South by South…what?

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Taken as a whole, the annual South by Southwest conference held every year in Austin is the perfect creative storm. There are no three industries—interactive, film and music—better serviced by all being in the same city, getting served the same amount of alcohol, at the same time. As I commented in my last column for STEP: “It’s the continuing convergence between the festival’s parts—the businesses of digital downloads, documentaries and dotcoms now have some serious overlap—that makes for another unique level of serendipitous conversation in the Austin streets.”

Sure, there’s not much official overlap between the semi-concurring festivals, but due to the all-welcome, come-as-you-are, free-beer-in-the-back indie mentality, during my visits I’ve somehow always managed to indulge in all three. SXSW has provided me with so many random encounters with famous people, so many exhilarating historic moments, so many dear close friends…it’s changed my life, really. So I’m apprehensive about writing a single negative thing about it. (And to be clear, I’m not talking about daytime programming because let’s be honest: More connections happen per minute at the parties. It’s all about the parties.)

Once I was on the ground in Austin, I started getting the bummed-out texts from people waiting in lines. Suddenly I felt like I was too late for everything. The line at the Google party looked like it had returned over a million results (a few people were so disgruntled they went and held their own “Alta Vista” party). The hosts of the at-capacity Flickr party definitely had one too many contacts marked ‘friend.’ The Digg party was sidewalk scene of thumping techno one-in-one-out that I can’t say me or anyone else I knew Dugg. Lines, lines, everywhere lines. I can only remember waiting in one line during the last two years. And it was short.

Lines are now only part of the problem. Last year I relayed the general ire against Good for charging $20 at the door of their party. I know, $20 went to a great cause—Creative Commons—and you got a one year subscription to a great magazine (that ended up including some articles by me, so thank you, really, if you paid). But it wasn’t about shelling out the $20, it was the idea that after everyone here had paid between $275 and $1050 just to be at SXSW, some company had the nerve to exclude anyone for any reason from their party. It completely violates the easy-going, community-building spirit that defines SXSW. This year, Good listened: Their great party at the San Jose Hotel—where I saw Kimya Dawson and the Noisettes—was free. But cover charges continue to happen. When I got to the only show I was hyping here, the Money Mark-Tommy Guerrero-Pigeon John lineup promoting Beautiful Losers, I was dismayed to see that it was $10 at the door. People I knew refused to buy tickets, simply on principle. (Although I have to say those who opted out, missed out.)

But lines and pay-to-party are pocket change compared to what else I saw this year. Did you want to see Justice play the Playboy party? You better be Elijah Wood. Actually step inside the fabled “Fader Fort” featuring a tribute to Lou Reed? Are you on the list? Community-minded LA public radio station KCRW’s showcase was all-access but they co-sponsored a Vampire Weekend show with Spin that was invite-only. Why? From KCRW’s SXSW blog: “The invite-only event is packed to capacity this year because Spin always books great bands.”

Of course the best argument here is that I’m just bitter because I wasn’t invited (true). But I’m also bitter because I was never, ever once offered a free beer.

I’m not really saying SXSW has become “corporate” or “mainstream” (I’d never have known about it if it wasn’t; see this WSJ article for that discussion). But I do know that next year I’m going to have to work a little bit harder to have those sparkling, serendipitous SXSW moments. Like wrapping my fingers around a Lone Star at Brooklyn promoter Todd P’s showcase while Ninjasonik took the stage at the exclusive-as-a-parking-lot Ms. Bea’s. They closed with the song “Tight Pants“: In hindsight/I saw that your crew was trying to dress like mine/in tight pants. It required some sing-along audience participation which made it even more hilarious because everyone in the audience was wearing extremely, um, tight pants.

Like dodging local kids doing kick flips at skate shop No Comply after the well-received premiere of Beautiful Losers. Or my own personal tribute to Lou Reed: Sitting inches from him while watching his Julian Schnabel-directed concert film Berlin. Or stumbling into a steamy Emo’s by accident just as Be Your Own Pet electrified the stage like an American Apparel ad come to life, and later, as the Black Keys shook the room to its soulful, sexy core.

Or like the highlight of my week—leaving Austin behind completely and driving 25 minutes on buttery fresh-paved roads to the transcendent pit BBQ at the Salt Lick. We were seated immediately by the smiling hostess, a neighboring table passed over their leftover Modelos, and the only tight pants were the ones worn by my dining companions at the end of our meal.

At least I know where to go first next year.

I deferred to the better photographer in the group to document the week; check out his shots here.

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