, most of us end up treading water, but it is a comfort to be surrounded by other people of this lost generation who are also treading water. After all, if they all chose that brand of soap, that city to live in, they can’t all be wrong. (Talk about a mixed bag of metaphors, huh?)

I’ll let you in on another part of my secret. That’s not the whole reason I moved here either. Sure, I want to pick up chunks of gold in the gravel at my feet just as much as the next kid. But it’s not so much that I moved here with the same mentality, it’s that I moved here because of the mentality. I moved here because we’re all moving here. Ariel and I have something in common. We both want to be where the people are. And I’m completely unashamed of that because people (and I don’t know if you know this) are incredibly interesting.