They grow ’em big in Texas, so it’s fitting that SXSW has begun to grow exponentially into a behemoth of a festival. I’m not actually there this time, kind of a bummer, but I can’t help wonder if I’d be somewhat frustrated if I were. SWSX has been going on for a long time, and it’s as respectable as they come in it’s scope and ambition – both of which have increased dramatically in the last decade.
Some new numbers on attendance look daunting though. What began in ’87 with 700 registrants, was as of last year, a festival of about 35,000 participants. And this year, according to the Hollywood Reporter, “Based on anecdotal evidence and unofficial figures, this year’s total… ran closer to 50,000.” you might not notice if 50,000 people dropped into Chicago or New York, but in a city of 750,000 like Austin, you’d notice. Especially since they’re all wildly bombed.
What’s more, SXSW is essentially an intimate affair, with really small venues. Most of them are just pubs that turn into clubs for 10 days give or take. Festival director Janet Pierson is all over it, but it might be too late for many in long lines being turned away already this year. “This is No. 1 on the list of challenges to tackle. We’re aware of it; we’re sorry about it. It’s something that we’re really going to have to sit down and look at from every angle,” she told THR.
I remember well my last time at SXSW (maybe not that well) and how beautifully disheveled it all was, yet well run. It was perfect, I didn’t want to be anywhere else in the world. Even when the cops took down some anti-corporate protesters and beat the shit out of some poor drunk guy on 6th street right in front of me – the only injustice I witnessed.
It was 2004 and already I had to stay in a hotel just outside the downtown area, the place was so booked up. It wasn’t on my dime so it was no big deal and I spent most nights crashed up somewhere closer to the action anyway. As crammed as some of the venues were, there was always a laid back vibe, no pushing or dickery. Even the rampant looting of promo goodies was done in good spirits. I witnessed a guy saying he was with a band called the Flaming Balls walk into a hotel suite filled with boutique giveaways and load up an industrial-sized garbage bag he’d taken from housekeeping with a small fortune in hair products, shoes, hats and miscellaneous hip accoutrements. No one gave a shit except the housekeeping lady who glared at him as he dragged the bag, too heavy to carry, down the hallway on his way out.
Later, after an all night party in a warehouse, burning one with The Walkmen, I cabbed back to a ridiculous after-hours at the looters crib. There was no band called the Flaming Balls, he was just some legend from LA who’d set up shop in Austin for the week – PlayStation, air conditioning, and a wad of hundred dollar bills – stealing from the rich and giving to young girls or something. There was rumor of a vending machine you could get joints out of. I saw chill people I’d known for years literally laying in gutters in the street, happier then they’d ever been in their lives. I saw TV on the Radio in a really small room for the last time.
SXSW is one of those magic places where you end up rolling with a motley crew of friends, work associates, and musicians who normally don’t hang – and some hugely blown out strangers. Some of what goes on I wouldn’t write about but it’s all quite wonderful I can assure you. It’s a place where you can make your way into most anything and if you miss a band they are almost always playing again somewhere else. There’s not a lot of attitude or injustice towards the average pleb, unlike some other festivals I know (Austin police have a mind of their own). I hope it manages to stay that way for my inevitable return.