The More Things Change at South by Southwest

When does something transform from spectacle to outright free-for-all? For South by Southwest, the music and media conference held yearly in Austin, Texas, it might as well have been around 2009, the year I first attended. Of course, it's impossible to absolutely pinpoint something of this nature, but I know this: at some dot to the left of my initial attendance, South by Southwest was a place for the music industry to gather and come up with new ideas; at some dot to the right, South by Southwest was a place for college students and the entire media world to take a vacation.

Some of this was already becoming apparent in 2009, when the following article was written, and some of this was not. It was a more interesting time, in fact, then as compared to now, because of what we did not know. The sharks were circling for the record industry, but a popular acknowledgement of its genuine doom was still a year or two off—shielded by incompetent executives and rose-colored critics to whom “The record industry is dead” would have still been a bold and provocative statement. For these people, 2009 very much must have seemed the end of an era.

We also did not know the impact certain technologies would have on the world. Twitter, in particular, had not yet made its mark; the technology that burst onto the scene at 2007's South by Southwest was still, by 2009, an insider's pastime. In what is easily the most dated portion of the article, I actually use the verb “Twittering”—a funny and humbling reminder of the speed of progress. My fascination with the network had mainly to do with its cultural reverberations: how it represented, in its many layers of commentary and irony, a desire to encounter the world at a distance, to give oneself an additional remove from the stories of mind and matter. It was important to South by Southwest, I felt, as a further addition to the festival's expanding hall of mirrors.

But with all of these changes, we of course see that many things have stayed the same. The coordinates of the music business have shifted in many regards, but for the players, most of the same narratives still apply. There will be, at this year's South by Southwest, a band just like Mumford & Sons, who play a small venue and all of the sudden emerge onto the scene out of nowhere. And there will be, this year as there is every year, a group of hopeful rockers like Arkells, who dazzle beat writers at an outdoor barbeque and six months later disappear into thin air.

And there will be, in a warm city this week, ten thousand reporters at an event for which we already know the ending.

* * * * *

Business Unusual
May 2009

At this year’s South by Southwest, the music industry’s most hyped annual get-together, I, like everyone else, was constantly looking for the Next Big Thing. So when the festival’s website told me to visit the Music Trade Show, “where Showcasing Artists and Entertainment Professionals come looking for both the ground-breaking and the established companies that will help them succeed,” I naturally complied.

Looking forward to the free promotions and free-flowing booze, I wandered into the antiseptic convention hall. I cursed myself for not bringing anything to collect my loot with—why hadn’t I picked up my complimentary tote bag?! Oh well, I could gather my spoils later—now was the time to discover just who was going to fix the music business.

I moved briskly past the detritus—business-card drawings, clothing outlets, propaganda pamphlets from music schools, overpriced guitars, assorted international music interest groups. I wasn’t there to mess around—I wanted to see the next iPod! But the room’s uncharted real estate was disappearing and I was dismissing the importance of these promotional booths at a startling clip. I passed the “South by Bookstore,” which was really just a Barnes & Noble selling like 50 of its music-related titles (rock critic Jim DeRogatis, standing by for a signing that appeared unpopulated, was grumpily squiggling on a couple of his books). SPIN was just kind of sitting there with some of their magazines. Pollstar was doing much of the same. Sonicbids, a major advertiser at the festival, was doing whatever the hell it is that they do. Really couldn’t tell you what was going on at the City of Austin booth.

I was losing faith and getting ready to jump ship. I didn’t even feel like stopping by the Trade Show Bar at booth #513 for my complimentary beverage. But as I was making my way to the exit, a pleasant voice came over the intercom: “Hurry on over to our international speed dating table, where you can now meet Australians and New Zealanders!”

Come again?

Speed dating? International speed dating? Professionals from all over the globe had gathered here to mend their beleaguered industry, and this was the “ground-breaking” concept that awaited them? At least the weeklong chorus of panel-induced isn’t-it-a-shame’s felt useful.

I had to see this, so I navigated back past the bar to the designated area. Predictably, there were 2 girls lost amidst an ocean of 13 guys, one of whom was prominently displaying his hairy ass crack. I had no idea what any of them were conversing about and decided I wanted to keep it that way. I was unable to identify the newcomers from Down Under. I jotted a few words on my legal pad, zipped up my backpack, and headed back to the press suite for a warm Sierra Mist and a massage.

* * * * *

The music industry’s annual week in Austin has a very Spring Break feel, which was apparent even as I waited for my flight in the Boston airport. My fellow passengers, a typical cross-section of the assorted characters that populate the festival, buzzed with excitement as they waited to board a plane that would take them to a land of warm weather, pretty girls, and ubiquitous alcohol. People wasted no time hooking up with old friends and making new ones, never forgetting to keep an eye out for whatever cool band might be nearby, and then Twittering about it (one conversation: “I was on a flight with so-and-so last year, right before they made it big. And would you believe, none of their instruments made it to Austin!”).

