Backwash

We remember the Alamo, but South by Southwest is now a blissful blur.

There are something like two bazillion bats in Austin, Texas. On the underside of a bridge that divides north from south, the night-flying creatures shriek, defecate and hang upside down all day long in one of the largest bat colonies in North America. Once a day, around sundown, they make a frantic flight en masse -- a fuzzy black aggregate of tiny, flapping wings that moves blindly across the Austin sky.

Once a year, Austin's bat population is nearly usurped by the startling influx of music-industry types, a species that, like bats, is often loathed -- or at least misunderstood -- by the general public. Every March for the past fifteen years, the South by Southwest music festival has invaded the town and seized control of its bars, clubs, hotels and late-night coffee shops. It's a five-day marathon that's sure to tire even the most regular ingestor of shmooze and live music.

But unlike New York City, which hosts the College Music Journal festival every fall, or Portland, where the North by Northwest festival has gained steam over the past five years (although its sponsorship deal reportedly derailed this year), Austin seems uniquely equipped to deal with such an invasion. Even on a normal day, the town is known as the live-music capital of the world; in spite of being situated in the center of the Lone Star state (which even natives will agree is the geographic antithesis of hip), Austin has long been a creative oasis for songwriters, players and fans. Music is simply part of the culture, the way professional and recreational sports are in Denver. Every self-respecting cab driver knows the way to Willie Nelson's house (the braided one is more revered in town than W), everyone's in a band, and every restaurant has a stage tucked somewhere in a corner of the room.

Even before the SXSW circus comes to town, Austin could be the place Jefferson Starship had in mind when it envisioned that city built on rock and roll. (Remember?) So when 50,000 additional musicians, record-label owners, groupies, producers and press types are added to the mix, Austin provides a fleeting glimpse of what might happen should the slacker set ever decide to colonize its own planet. (Nothing really starts happening until the late afternoon; smoking is encouraged, if not mandatory; all restroom floors are covered with water and wadded-up paper towels; and the entire town smells a little like cheap draught beer.) Toward the end of the conference, it is only mildly startling to see David Byrne in person (Backwash spotted him at the airport, hauling his own luggage), to encounter the Cult's Ian Astbury eating barbecue at Stubb's, to be asked to hand toilet paper to Bellrays frontwoman Lisa Kekaula or to crash into Ryan Adams in line at the bar. SXSW is a bit of a racket -- as fine an example of the concept of a clusterfuck as you're likely to find -- but it's also a hell of a lot of fun, a kind of Universal Studios for music fans where you're actually allowed to get off the moving tram and touch the exhibits.

The festival also draws a fair amount of criticism from longtime observers, who argue that it has strayed from its original purpose as a showcase for unknown talent and instead morphed into a hype mechanism for artists already well on their way. Others lament the fact that it's a meat market -- really no different from the National Western Stock Show, except that the product being displayed generally doesn't have udders or poop on the floor. Both charges are valid, of course: You have to wonder if the expense of getting down to Texas is really worth it for an unknown or smaller band. With so many acts participating, it's easy to get lost in the mix; the chance of being missed altogether is very good indeed. Who knows if The LaDonnas -- who played a fine, furious set at a wonderfully divey dump called the Hole in the Wall -- will get some mythic break after playing SXSW. Or if nGoMa, the only non-affiliated group in the Loud Records showcase, managed to perk up the ears of whatever label people were in the house. (The show, which featured sets from the X-ecutioners and the Beatnuts, was one of the hip-hop highlights of the rock-centric SXSW, as well as a critic's pick in the Austin Chronicle; unfortunately, nGoMa was allowed to bring only its DJ, Dijon, to the festival, and not its live band, which undercut some of the fine work the MC duo has been producing over the past six months with live instrumentation.) Sadly, Backwash was not able to attend shows by Yo, Flaco!, Dressy Bessy or the showcase of Tanger, Someday Iand Wretch Like Me, artists on the Owned & Operated label out of Fort Collins; strong winds grounded our plane in Dallas and had us descending into Austin at about the same time these bands were taking their respective stages.

With the music industry in such a sorry state of consolidation and uncertainty, bands really don't "get discovered" anymore; making a living as a musician is more of a science these days. You're talented? Looking for a good record deal? So are Kristin Hersh, Kelly Willis, Matt Johnson and hundreds of other established artists. Events like SXSW are unlikely to do much for your band unless you're already working all angles of your career. SXSW attendees interested in formal instruction on this kind of thing were invited to take part in the daily conferences that gathered experts from within the music industry to address topics of interest to artists and professionals; former Boulder Daily Camera music scribe David Menconi, who recently published Off the Record, a fictional biography of a rock band that's marketed through his Web site, offtherecord.com, was among the panelists. Notes from all discussions can be found through the festival's digital archive, at sxsw.com.

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