Death from above 1969, Altamont.
I couldn’t get in so left just minutes before the shit hit the fan outside the Beauty Bar during the Death From Above 1979 SXSW showcase.
According to the Houston Press the scene was…
[...] a mini-riot complete with a shoddy, downed fence, beer cans flying through the air, Austin police officers on horses, tasers going off, mace being expelled, and cops using extreme force to quell the crowd who couldn’t get inside the tiny patio venue.”
This was just one of several bad vibe situations at SXSW this year. With gatecrashers bumrushing the packed Strokes show, Ben Weasel’s freakout, Odd Future’s punkass tantrums, the camera jib disaster at the OMD show, Cee-lo Green and Lupe Fiasco’s no-shows (two of several acts that canceled at the last minute) and hundreds of invited guests being turned away at the Kanye West ego-stroke, this year’s SXSW was the Altamont of music industry circle jerks.
I live in Austin and attending SXSW doesn’t involve costly travel or expensive hotel rooms. It’s relatively cheap way for me to see emerging bands and old warhorses. So I go. But this year was a fiasco for me and 1000s of attendees. I was turned away, like so many others, from most shows because of the overselling of wristbands and badges and hype-driven showcases of bands no one will even remember a year from now.
As someone who has organized concerts and run music venues, I understand the complexities involved and that there are things beyond any organizers control. But SXSW has allowed itself to become an unruly monster that has little to do with the exposure of new bands to the press, music industry and public.
SXSW has become less about music and more and more about creating an illusion of relevance and importance. I’m not sure what the bands or the dying music industry think SXSW is going to do for their careers. There was a sense of desperation at SXSW this year that comes from the deep down knowledge that everyone attending was being scammed on some level. From the delusional music business lackees looking for one last gasp of the rarefied air of rock and roll privilege to the bands playing in parking lots and alleyways for a dozen people while established stars like Kanye are packing them in at a converted power plant (power is right), SXSW has turned into the very thing it was originally designed to be an alternative to: a music industry dinosaur. It needs to either be radically re-designed or put out of its misery because, like a rotting hunk of prehistoric meat, it’s starting to stink up the place. The folks behind SXSW need to do some serious soul-searching and do it now.
Orchestral Maneuvers In The Dark’s Andy McCluskey is quoted in the music press as describing the SXSW venue he played in as being a “shithole.” And this was even before a camera jib collapsed into the audience at OMD’s show the following night resulting in several injuries. Why are rock fans and bands willing to be treated like shit by concert promoters? From having to piss in rank smelling porta-potties to standing for hours in long lines and being herded into clubs like cattle, rock audiences seem to be gluttons for punishment. Since when did it become a badge of honor for a rock fan to be abused after spending a few days wages on a rock concert? Does this go back to some primal collective cultural memory of dancing in mud and shit at Woodstock or pool sticks pounding flesh at Altamont?
I went to SXSW 2011 with cautious optimism, being somewhat cynical after my lousy experience last year. I was hoping for a better organized and more equitable fest and it did have its positive moments and certainly should be credited for the shows that did result in upbeat energy for the audiences and bands. Among the ones I saw, TV On The Radio, Psychic TV, Hong Kong Blood Opera, OMD, Charles Bradley, Mark Eitzel, Noah And The Whale, Foster The People, The Black Angels, The Vaccines, Jesse Malin and Scala & Kolacny Brothers were good to great. But these bands are touring, signed or been around for awhile and can be seen in far less chaotic settings than SXSW.
And to the people who spent $750 on badges, was it worth it? With average ticket prices for concerts in Austin generally running $25 or less throughout the year for many of the bands that appeared at SXSW 2011, that $750 could have bought tickets for 30 or more live shows. And for out-towners who spent their cash on travel, hotels and badges, you could have stayed home and with the money you saved hired a few of the struggling indie bands to come play at your house. Your own mini SXSW in your own crib. And I bet your living room has better lighting and sound than the alcove of a coffeeshop where I saw one band heroically try to put on a show as they watched their SXSW dream slip away.
Of all the shit that goes on at SXSW, it is seeing the little guys, the unknown groups, the frontline of rock and roll, get fucked by the heartless greed machine that this perversion of a festival has become. SXSW is an aging vampire sucking the vital fluids of young rockers while the music industry zombies are working up their pathetic hard-ons and tossing off like guilty priests in their the corporate goodie bags. That smell in the air ain’t teen spirit, it’s the foul scent of aging scrotal sacs contracting for one last spurt before they deflate into useless flaps of flesh. I’m having visions of Pasolini’s Salo dancing in my head.
What are Foo Fighters, Duran Duran, Kanye West, Queens Of The Stone Age and corporate flame-outs like Panic At The Disco and The Bravery doing at a festival that is ostensibly about new music? Or is it really about new music anymore? Do established bands come to SXSW to restore flagging careers or re-ignite indie cred? I have nothing against big acts attending SXSW other than they draw crowds away from some young band that has traveled to Austin at great expense to play in an empty dive bar. These are the bands that should be getting the attention because they need it. Fuck Kanye.
Part of the problem lies not with SXSW but with all of the corporate sponsored parties and temporary venues that occur simultaneously with SXSW, feeding off of its energy. These events bring in more bands and more people resulting in more traffic and more chaos. The thing is SXSW benefits from being associated (unofficially) with big gun brands and bands. It is a mutually beneficial relationship, but adds 1000s of additional people to the already maxed-out 19,000 official attendees. It is more than the streets and hotels can handle. Car and human gridlock make the festival a frustrating and occasionally dangerous spectacle.
My suggestion is to kill the music festival and keep the SXSW film festival. For $70 a film fan can get into virtually any film screening at the fest and the venues are mostly state-of-the art. For music, Austin City Limits and Fun Fun Fest are doing a far better job of bringing music to the people.
Here’s what I missed at the Death From Above 1979 gig: