SxSW: The Hipster Generation's Woodstock?

Part Cape Codder, part Brooklynite.

Sam Houghton - Part Cape Codder, part Brooklynite.

“I think I’ll meet my wife at SxSW. She’ll be in some obscure garage band from a remote city like Nashville and she’ll have muddy Converses and tight jeans and she’ll be wailing on a fire-red Fender Telecaster, her hair flailing when our eyes meet.”

These lines were the sole notes I had written down in my notebook for the entire six-day, SxSW festival. It was Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon, early in the festivities. My zest for rock n’ roll was strong. I remember I had just left a record shop on the outskirts of Austin in my black ‘50s style Ray-Bans. I was buzzed on cheap Tall Boys and the thick air of Texas made me feel all right.

The shop had been overrun with happy and sweating hipsters for a bill stocked with established garage bands: White Fence, Strange Boys, Heavy Cream – all pumping out sloppy but heartfelt, guitar-heavy numbers. In the crowd, important names in the music business blended in. For a brief moment, I remember feeling like rock n’ roll could win.

This was, after all, SxSW, one of the largest festivals in the music world, the one place where every young band will flock to because that’s what you do:  Save money. Rent a van. Go to SxSW. Party.

By the weekend, SxSW is no longer fun.

Alienated in Austin

The four lanes that were once downtown 6th Street have been blocked off and now swarms of people fight for room to walk. Live alternative country music clamors out of every club, mixing into intolerable noise.

The scene bears a strange resemblance to Woods Hole in the summer, with loads more people and noise. In Woods Hole you have your scientists, your locals and your tourists all blending into a strange and disorganized scene. The potential for bad vibes is present.

In Austin, there are three distinct groups. You have geeks from the music industry: dudes in Tevas and clean polo shirts with record label money behind them, huffing around on dubious missions. You have Saint Patrick’s Day drunks from the university parading around in cartoonish green hats, completely oblivious to any sort of music festival.

And then you have the musicians, stoned and shaggy haired, in a state of shock from the magnitude and noise of the proceedings. What had happened to their moment? All the money saved is gone to the PBR Fund, and now they’re busking the sidewalk.

Just a few days ago, they had been on top of the world, opening up for their idols.

Getting lucky in the parking lot

SxSW, celebrating its 16th year with some 20,000 registered guests and about 100,000 unregistered guests, has become a perfect metaphor for the wider music industry.

The best shows take place on the outskirts of the city. Bands like Thee Oh Sees or Japanther or Jeff the Brotherhood are playing unofficial but excellent shows in anything from a garage, a record shop, or a parking lot, packed with screaming fans. The music is important and good. The mood is festive. But to find these shows, you have to either know the right people or do some serious investigating.

Which is why this unofficial SxSW is known in some circles as a hipster’s Woodstock. 

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