Friday Top 5: SXSW Is No Fun

A few years ago, we had a huge debate about which Austin festival was the best, Austin City Limits or SXSW.  In the interim, other great festivals have gained status in our world, such as the incredible Fun Fun Fun Fest, and although SXSW was our favorite then, I’m just not so sure.  Looking back, I should have seen this coming; I should have known that the hey-day of SXSW was slowly in decline. Now, I’m not saying that I’m ungrateful that so many incredible bands flock to Austin once a year, but rather I’m pointing out a few things that, to me, demonstrate just how far things have spun out of control in recent years.  Take note that this is just one man’s opinion, and not necessarily the opinion of Austin Town Hall.  And, in all likelihood, you’ll probably still see me out about town in my Killin Time Til Dave hat, I just won’t be too happy about it!


5. The Land of Corporate Sponsors

I get it folks.  I understand that the economy is in a huge crisis, and we should all be grateful that there are so many companies willingly supporting independent music, but it seems that everyone under the sun now gets to sponsor an event of some sort, even if it has no relevance to the event as a whole.  But, SXSW was not always this monstrosity with the sole focus of creating a financial boom for Austin, or for the companies that sponsor it.  Long ago, in a different landscape, it was indeed about the music, it was indeed about the film, and it was indeed an entirely different affair.  Perhaps it is just me, but when the whole event was more about discovery and music, it seemed a lot more carefree.  There’s a certain paradox that exists when all these bands with ties to independent music and helping the little guy come into town piggybacking the corporate giants. I guess we’re no longer Keeping It Weird.


4. Affordability

Admittedly, markets all experience inflation, but this seems just absolutely ridiculous to me.  Back in the day, and not even that far back, one could purchase tickets (multiple ones) for less than $70, yet this year, that’s not even half the cost.  You include the clever trick of supply and demand, and anyone could get away with it. Offer a few thousand tickets at a reasonably low cost, yet still double the original prices, and people feel like they’re getting a steal, as you may as well buy them while they’re cheap.  People, don’t be a sucker for basic economic ploys.  Sure, you’re getting your money’s worth in the end, but we could all have so much more fun if we could all afford it, thus we wouldn’t be scrambling for free shows.  However, I see that this could all be blamed on the corporate sponsorships and Austin’s need to recoup the cost of losing the entire town to a slew of freaks and weirdos.


3. Excel Spreadsheets and Scheduling

In this chapter, we will discuss the necessity for scheduling every last detail of your Austin SXSW adventure. First, realize that you don’t need that fancy spreadsheet, or that App that helps you coordinate where you need to be at any minute of the day.  As a native of Austin, I’ve been to SXSW for over a decade, excluding the year I was trapped atop a volcano in the jungles of Costa Rica, and it was never about schedules.  I used to just wander around with my badge, listening to bands at the door, then wandering in as I saw fit.  In the end, I think I felt a greater appreciation for SXSW then because the music controlled my adventure, not some spreadsheet I put together for all the friends on my contact list.  I get that everyone wants to see certain bands, but if you map out every last minute of your life, you forget that part of the chaos and exuberance of SXSW comes from walking down the street with your Best Wurst in hand, hoping to hear a distorted guitar or catchy melody that grabs you, and beckons you to follow. People, it’s music that should move you, not the convention aspect.  Please, be my friend, burn your spreadsheet, and let’s celebrate the joy of discovering music all over again.  Trust me on this one folks; I’m a teacher, and I’m extremely detail oriented in that regard, but this is one of those few weeks when I get to kick back and ignore all scheduling conflicts, and just follow the tunes. Please, come with me.


2. Free Beer and Day Parties

Given, we have hosted these in our time as a site, and I’ve enjoyed myself, but not because of the free beer, though I love that a great deal, but because of the music itself.  I know there are a lot of you who research where your favorite band is playing, you follow them to every show, you scream your heart out, and you have a blast.  But, then there are those, and I know you all know these people, who compile list upon list of where they can get the free stuff, especially the beer.  I’m tempted to let this slide a little bit as the economic downturn has made pursestrings a bit tighter than usual, but then again, I can’t let this slide.  SXSW is not about free beer and food, though that’s an added bonus, it is about the music.  All kinds of people keep emailing me their party lists, telling me where I can get free beer, and I just want to email them back a nice knuckle sandwich.  Your job at SXSW is not to see celebrities or get toasted on free beer, it is to enjoy the experience that the music brings, to fall in love with a band for the first time so hard that you forget the rest of the festival, following them like a sad puppy dog.  If you’re following around the free beer cart during the whole festival then you’re doing it all wrong.


