A friend of mine asked me recently if going to South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas was worth it.
Sure, I told him, if you’re a music fan. Not necessarily if you’re a musician.
But my band, The Belle Game is going anyway, even though it’s going to cost us over $5000.
We’ve never sold a song to a Volkswagen commercial, nor have we signed a cushy record deal with a sizable enough advance to afford us heaps of cocaine and hookers. No, we truly are an indie band: We’re broke. But we’ve decided we’re going to SXSW because blowing thousands of borrowed dollars for a week of rock’n’roll mayhem in the streets of sunny Austin, with the slim possibility that someone even mildly important will see us perform (and like us), seems like a better option than dodging the rain up here in Vancouver. That, plus we were invited.
Call it a waste of money; I call it an indie band rite of passage.
As a music fan, is it worth it for you to make the pilgrimage with us to Texas this March? For the past 27 years South by Southwest has been one of the largest gatherings of its kind in the world. It’s a music business piss-up, hipster Disneyland, celebrity playground, tech geek’s wet dream, giant corporate billboard, and non-stop pig roast, rolled into one frenzied week of glad-handing, showcasing, deal-making, and substance-abusing.
You will go through music puberty at South By. You will get baptized with booze. And my band will transition from the good grades and dry dances of junior high, to the class-skipping, backseat car sex, and bush parties of rock’n’roll high school.
Imagine yourself on 6th Street in Austin’s central party zone. With a festival schedule in one hand and a perpetual beer in the other (you’re allowed open alcohol on 6th Street) you rush from one conference to the next, from barbecue pit, to party, and one bar to another. All day long, every day. There will be no resting at your hotel room in between showcases, because unless you booked your room months in advance, your hotel will be a motel on the outskirts of Austin.
My band couldn’t get a hotel. Six of us will be sharing the hardwood floor of a yoga studio with Vancouver’s Juno Award-winning 5-piece, Said The Whale. An 11-person indie rock slumber party that promises to produce some side projects, hangovers, and maybe even a baby or two.
Both bands will be thrown into the mix with over 2,000 others from around the world who’ve jockeyed for position to play in one of the hundred venues in the downtown core. This is great for you as a music lover. But it’s a crapshoot for us as musicians, because every band there wants the best time slot at the best venue on the best night. And only big names and buzz bands get those slots.
When I performed at South By with Tegan and Sara in 2003 and 2005, we were one of those “buzz bands.”
At a Levis/FADER magazine party I witnessed Feist deliver a spine-tingling solo set, accompanied by gusts of wind ripping through the backyard venue from a passing thunderstorm, just as she raised her arms to punctuate a vocal high note in “The Water.”
I was amongst a few hundred fortunate people watching Brit-pop legends Blur performing at a guestlist-only event in the sweaty hipster dive of La Zona Rosa.
At a Spin magazine house party somewhere in the suburbs of Austin, I did things that I think were acceptable…they may have even been fun, but I can’t remember because I drank way too much, blacked out, and came to in the back of a cab as it pulled up to my hotel.
Sorry to say, music fan, that a 2013 version of the above scenarios will likely not be happening to either of us. My band isn’t buzzing enough (yet) to afford me the credentials that allow me to skip the line. And you’re a mere civilian, a music lover (thank you), who’s spent their own thousands of dollars (festival passes range from $450–$1600) to party as much like a rock star as you can without actually being one.
Here, then, is the most likely scenario for you and me during our week in Austin:
My band, along with the majority of the other up-and-coming indie bands, will very likely not get famous after playing SXSW. Neither will you, indie rock appreciator. But both you, and my band, may go into debt trying.
Unless you’ve heard of my band (The Belle Game), and like our music (dark-ish indie pop), you probably won’t be at our shows (Thursday, 12am, Brass House / Saturday, 5pm, Friends Bar). You’ll be in line trying to get into the Vampire Weekend, Kendrick Lamar, or Tegan and Sara shows. Some of our friends in other Vancouver bands might show up to support us though. That would be nice. The employees of our indie record label will most certainly be there (they have to). And they may even convince a few dealmakers and key holders from across the music industry landscape to pop by.
But, say you do come to our show. You’ll be able to tell your friends, “I remember seeing The Belle Game at South By way before they shot to indie-rock stardom.”
I can guarantee we’ll play with heart and ferocity. We’ll sweat for you, crash into each other, break sticks and strings, maybe even draw some blood. We’re a good time. Afterward we’ll take advantage of the beer sponsorship and shmooze with the suits while you buy us a round of shots.
Then you, our new fan-friend, and us in the band will head out into the warm Austin night in search of some roadside tacos and a lineup we can stand in, with the hopes of seeing a band we’ve all heard of.