My good friend and long time collaborator Bill Reese visited the 21st annual South by Southwest Music conference in Austin, Texas earlier this month. Here is what he had to say
South By Southwest 2007: The Last Days of Indie Rock By Bill Reese
We haven't even left the gate at Kennedy and the arguments begin. "I'm not going to any shows labeled 'Rock' or any bands who call Austin their hometown," bemoans a Brooklyn hipster and music blogger. "Yeah dude," chimes in his buddy in the seat next to him, "Indie rock is totally dead." If these princes of pretension are right and indie rock is dead,then for two weeks, Austin, Texas is the largest conference of zombie sand the living dead this side of a Sam Raimi film.
Regardless of the state of modern music, The South By Southwest(SXSW) Music and Media Conference is music's biggest trade show, a veritable smorgasbord of guitars, drums, amps, demo tapes, press kits,business cards, hair gel and tacky thrift-store clothes. In it's 21st year, the festival engulfs the city like a wildfire,the heart of which lies on the main drag of 6th Street. If you took New York's defunct CBGB, Los Angeles' Roxy and Whisky-A-Go-Go,Chicago's Metro, DC's 9:30 Club and half of New Orleans' Bourbon Street and put them all on the same road, it would probably look a lot like 6th Street. From the highway all the way over to the high-rises to the west, 6th street is bar after bar after restaurant after venue after club. At any point during the afternoon there are five or six bands fighting for your attention along with street teams handing out mini flyers, stickers and tickets for free beer to anyone who will give them an earshot.
After a full day of beer, barbecue, sunburned necks and ruptured eardrums, night falls on the city and the amps get a little louder,the lights shine a little brighter and a savage fight between potential and kinetic energy breaks out on every bar room floor and every makeshift stage. At about 8:00, a panic sets in among the all-access badge-wearers like myself who must decide whether to wait on long lines and sit through shitty bands in order to hear the weekend's big headliners. If you check out a few bands across town there's no guarantee that you can get into the headline acts that usually go on at midnight. The city's aural curfew may be set at 2:00 am, but as soon as the final shows let out, 6th is flooded with people. On any other day,musicians and reporters, agents and DJs, groupies and girlfriends would be separated by our respective professions and passions, but underneath the neon lights of this beer-drenched boulevard everyone is equal. This is the engine of the music industry, and we are the gears.
By the time the sun rises on Saturday morning, the Texan capital is calm. There is an air of exhaustion that hangs over the entire city,almost like a scene out of The Great Gatsby where the overindulgence of music, beer and barbecue has begun to take its effect on everyone.The musicians rest their guitars down at every stoplight, weary from carrying their gear from place to place. The festival's army of volunteers is droopy eyed, burnt out from a week of preparations and the festival itself. At 11:15 am, most of the revelers and a fair amount of the music press are having a Motrin cocktail at one of the hotels in downtown, not yet ready to venture forth into the forth and biggest day of the festival when the University of Texas spring breakers return from Cancun or Panama City, ready to pack the bars and clubs and reclaim the city as their own. The press room is quiet on the third floor of the convention center. The pitter patter of keyboards and the sucking sounds of the coffee machines cover the deep sighs emanating from these purveyors of the printed page.
We have come out to the Texas plains to deliver a veritable "state of the union" message on our music scene. I'm reminded suddenly of the hipsters on the plane from New York. If this is "Independent" rock,why is everyone conforming to the same mold? Why does every 15 year old packing the clubs know more about these underground emo bands than the 25 year old journalists who were there when the scene was born?Why does it seem that the most unique, original and provocative acts relegated to lunchtime showcases when half of the festival has yet to wake up, meanwhile more popular but less talented groups are showcased during the jam-packed evening shows? And God damn it, how the hell are these people drinking this LoneStar Beer, it's worse than a day-old, room-temperature Pabst!
By the time my cab drops me off at the airport before dawn on Sunday morning, you can still see a fog floating over downtown. Perhaps it's just light pollution, or perhaps it's the smoldering ashes of this wild party. Perhaps it's the smoke from the heads and feet of burnt out musicians, festival volunteers and bartenders.Perhaps it's the burning, sinking battleship that is popular music and the Hindenburg that is the music industry, or perhaps it's the moguls behind South By Southwest lighting their cigars with $100 bills, laughing all the way to the bank with their millions of dollars. Or maybe those hipster rejects were right. Maybe indie is dead, and we are all just zombies spreading the sickness around.