Over the years SXSW has slowly and steadily morphed from an indie music festival to that party at the most popular girl in school’s house when Mark jumped off the roof into the pool and it keeps coming up in conversations years after; “Man, that was crazy. You weren’t there?”
I think that’s really the reason people now flock to SXSW. Not to see artists, although that happens by sheer force of musical volume, but to be at the place everyone’s tweeting about. To say, “Yeah, I was there when Mark jumped into the poolScHoolboy Q got arrested and yeah, it was fucking crazy.”
By now you’ve already been drowned in SXSW coverage, because it’s not life until it’s been turned into content for the interwebs. If you’re interested in grainy performance videos or galleries of artists set to breakout from SXSW this year, you won’t have to look hard. This isn’t that. Instead, I want to attempt to answer the question that doesn’t get asked often; is it really worth going? If you’re a fan or an artist or a blogger or a human being who just wants to be at the “there” so many other human beings are at, is it really worth your hard-earned* money?
The only way I know how to answer that question is to walk you through my experience down in the land that God forgot. And not just the awesome parts, or the “this shitty thing happened but secretly I kind of like having a story to tell” parts, but the completely mundane parts where you try to find something to eat for breakfast at the Dollar General.
I started going to SXSW in 2010, a distant time when the festival was definitely becoming a monster but giant corporations like Doritos hadn’t yet set up two-story vending machines for Snoop Dogg to perform in because #branding. Since then I’ve become kind of a big deal in the rap internet world, which means when my mom tries to explain what I do for a living to people they look at her with a mix of confusion and pity. But it also means that, to be real, I don't have have the average fan experience either. Going to SXWS is (ridiculously) my job and that plane ticket is a company expense, so I can't tell the story of that guy who has to take use all his vacation time for the year on SXSW.
All I have is my story. This is it.
Thursday, March 13
The first person I see stepping off the plane is Lupe Fiasco. I don't say anything to him and just keep walking and quickly regret it...but not enough to turn around. Grab a cab, drop my bag off at the apartment I found on AirBNB - it has a "my first apartment after graduating and getting a real job" vibe - and head over to the Strange Music showcase. Rittz's manager is there, we talk about his upcoming album (September, maybe). Yelawolf's manager is there, we talk about the upcoming album (release date only God knows). Shake hands with Tech, shake hands with Travis. Meet Strange's media team, good people. They're required to wear all black and not drink while working, but buy me a beer. Talk to Rittz, he's semi-drunk and happy. Rittz is often semi-drunk and happy. Watch Mursday (Murs x Mayday) perform. Dope. Supposed to interview Mursday but it doesn't happen. All good, a lot of things don't happen at SXWS. Think I see Curtiss King but not sure if it's him so I don't say anything. Kind of regret it.
Run into Jarren Benton, invites me to come along to his show. I go. Sit in the car waiting for Dizzy Wright, talk about how hot the girl from "Weird Science" was. Dizzy comes, I introduce myself, he seems used to people being in his car who weren't there when he arrived. We hit Jarren's show. Mike pulls me onstage, I lose my shit to "PBR & Reefer". Get offstage. Have a drink. Talk/yell at various people. Need to eat, so does Jarren, we hit some overpriced barbecue spot, talk about being a dad, when No I.D. flew him out to L.A., guys who knew who quit rapping.
Decide to go home. Lot of drunk college girls vying for cabs, fuck that. Walk the 30 minutes back to the apartment. Forget the gate code, try to hop the fence. Fall. No one sees me. Imagine someone seeing me, laughing at the drunk. Quick check: nope, not drunk, just an idiot who fell. Go to bed with my ears ringing.
Friday, March 14
Wake up hungry. Do a Dollar General across the street. I'm told it's a grocery store. It's not really. I get a Vitamin Water and trail mix, head downtown. A few meetings. You can only buy booze at special liquor stores in Austin. I try to find a liquor store. Yirka comes with me. We find a liquor store. Buy booze. Have lunch with Nick. Head to 6th Street, fill flasks with booze. Meet the camera crew, little nervous about a public "3 Shots With", fuck it. Walk around drinking with strangers on camera. Ivan shows up. We drink. Don't get arrested, talk to a guy holding a ferret. Meet EddieFTW, the most OG of RefinedHype Nation.