1. Music and Music Discovery

I’ve alluded to this throughout, but this is perhaps the biggest complaint from my end about SXSW, and it’s actually not the fault of anyone at SXSW.  In its hey-day, the festival was huge in promoting discovery, both for bands and for labels.  Bands used to come and just rock on the street in hopes of catching someone’s eye, getting signed, or really, just getting listened to for a minute by passers-by.  Perhaps I’m a bit jaded, as I’ve seen this coming from a mile away, but it seems that as each year passes, more and more people are caring less and less about the music, and more and more about the party aspect. Sure, I’m all for having a good time, and I’ve done that at every SXSW I’ve attended, but music has always been the heart and soul of my adventures.  Whether I was stumbling into some random showcase because the other events were packed, or whether I caught that one band I hadn’t seen, it’s always been about the music.  I don’t know, it seems like so many of the bands coming are already huge, and I’m glad to see them come and play, but where are those diamonds in the rough? Where are the bands I never heard before?  I’m tired of trying to jam myself into that “must-see” show, or wasting my day in hopes of catching some secret gathering around town.  Come on people, it’s about the music.


In conclusion, I’m sorry if I’ve angered any of you, or you feel like I just crushed your party plans, as that was never my intent.  This was just my attempt to bring a little resolve to the SXSW experience, in hopes that one day the tides will slowly begin to turn, bringing music back to the forefront, and making our experience a thousand times better.  Here’s to you, and hoping you discover that one band that will forever be your favorite. Forever and ever, amen.


  • This might be the best column written on ATH. I’m generally not blown away by the topics on Fridays; Often the Top 5s seem immature, but that could be because I may be older than most/some of your contributors.

    Anyway, this column nails most of my thoughts the past few years on SXSW’s (d)evolution over the past 10 years that I’ve attended. Other than #5, which doesn’t bother me all that much, you’re basically spot on.

    My entire newsfeed on Facebook is filled with people RSVPing to every single party, regardless of their intention to attend. There are people I know who hate DJs and love screaming guitars, yet they are RSVPing to a dance party just in case Kanye shows up to flop around with Chromeo. Makes absolutely no sense to me whatsoever.

    Years ago, I was gung ho on the wristband. I would get to Albertsons to buy mine in person and be one of the first 10 people in line for fear of them selling out. Then I upgraded to a badge for a few years, because I was consistently shut out of showcases I thought I needed to attend.

    Last year, I went back to the land of the wristband just to see if I could have as much fun while saving myself $400+. I was beyond successful; I did exactly what you describe across #3, #2, and #1. I sought out a few smaller bands that I’d never heard of, like when I first saw My Morning Jacket in 2001 or 2002 before they blew up because the description said for fans of Neil Young and Bob Dylan, and had more fun than I did years prior trying to see buzz bands and get into packed parties.

    This year, I’m back on the wristband train again. I could probably have almost as much fun without one whatsoever; I’m sure there are plenty of free night time shows, but for $40/night, I know I’ll have fun catching 4 or so bands with the wristband and being able to hop up and down Red River and 6th St for the most part. And if I don’t get into a bigger show or I can’t attend the Queens of the Stone Age showcase because it’s badge only? Who cares.

    The only thing worse than seeing an awful shitty band to me is being stuck on a line to get into a party/showcase for bands that wind up being awful and shitty once I get in.. and being on that line only because of a fear of missing out.

  • Nathan,
    Great Top 5. Seriously. I couldn’t agree more. Except for the apology at the end, there’s no need to apologize for pointing out that SX has been hi-jacked from it’s long time patrons and in return we’ve been given a couple of drink tickets to make us feel validated. Your readers should thank you.

    See see out there, sucking from the corporate tit.


    Disclosure: You can see my band, Whitman, begging for our shot at the big time next Friday at Thunderbird on Manor.

  • My favorite thing about your comment here verifies my love for old SXSW, as mentioned here. I remember being able to buy tickets at Albertsons, where there was no line, and no credentials necessary, just a desire to enjoy it all. In fact, I don’t even remember there being a limit to how many you could buy, buts been ages since I’ve even seen an Albertsons, so I could be wrong.

  • I think the first year I went to SXSW — 2001 — a wristband cost $40 at Albertsons and we didn’t even feel bad when we stayed home one or two of the nights. We were excited to catch J Mascis + The Fog at Emo’s one night, The Black Crowes at Stubb’s another night, and mocked the taping of VH1’s Bands on the Run at Stubb’s. We didn’t know that day parties could even exist for another couple years when we stumbled upon the Yard Dog having a party with free beer.

