SXSW can always be considered an extreme example of the platitude “when it rains, it pours,” but this year, it was a bit too literal. SXSW Interactive weekend was a rainy, sloppy affair like I haven’t seen in my few years in Austin. Someone — nay many ones — downtown likely made a killing on rain boots and umbrellas because they were everywhere, and I know nobody packed those for the trip. Once Interactive was over and the guard changed for Music, the rain had subsided and the sun shone again. The outdoor shows that would have been a drenched disaster went on without weather-induced incident.
I started off my own, soggy SXSW Interactive with a quiet breakfast with Howard Rheingold. He was here to talk about his new book, Net Smart (MIT Press, 2012), and it was his first time at SXSW since he was the keynote speaker for Interactive ten years ago. His book Smart Mobs (Basic Books, 2002) was just out then. Lots has changed around the conference since, but the ideas in that book were prescient (as proven by its echoes in Amber Case’s SXSWi keynote this year). Net Smart will definitely send out the same temporal ripples. Other than books, Howard and I talked about everything from the weather and breakfast to life and careers. It was so nice to sit down with one of my mentors for a face-to-face interaction after over ten years of virtual ones.
Next on the list of rain-limited events was a trip to Red 7 to see my friends Jake Flores, Ryan Cownie, Seth Cockfield, Brook Van Poppelen, Lucas Molandes, Nick Mullen, Blake Midgette, Kath Barbadoro, and others put on some free funny. Now, a show like this is a fairly typical night for me here in Austin, but this line-up is like three really good versions of those nights all put together. We had to go through a wormhole to find the back door to Red 7, and once inside we found our friends in the dark, damp, abandoned-warehouse feel of Red 7′s backside (there was some other event hogging up the inside space). Assorted badges followed us in, but most quickly left. The venue was perfect for the material in play though: dirty, dark, wet, hilarious. For those outside the community, the Austin stand-up comedy scene is one of its best kept secrets. It boasts not only open mics nearly every night of the week, but damn funny line-ups on a regular. Jake’s show was no exception. Against all the SXSW rules, we left early to catch Ume at Stubb’s.
Ume played on the big, outdoor stage at Stubb’s, which left us happily skanking in the mud. Eric Larson was out of town, but Mark Turk filled in nicely on bass, even after only two rehearsals. He and Rachel held down the rhythm and rumble while Lauren brought the flash. Fresh off of a Left Coast tour with Cursive, Lauren kept up her supernova energy (this was also only the second of no less than eleven shows Ume played during SXSW). The last couple of times I’ve seen them, they’ve ended with a new song that sounds like Lauren is singing for Kyuss. The track is thick, heavy and huge. According the Eric, the working title is “Black Stone.” I’m anxious to play it very loud on my headphones. We saw them again on Tuesday at Bat Bar with Eric happily reinstalled. Even with sound issues, they never disappoint.
Monday found me getting my Music badge, which I’d tried to get the previous Friday, but was denied. Credentialed up, I met Alex Burns for lunch. Alex and I have worked in tandem on at least two versions of 21C Magazine as well as several years together on the Disinformation website. Alex is another great mind with whom I’ve been in touch and exchanged ideas for over a decade and finally met IRL at SXSW. People say it every year, but it cannot be overstated: The sidebar conversations that an event like SXSW affords are very often its true value.
While meeting in the green room preparing for our panel “What Happened to the Big Idea in Music Technology?,” Hank Shocklee stopped by to say hello. As one of the sonic architects behind the sound of Public Enemy, Hank has had a profound influence on the way music sounds in the twenty-first century, as well as my appreciation thereof. It felt more than appropriate to run into him before we took the stage. Dave Allen (North), David Ewald (Uncorked Studios), Jesse von Doom (CASH Music), and I had done a version of this talk in San Francisco last September at SF MusicTech Summit. At SXSW Music, we were joined by Anthony Batt (BUZZnet, Katalyst, etc.) and novelist and music critic Rick Moody (author of The Ice Storm, On Celestial Music, and many others). This gathering of minds represented every aspect of the issues we were addressing: From artists to fans and from technologists to journalists, we used everyone’s expertise and experience to express our opinions about the direction music is headed as an industry, a cultural practice, and as a commercial enterprise. Ours is a discussion that will continue as long as people love making and hearing music and other people try to capitalize on that love.
Speaking of music technology, the Vinylrecorder T-560 was on display at the trade show. This device allows one to cut a vinyl record from recordings on a computer. It’s like burning a CD, except it offers the “warmth” of vinyl playback. As many times as events at festivals like this prompt me to question what year they think it is (e.g., Bruce Springsteen? Counting Crows? Billy Corgan? We’re only doomed to repeat history if our elders keep force-feeding it to us.), I have to admit that the idea of pressing my own records looked like the kind of useless fun I often enjoy most. Home recording fun notwithstanding, the back-to-the-future approach of the Vinylrecorder is a great metaphor for many of the attitudes represented in music technology: “How do we use what we have now to get back to the way things were?” they seem to be asking.
This is part of the reason we gathered to talk about these issues. There’s no going back. Technology has lowered the barriers to entry, but you still have to be good at what you do. The internet has made fame much easier and fortune nearly impossible. You have to learn the technology. It’s easier now than ever to get heard, yet harder to stand out. Events like SXSW emphasize just how noisy and cluttered the current music milieu is. How do you cut through it all? If you want engagement, be engaging. Show us something. Doug Stanhope has a joke about how you never see ads for drugs. “If you have a good product,” he says, “people will find it. You don’t need to advertise.” No one owes you a living just because you make music (or Doug as a comedian, or me as a writer, etc.), but if you do something people want, they will find you. Rain or shine.
Many, many thanks to Dave Allen, David Ewald, Anthony Batt, Jesse von Doom, and Rick Moody for the great discussions both on and off the stage; to Hank Shocklee for the chat; to Rebecca Gates for coming by; to Howard Rheingold and Alex Burns for sharing meals and beers; to Andy Flynn for hooking it all up; to Ume for rocking everything as usual; to Tarryn Lambert and friends for the lively debate; to Brooke Pankey for braving the city streets on a bicycle with us; to Luke and Abby Brewer for walking nine miles even though we couldn’t get their young selves into a show; and special, special thanks to Lily for enduring the whole week with me.