The Curmudgeon: The Ballad of SXSW

Music Features SXSW

I have never understood why so many people go to all the trouble to travel from New York to Austin every March and then spend all their time seeing the same bands they could have seen back in Brooklyn. Even those British and California buzz bands are going to be playing New York nightclubs in the coming months, so why see them in Texas?

The whole point of traveling to Texas, I thought, was to search out local acts from one of the world’s most fertile and distinctive music scenes. Some of those acts rarely travel to the East Coast or the West—and even those that do tour sound different when they’re playing in front of local crowds. There’s an unspoken understanding between performers and audiences from the same region that sparks performances that you’ll never hear on a road gig.

The South by Southwest Conference, which draws so many of us to Texas every March, emphasized that local angle when it began in 1987. The conference emphasized regional acts in the early years, but that focus became diluted over the years. Eccentric Texans like Jon Dee Graham and Joel Guzman are still lurking at the conference’s fringes, but the official showcases and especially the unofficial showcases are dominated by young indie-rock bands that could have come from anywhere.

It wasn’t that SXSW proactively decided to move away from regional acts; it’s more that the music industry ineluctably pulled the conference in that direction. Because the commercial apparatus of American music has always preferred universality to regionalism. If you’re trying to make money selling music, the natural tendency is to expand the potential market as broadly as possible by scrubbing off idiosyncratic characteristics to create an international sound that works as well in Oslo as in Oregon.

Don’t get me wrong; valid artistic arguments can also be made for universality. When someone like Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, Michael Jackson or Adele comes up with hooks, beats and stories so communal that any of us can find ourselves reflected in the song, that artist can obliterate the boundaries of region and genre to create a widespread, binding, thrilling response.

But look at that list again and you’ll see that every one of those acts built their early careers on a specific, regional form of the blues and/or hillbilly music and only later were able to transform it into something universal. If those regional scenes hadn’t been available to feed these talents, the resulting records would have been very different. If those scenes dry up from neglect, where will the next form of universality come from? Not from all those SXSW acts who want to skip the rootsy apprenticeship and leapfrog directly into a sound unmoored from geography. Not from all those next big things who mistake universality for homogeneity.

This month in Austin, nearly every parking lot, barroom, vacant lot, backyard and patio near downtown will be turned into a temporary stage where young bands and singer-songwriters will play their hearts out, hoping to catch the ear of some industry fairy godmother who might change the musicians’ lives with a wave of the wand. Those would-be godmothers with corporate credit cards tucked snugly in their faded, artfully torn jeans will whisper in the youngsters’ ears: Ditch the local sound and imitate what’s selling everywhere. It’s a classic case of the bland leading the bland.

This tension between regionalism and universality worried the music industry long before SXSW was even a gleam in the eye of the Austin Chronicle staff. Ever since national radio networks and national record labels first emerged in the early 20th century, businessmen have sought acts that could be sold in all markets. But that pull towards rootlessness has always been counteracted by the need for novelty. To sell a lot of records, an artist has to sound different from all the competitors but not so different that audiences get scared off.

So every decade in the music business repeats the same dynamic: Quirky regional acts are recruited because they don’t sound like everyone else, but that quirkiness is gradually ground down it’s just a signifier, a small variation on an accepted theme. Regionalism, in other words, becomes mere novelty. When the new sound becomes a universal sound and attracts a million imitators, all spurred on by a fairy godmother’s whispers, the business has no choice but to scour regional scenes once again in search of something original that they can transform into novelty. It’s the story of Def Jam as surely as it is of Motown.

This tension between regionalism and universality also exists within the heart of every performer. It doesn’t take long for a musician to get tired of playing for the same crowd in nearby bars every weekend for $50 per band member. And when you get really tired, you can’t help but ask, What can I change about myself so I don’t sound like a local act anymore and can start to sound like a national act or even an international act? When you’re convinced you sound like a viral mixtape from anywhere or a Pitchfork review of anything, then you empty your savings account, buy new tires for the van and drive to Austin.

For the listener, though, this tension shouldn’t exist. People who aren’t trying to make money from music, but are instead trying to draw emotional sustenance, have no reason to prefer the universal to the regional. If you are going to Austin for the music rather than the party, you’re missing the point if you go to see Jim James or Mumford & Sons when you could be seeing the Krayolas or John Fullbright. Instead of looking for the experience you could have gotten at home, you should be looking for the experience you could never get at home.

The friction between commerce and music that simmers below the surface of SXSW can be summed up in the following lyrics, to be sung to the music of Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd”:


Come gather ‘round me children
And a story I will tell
‘Bout Pretty Boy Floyd the singer
You all should know him well.

It was in the state of Texas,
On a March day, oh, so cold,
His band inside the step van,
Into Austin town they rode.

The record man approached him
In a manner rather rude,
Using vulgar words of language
And his band they understood.

Pretty Boy made an album.
He played just what he pleased.
The label didn’t hear a single,
So it never was released.

The boss man grabbed a contract,
Pretty Boy grabbed a gun
And in the fight that followed,
Only the lawyers won.

He took to the trees and highways
And lived a life of shame.
Every recoupable expense
Was added to his name.

He joined an indie label
On some far and distant shore,
And then he made some records
That the wider world ignored.

It was back in Austin City.
It was on St. Patrick’s Day
That he released an album
With liner notes that say:

You say that I’m a has-been;
You say my day has gone.
Here’s the best damn music
That I have ever done.

As through this world you travel,
You will meet some funny men.
Some will rob you with a six gun
And some with a fountain pen.

As through this world you ramble,
Every day and every night,
You will never see an outlaw
Take your publishing rights.

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