    Now it would seem sacrilegious to skip an entire night of seeing bands, or to possibly consider not trying to get into 4 different day parties each day. What would happen if Thom Yorke showed up at The Fader Fort and I wasn’t there!? OH NO!

    I don’t really miss the golden old days, because there are so many better bands and so much more awareness; If I want to see all these bands, allows me to know that they’re playing. I just have to make a conscious and concerted effort to ignore all the noise and distractions that are telling me to skip what I actually want to see and to go where everyone else is going. You don’t want to miss out, right?! RIGHT?!

    But quite frankly, while everyone is standing at Fader Fort or some super awesome party with a cool special guest, I feel quite comfortable knowing that I can go see The Strokes, Bright Eyes, and/or The Dead Milkmen in a relatively large field.. and have a great time. (Because standing on line to get to see Braids and half the bands booked by Windish and hyped by Austinist is a waste of my time. They are awful. Awful!)

    Maybe I am getting old.

  • yeah, i remember when nobody gave a shit about sxsw. also, i remember when we didn’t have cell phones and we wandered around aimlessly downtown looking for our friends. boo technology!

    stop worry about the things that you don’t like and enjoy the things that you do. they still have music? they still have beer? do more people get to enjoy said music and beer now compared to 1956 when you first went? then stop getting older and grow the fuck up.

    and maybe if albertsons charged more than $40 a ticket, they’d still be in business. HEB über alles.

  • “stop getting older and grow the fuck up”

    I like this.

  • I really think my biggest qualms from SXSW stem more from the current state of music we are in. It’s not just SXSW week, but it does get multiplied by about 10,000 during SXSW.

    This whole “scene” BS is what really fucking kills me. OMG OMG Kanye is playing at Fader Fort right now and you HAVE to be here and like OMG this shit is off the chain and OMG I’m gonna post an update on my twitter every fucking 5 seconds because I AM SO god damn cool.

    Bottom line. People don’t listen to music anymore.

    Where’s the free beer? What!? It cost money!? Let’s go.

  • Good, those asshats can all go have a blasty and TALK through the whole show at kanye. Then they will leave me at peace…mostly.

    And as much money as I have spent on music I do not mind a free drink or two. It does not drive my choices of parties/venues, but I will definitely take it if offered.

    Also, I am an alcoholic.

    Can’t wait to dance in the streets. Still excited because it is far better than anything ever offered in Fort Worth, Texas.

  • Great post here.

    This is only my 4th year of SXSWing and just seeing how the ridiculous factor has grown in that time, I can only imagine how long time veterans feel. I grow more annoyed with every party announcement/RSVP list that comes across my twitter feed. As you point out above, it is impossible to have any schedule. I think I’ve RSVP’d for only 4 things so far. Don’t most parties throw away their list after the first wasted hour of searching through 4,000 names anyway. I don’t see a point. Plus I just don’t care anymore.

    And while free stuff is always good, why do I as someone there for the music have be in a overcrowded bar, 75% filled with drunk people that have no idea who is even on the lineup. You are right… It’s not about the music anymore. It’s about the party. I’m already predicting that I’ll be fed up very early in the week.

    Out of 50+ bands that I would love to check out, I’m picking 5 must-sees and will do my best to see them. Other than that I’ll most likely hop into a random not overcrowded party and hope to discover something new. For me history has shown that those new discoveries is where you find some worth in all the madness.

  • Fantastic post. I am so grateful that I found it, otherwise I wouldn’t completely understand the real passion of sxsw.

    This is will be my first time going. I’ll tell you the truth, the reason I was sucked into it was because of the swags, parties, and music. BECAUSE THATS ALL I HEARD ABOUT, or at least that’s what is getting marketed at most places that I saw. Nobody and nowhere that I heard or saw promoted the greatness of sxsw was coming from the discovery of random unheard-of bands. Partially it’s my fault I heard it from the wrong people and followed the wrong blogs at the time, but those were the what the external sources told me and I believe them because I’ve never been to sxsw.

    I mean, shit, don’t tell me you wouldn’t check something out for yourself if your friends and the internet tell you that some bumfuck town in Oklahoma has a bunch of free booze, parties, and kanye west playing in a fucking barn with Tv on the radio. That sounds crazy awesome right? (haha I wish this would really happen).

    In spite of all this, I am excited to hear the random bands that are playing. I really am. I would’ve been more excited if I had a badge, but it’s oh shit too expensive. Even if I buy it early in September (SEPTEMBER!!) it’s still reaching $600. I’m a music lover, but who has that money lying around? Plus, lodging, food, and travel, man I feel like I already can go to Cancun and get an all inclusive spring break vacation with mtv. It’s a little bit hard to pay $600+ to check out random bands that most of them I wont like. I’d rather pay $5 for a good RSS feed reader and subscribe to Austin Town Hall for that same reason.

