Tryna Be A Rockstar, Part III – SXSW As An Austinite

Dispatches from the front lines of the music industry.

South By Southwest, or SXSW as it is internetly known, has grown into a globally-renowned technology and arts conference that takes place each March in Austin, TX. For the thousands of tourists that descend upon Austin over those two weekends, it’s like going to any big sporting event. Tons of people, traffic is terrible, food is expensive.

If you live in Austin, you get all of that, except you have a job so instead everyone just gets in your way.

But if you’re in a BAND and you live in Austin. Well then. It is the busiest week of the year! Kind of like holy week for churches. Or finals week for students. Or having-a-baby-week for new parents.

Everywhere and anywhere becomes a music venue during the non-technology portion of SXSW. The official conference only has a fraction of the acts that perform during the week. And because so many people are visiting the city, every band wants to get as much exposure as possible. This means there is too much music for too many people and it is just like any other day in Austin where nobody remembers who you are. Except way more fun, because you actually have audiences.

Everybody’s SXSW is different, depending on which shows they went to, which streets they happened to walk down while some band set up on a sidewalk, how long they felt like waiting in lines to see established acts, or how stupid they were to spend money on music that week when so much of it is free.

But here are some tales from my own particular SXSW as I played 9 shows with three separate acts over 8 days. I could probably edit it down a bunch, but I’ll leave it long so you get a sense of how crazy of a week it is to live through.

Show #1 – Sunday. We played at a bar/lounge across the street from a strip club. During a break in our set, while standing on the patio outside, a WHITE SCHOOL BUS WITH A FULL ROCK BAND ON THE TOP DROVE BY. I noted their name, Interstellar Transmissions.

Show #2 – Tuesday. I played my first open mic ever. I was on accordion with my friend Brian on guitar in a smoke shop / tattoo parlor in a little strip mall. The dozen people there sat at little tables and applauded supportively. We played about three songs. It was all very chill.

Technically, these first two gigs were not really scheduled as part of the SXSW hoopla, but they happened in Austin over those two weeks, so I count them.

The first gig that was really “during” SXSW was at a restaurant/bar by the highway on Thursday. As I drove to it, I listened to the live broadcast of Bruce Springsteen giving his keynote address to the conference. The sun was out. My car was full of drums. The traffic loomed in the distance. The Boss was talking directly to me, “When you walk onstage tonight to bring the noise, treat it like it’s all we have.” I knew it was going to be an epic weekend.

But not without setbacks. A half hour before my band was supposed to begin on the outdoor stage at this restaurant, they say no, we’re supposed to play inside, and ask us to bring our stuff through the back. A disappointment – the outdoor stage was clearly better. However, “the back” was not a hallway or the kitchen. “The back” was a very large room. A very cold room. A very keg-filled room. I know restaurants and bars have storerooms, but this was beer warehouse heaven. It was also A Very Hot Day (yes, even in March) so we were quite happy to hang out in this humongous refrigerator. We played a solid show. I got some free beer.

That evening, I went downtown to catch some of the action. I wanted to see some music. See what all the fuss was about.

Let me pause to explain what downtown Austin is like. There are tall office buildings, state government buildings, various garages, churches and other structures. Just like any city’s downtown. And bars. Lots of bars. 6th street in particular has several blocks of literally nothing but bars. I’m not at all kidding. The only street I’ve seen like it was Bourbon Street in New Orleans, except 6th street is about twice as wide and has fewer balconies. On weekend evenings, they often close the street to cars and it feels like a big frat party. Several other streets have bars too, but not as dense or crazy as Dirty 6th. If you’re downtown on a weekend, there will be some amount of people wandering around most streets, but a ton of people on 6th.

During SXSW, everywhere downtown is like 6th street.

And in Austin, the word “bar” is synonymous with “place with live music.” Year-round.

I should also explain Red River Street. It is perpendicular to 6th and once upon a time ran along The Red River (now a dry ditch). The bars on a few-blocks stretch open out onto the “river” where many of them have built outdoor stages. Because Red River and 6th are the places-to-be the rest of the year, the SXSW conference often books their official concerts at bars on those streets, making them feel evenmore like the-place-to-be.

When we went downtown that evening, we went to that area. We ended up at an incredibly bright bar where everything was painted white and an official SXSW lineup of bands was performing. Friends of ours had volunteered to staff some events (many locals do this to get in on the action without the several-hundred-dollar registration fees) and they were working at this bar so they let us in free. But the band on stage wasn’t very good, so we went out to the back patio with our drinks. Normal casual hangout back patio this was not. Instead, it was across a fence from an an incredibly raucous and sweaty heavy metal show. I found a spot where I could peer through and watch them thrash around to an audience thrashing even more. The drums sounded like cardboard and the whole thing was noise and anger. It was awwhhsome.

Then there was the Friday marathon day. Three gigs. Three locations. All before 7pm. Naturally, we were incredibly late leaving the house to start the day and I was terrified we wouldn’t make it 1) through traffic 2) through unloading at the venue on busy-street Red River without incurring the wrath of uptight parking cops 3) to find parking that wouldn’t kill my wallet 4) getting back from parking to the gig and 5) through setting up my drums in time for the downbeat. Magically, we made it all in an hour, despite the anal cop that almost gave me a ticket for parking on a corner for 90 seconds.

Halfway through the set, our singer’s guitar amp died, adding to the helter-skelter. A sign on the wall where we played said “No Folsom Prison Blues.” Johnny Cash gets played wayyy way way way way wayyyyyyyyyy too often in Austin. I can vouch for this. That sign is hilarious.

Gig ends. We break down our stuff. I run to car. I drive back to gig. There’s now a loading zone marked off for bands. We load. I drive to next gig. Bandmate neglects to stand in and save SUPER MAGIC PARKING SPOT RIGHT NEXT TO GIG for the 5 seconds it would take me to turn around to get in it, so someone else immediately snatches it up. We illegally park briefly to unload (no cops around this time, it’s a neighborhood) and then I’m off to hunt for a spot. Fifteen blocks away. In an area where you wouldn’t want to leave valuables in your car. The gig is a pig roast, except they only had just started roasting the pig, so there was no food to eat. My stomach complained. We played on the back porch in the sunlight for the neighborhood. As I walked to and from my car, I heard several of these backyard concerts going on. Austin was music.

Gig ends. We break down our stuff. I walk the mile to my car. At this point I need food and drink (did I mention it was Another Very Hot Day?) which I obtain at the same gas station where I refueled before I parked (oh yeah, I was running out of gas this whole time). Return to load stuff in car and drive five blocks (takes 15 minutes in the traffic) to the next gig on 6th street aka THE STREET OF PARKING AND UNLOADING HELL. Don’t get me wrong, 6th street on friday at 6pm is one of the most ideal sets a local band could hope for during SXSW. I just wanted to still own my car at the end of the day…

Thankfully, they let us unload in a blocked-off street (the parking/unloading cops all seemed to have different information, adding to the general stress) which led to an alleyway and the back door of the venue.

This bar was long and skinny and the stage was right at the front with the drummer in the open window. But it’s awkward because the band was set up in a line so I couldn’t hear the guitarist at the other end of the stage.

But oh man, I was drumming for the whole street! I should mention that the entire day I was wearing turquoise pants and, it being a Very Hot Day, no t-shirt but a fancy black vest you usually wear with a suit. I am not a muscular person. I looked lanky and silly. BUT MOTHAFKN ROCK N ROLLLLLLLLLL!!!!! We played one of the most fun shows I’ve ever played. Our singer climbed out the window and stood on a ledge, singing out to the whole street. Crowds stopped and watched. Smartphones took pictures. I drummed harder and wilder. Making faces. Standing up and mashing the already-destroyed drum kit the bar had provided. Twirling mah sticks. That. Was a Gig to Remember.

Gig ends. I retrieve my car from the overpriced $20 garage. We load. I leave everyone else downtown and go home. I had recently purchased a vintage electric theater organ that needed cleaning. I showered and then spent the whole evening in the empty house dusting the innards of the organ and replacing its broken keys. It was a zen ending to a wild day.

Another part of this saga happening simultaneous to all these gigs was that a friend of mine and his girlfriend came to visit right at the peak of the excitement. Except I was always gone at gigs while he was at the house and vice versa. So every time I was done with shows for the day I would try to find him and figure out how we could park and meet up, to no avail. Fiiinally on Saturday we meet up and go to one of the best hole-in-the-wall cajun restaurants ever. Ridiculously delicious.

Later that night, we are walking around downtown after having listened to Michael Jackson’s Man In The Mirror in the car. Naturally, this means we periodically belt out, “TAKEALOOKATYOURSELFANDTHENMAKEA. CHANGE!” (with modulation) to the confusion of whoever is near us. Later, we stop for a good half hour watching an Indian (as in India) folk band who is playing while sitting on a sidewalk. They have a tabla player who I drool over. After that, we pay the cover for the 1AM set at the only jazz joint in Austin, where we see the local hammond organ trio, which my friend and I (us both keyboardists – we once did Dueling Rhapsody In Blue) subsequently drool over as well.

The last anecdote I have is about the end of SXSW. Sunday evening. Nothing official is happening anymore. All the people who traveled thousands of miles to Austin are heading out so they can start their work week. For some reason, both of my bands booked Sunday evening gigs. There. Was. Nobody. At. Them.

One was at a hotel restaurant that supposedly had bands playing the whole weekend. Hotel restaurants are lame already. Empty hotel restaurants on Sunday nights are some of the most depressing place for live music. A couple was lazily playing pool on the tables behind where the band was set up. Felt even more lackadaisical than the gigs you play in high school.

The other gig was at a huge dancehall/bar that had just opened and was nowhere near downtown, so naturally no one except our couple friends bothered to drive to it and see us. Plus our guitarist had gotten really sick from the exhaustion of the week. But we persevered.

Thus endeth probably one of the only SXSW’s I will ever be a part of. It’s a pretty exciting time for spectators (music everywhere you turn!) and the best time to play shows. But if you’re hoping for promotion, it’s almost not even worth it. There is just wayyyyyy too much going on. Might be better to move to a city with no music scene and dominate that market as your way of tryna get to the top.

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One Comment on “Tryna Be A Rockstar, Part III – SXSW As An Austinite”

  1. PDB Says:

    perhaps you should try being in a proggy metal band, like Baroness or Mastodon. Nice to read your stuff man. See you on the 2 and 4.

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