Head into the Indie Life venue for our DJ Showcase. Hoppa, T-Gut and Wally kill. I decide to host for the first time, am extra-average. Holding a microphone onstage while people expect you to say something entertaining is hard. Resort to a lot of "make some noise if you're from NYC!" cliches. Gotta put in reps to get better. Run into Justin, head to some place he wants to go. Drinks. Watch Timothy Bloom perform, the closest I get to the "discover great new music" original spirit of SXSW all trip. Cypher breaks out with Soul Khan and the Brown Bag All-Stars. Head back to the Indie Life venue. It's packed. Clautrophobic packed. Talk to Skyzoo and Torae. Talk shit about wack rappers with Torae. Too claustrophobic. I leave.
Buy tacos from a taco truck. Delicious. Decide to go home. This time I get a cab, remember the gate code. Don't fall. Go to bed with my ears ringing.
Saturday, March 15
Wake up. Back to the Dollar General. Hang out at the apartment, do some work. Supposed to go to the Hard Knock event. My ride doesn't show up. All good, a lot of things don't happen at SXWS. Back to downtown. Meet Bauce Sauce. We stand in the mud drinking, waiting for Lil B's show. ASAP Mob performs, minus Rocky and Ferg. Very boring. Bauce's mustache looks glorious. I leave before Lil B goes on. A few meetings. Some guys try to do a pop-up DJ show. The cops are not pleased. Listen to Wally Sparks tell the story of how KRIT got BB King on "Praying Man". Dope. Text some folks, everyone's somewhere else. Realize I'm in one of those SXSW black holes where everyone "just left" the place they said they were. Decide not to chase people around. Veteran move. See Skrillex getting into a car, don't say anything. What would I say to Skrillex? Still, kind of regret it.
Go to the Duck Down Showcase. Talk to folks. Keep seeing the same strangers over and over again, it's oddly comforting. Talk to Wrekonize about the brilliance of Mitch Hedberg. Talk to Statik about the good ol' Boston days. Richie tells old school stories while drinking. Richie is often telling old school stories while drinking. See Dutch Rebelle rap. Dope. Talk to her. Dope. The closest I get to the "meet a new rapper you might now feature" spirit so many rappers seem to be aiming for at SXSW. Meet two RapGenius guys. One is cool. One is a breathing RapGenius sales pitch.
Leave. Some asshole is yelling at his girlfriend. Realize I haven't eaten. See Champions is open. Fuck it. Last call at Champions. Beer and a shot. I end SXSW eating a bacon burger by myself at a second-tier sports bar franchise. Very legendary. Everything about the city suddenly feels tired. Cab home. Go to bed with my ears ringing.
Sunday, March 16
Two hours of sleep, then car service to the airport. Don't trust a cab to get me there on time. Skrillex at the airport, in line next to me. Someone asks him to tweet from their account in lieu of an autograph. Still don't say anything to Skrillex. Kind of regret it. Flight home. Six hours later I'm a toddler birthday party at Gymboree with my daughter. Skrillex is nowhere to be found
So there you have it. Do I think it was worth going down for? I'm still too tired to feel that good about it, but on whole, probably. Sorry, there just aren't any answers. I can say that if you don't go, don't worry. No one's life changes at SXSW. At best you have a good time and, if you're there for "business", strengthen a few relationships and make some news ones, all while being painfully tired, malnourished and having occasional panic attacks about THERE ARE WAY TOO MANY FUCKING PEOPLE ON THIS STREET!!!
Plan accordingly. See you next year, or not. We'll see.
* I’m assuming your money is hard earned. For all I know you’ve set up an “Office Space” scheme where you just sit and drink while a computer program secretly siphons off millions of dollars. In that case, I don’t really have good advice for you, other than I hope you burned down all the evidence.
+ I want to be as honest and detailed as possible, but I obviously couldn't include every handshake and meeting and happening. Many thanks to everyone who showed me love in Austin.