    Look, this was the inevitable. I’m sorry the rest of you guys had to suffer all this shit, but you should knew well this was coming. So it is kinda unfair to go apeshit pissed off at the rest us. We didn’t know any better.

    I like what King Tut (above) said, you still have what’s always been there, but you’re just gonna have to share it with more peeps.


  • You know they’ve sold out if i’m going to be there. And stay away from my spreadsheet Nathan.

    So did the whole process work better minus the hype? no Twitter, no Facebook, no powerhouse blog writers dictating what you MUST SEE?

    Did instant communication to enormous crowds of music fans kill it for you?

    I’d buy that. I think all things being equal (aka the MUSIC,) we all wouldn’t mind if the whole thing came down a notch… crowds, hype, size, hype.

    This will be my first trip. But not my first sxsw exposure. One of my first concert experiences was a free Guided by Voices show in Waterloo Park about 12 years ago. Don’t remember much about the music, just that I’ve never seen a performance from a band so drunk, before or since.

  • The worst part of SxSW is getting a cold the second day in…

    I understand the backlash, much of it deserved. That said, you can still get a wristband, purchased through a system that insures locals don’t get excluded (are you listening ACL a-holes). If you want the “old” experience, attend parties on the fringes and walk through any venue with capacity available. The last year I did a wristband, I saw fifty-something bands in four and a half days, all while refusing to wait in line, sharpie and music guide in pocket. The roster included Silversun Pickups at Antone’s, Airborne Toxic Event at whatever Venue 222 used to be called, Black Joe Lewis, Casiokids, deadmau5 (guilty pleasure), Glasvegas, Wavves just after noon at a day party, Viva Voce, School of Seven Bells and The Bird and the Bee doing their Hall and Oates thing for the first time.

    So yeah, you are more than welcome to hate on the corporate sponsorship. It is obnoxious. Don’t accept the flyer when it is handed to you, don’t attend the parties for brands you hate just cause there are hot dogs or t-shirts. But let’s face it, this thing is a juggernaut. It is growing, Interactive is freaking packed this year. Number of bands and showcases continue to increase.

    Location-based Social Media, which many considered to be incubated and truly launched by SxSWi, has taken over and the attention span is gone so the “kids” covet being there to get their Gowalla badge more than being there to be in the moment. I believe the children are our future, teach them well to ignore the apps and look past the phone to the stage.

    Get a wristband or not, attend day parties and listen to bands you have no intention of seeing, you might be surprised. You might be the person that finds the next great band.

    And my first SxSW was technically in 1993, I got old for a while and decided to change that. So here I am, sick, wanting to go to see “Paul” and check out the Vimeo-Nikon party to punch Ashton Kucher in the face, sad ’cause I am not even up to taking a nap at the moment. Very sad…

  • Quit whining and start drinking.

  • You can pine all you want for the days of old, but nostalgia can only take you so far. If you look past all the lame shit going these days as mentioned in the post and the comments, there is still plenty of small-scale, intimate stuff going that makes it great. What it really comes down to however is: It is what you make it.

    I’ll admit that I still consider myself a rookie to the SXSW “experience”, but you can get away from the shit that annoys you. First of all, turn off your phone. WHAT!? Stop the twitter feed. NO WAY!! Get off facebook. BLASPHEMY!!!

    I don’t own a “smart” phone and I have no desire to own one. Not having the ability to know what’s going on controls any idea that I might be missing something. Also, I don’t fill out spreadsheets and rarely RSVP for shows. Do I feel like I miss out? Not in the slightest.

    The main reason I like to get out to SXSW during the day is to ride my bike around town and watch people. I also rarely make it to the East side these days. So, when I get out for SXSW it’s a good opportunity to explore that side of the town, check out the bars/trailers I read about in the paper. If I stroll into a spot and find music I consider it a bonus.

    In the years I bought wristbands I did seek out a few bands to catch and I enjoyed myself. I also caught some pretty great shows that I otherwise would have not been able to get into (or tried to), including a random ArcAttack! show that blew me away.

    In the end, there’s still plenty for us old folks to do among the gowallers, foursquarers, and other idiots. Try and disconnect yourself from the scene and you’ll find it’s still easy to find something intriguing.

  • You are totally right! Seven years ago it was all about bands showcasing trying to get heard, now it’s big already bands hoggin’ all the spots. It’s really sad, but it’s all about money, it used to be a great event for alot of struggling artists to maybe catch a break, but hell, they can’t afford to buy their way in….these days. Not to mention they done moved Hollywood to Austin…

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