The South by Southwest Music Festival turns 25 this year, and much like any other 25-year-old, it acts as if the world revolves around its every move. That’s just part of its appeal.
And that’s important to note, because while you can argue the relative merit of a fest like SXSW — especially in an era where “getting discovered” no longer entails bands slogging it out in Texas bars while industry execs get sloshed on Shiner Bock — you really can’t debate its charms, of which “cloying self-importance” is just one. Simply put, SXSW is unlike anything else: a rite of passage for any music lover, on par with Glastonbury or Bonnaroo or selling promo CDs on Half.com, a whirlwind week (give or take) of bands and BBQ and brutal hangovers, a self-contained world of promoters and pamphlets, tattoos and tacos, and, perhaps most important of all, an absolute blast.
In other words, it’s the kind of thing you really need to experience at least once in your life. And sure, there’s no shortage of complaints to be made about SXSW. The lines are too long, the badges are too expensive, the parties too innumerable, the bands too big. But to waste your time nitpicking the fest’s foibles (and believe me, I nitpick a lot) is missing the point: South By Southwest isn’t perfect, and it’s never going to be. It just likes to think it is.
Which is why folks come back year after year. There’s a comforting sameness to the South By experience, after all. There will always be a band you see play 17 times (the first year I was here, it was the Go! Team; this year it appears to be Yuck), and a band playing a poorly attended afternoon showcase that you feel sorry for, and a band with a stupid name (Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., everybody!). You will most definitely eat at that crappy Mexican place across from Stubb’s, only because the line outside Stubb’s is too long. You will probably throw up at least once, either from booze or sunstroke or both. Sure, the can’t-miss acts (Odd Future) and the headliners (Kanye West, the Foo Fighters, Bright Eyes, the Strokes, etc.) may change, and the parties may get further and further out of town, but at its very core, SXSW remains blissfully faithful to its imperfect roots. And most people wouldn’t have it any other way.
To wit, I complain about everything … all the time. And yet, on a Tuesday night, I got to see the Foos play their new album in its entirety, watch a bunch of guys jam out on a street corner for no apparent reason and eat a hot dog. It is 1:25 in the morning and, as I sit in my hotel room writing this, there is still a metal band playing loudly, defiantly into the night. You would think I’d find something wrong with all of that, only, I don’t. Because it’s a sequence of events that can only happen at South by Southwest. It wasn’t perfect, but it was close.
Over the years, detractors have accused SXSW of being pointless (probably not true), corporate (veering slightly towards truthfulness) and inspiring too many tweets (100 percent true). They like to hearken back to the halcyon days when Kanye didn’t perform at power factories and Perez didn’t throw parties, and decree that they will never again attend the fest because “things have changed.” And, sure, they have, at least on the surface. But deep down, South by Southwest’s spirit remains unchanged. It still takes itself way too seriously. It is still a total clusterfrick. And it is still a music fan’s ultimate paradise.
So, if you don’t mind putting up with imperfection, can operate on little-to-no sleep, and can exist solely on smoked meats, SXSW is your Valhalla. Deep down, it’s mine too, no matter how many times I say I’m never coming back. Who knows? Maybe I’ll see you here in 2012. Bring sunscreen.