Indeed, just about everything seems to end up on Twitter these days. If you’re searching for a culprit, look no further than South by Southwest, which would attract a significant portion of the technological avant-garde even if it hadn’t added a stand-alone “Interactive Festival” in 1994. Now, with five days of SXSW Interactive leading into five days of SXSW Music—and the nine-day SXSW Film Festival running parallel to both—the event has turned into a veritable media orgy, the unquestionable epicenter of innovation and discovery for ten days every March. This year, AT&T’s Austin network was so overwhelmed by the influx of iPhones at the beginning of SXSW Interactive that many reported not having usable cell service for days. The iPhone users gathered in Austin were so numerous, vocal, and powerful that AT&T issued several statements detailing its concern about the situation and its intention to fix it quickly; by the time I touched down in Austin on March 17th, the problem was all but solved.

How did the vanguards of the blogosphere communicate in those few fateful days of severely limited reception? They tweeted, of course, just like they had during South by Southwests past. Writing in the midst of the dark period, CNET’s Daniel Terdiman noted, “By now, the story of how Twitter exploded onto the scene at the 2007 South by Southwest festival is legend in technology circles.” By 2009, Twitter had become almost as central to the SXSW experience as the music itself.

* * * * *

That night, I made my way over to the Central Presbyterian Church to catch M. Ward’s 9 p.m. performance. The music industry and the global economy may both be in shambles, but you wouldn’t have known it from the gargantuan line that awaited me (probably not shortened by my extended pit stop at a burrito joint). The venue was at capacity, we were told, and people could only enter as others left—the Fire Marshal had already been by that evening with his (totally annoying) admonishments. After people going to the bathroom (conveniently located outside the church and around the corner) precipitated a couple of false starts, I was granted entry, along with a pretty pissed photographer from MTV.

Once I was finally seated in an upper-level pew, Ward rattled off a couple of snoozers before doing his best Jeff Buckley impression with “Sad, Sad Song” (“The hardest thing in the world to do / is to find somebody believes in you”). He tossed on some reverb, picked up the pace, and, before long, the She & Him guitarist/producer who music writers won’t stop calling a troubadour was gone.

Department of Eagles followed, and while lead-singer Daniel Rossen was awkwardly stumbling onto the altar for his opening banjo solo, I realized that this was one of those venues that probably provokes an exactly equal number of “great sound” and “terrible sound” comments. I wasn’t sure it mattered much either way for a band like Department of Eagles, who seem to favor flannel and the tchotchke-like drum noises that people who wear flannel seem to favor. During one of the band’s uncomfortably long pauses between songs, Rossen quipped, “We’re a professional band, with professional transitions.” Welcome to the era of Joe the Rock Star.

As they were wrapping up, the man sitting next to me asked who was playing later at Stubb’s, a barbeque restaurant that doubles as, arguably, Austin’s most prominent concert venue. When I told him it was The Decemberists, he replied, “Oh, fuck that.” His face contorted in realization. “That’s going to end up on someone’s Twitter. Fuck that, says guy, in church.”

* * * * *

On the flight, I sat next to a kind man from the Future Music Coalition, who would be leading a panel later that week on whether collective licensing for peer-to-peer file-sharing could be a future source of revenue for the music industry. In the row next to me was a gentleman I mentally referred to as Guy With Shit On His Shirt. In another life, he would have been a sound guy. In this one, I overheard, he was a blogger.

He certainly wasn’t alone. While I was waiting in a pretty nasty line to register for the festival, every couple of minutes someone around me would stand up tall and take a picture of the crisscrossing mess with their camera-phone. It was clear what those amateur photographers were trying to say: both “I am Other to this whole line-standing business” and “I am going to take the best shot there ever was of this line.” Then they probably went back to tweeting, giving everyone at home the wonderful opportunity to learn that one of the roadies for Black Cock (actual participating band name) just got a great French Dip or something. Everything’s a story, and everyone’s a reporter.

The artist registration line was separate, and its overwhelming length let everyone know the pecking order—both for the festival and the current music industry—right off the bat. One heavily tattooed member of said line loudly offered his opinion of the situation: “It’s fucking stupid as fuck.”

I walked over to the “SESAC Day Stage” (performing-rights organizations sponsor a pretty significant portion of the festival) in the convention center to catch a quick set before venturing out into the city for some barbeque. But the stage was transitioning between acts and the sound system was cycling through Radiohead’s In Rainbows. When “Weird Fishes” came on, my thoughts turned to the festival patrons it could have been about. Some of the basic characters:

    The Guy Who’s A Bit Too Into It: Wears a T-shirt from the previous year’s festival. Tucks it into his jeans, always with a belt. Never gets along with the hotel concierge because his permanent “I am this festival” vibe is accompanied by a heady sense of entitlement. Will announce at every given opportunity that this is his 25th SXSW. Needs everyone to understand that he was into this festival way before everyone else was.

    The Self-Appointed Elder Statesman: Similar to the previous character, but with an ever-so-slightly better grasp on reality. Usually spins some moderately relevant radio show or newspaper column into a mandate for his leadership. Takes it upon himself to show younger colleagues “the way,” or “take them under his wing.” Does not, possibly to his own surprise, actually have wings. Every community has this kind of person.

    The Guy Who’s Got Better Things To Be Listening To: Yes, than your voice. Always wearing gigantic headphones, as if raising a permanent stop sign to all kinds of interaction. Needs a constant soundtrack for his life. What he is listening to must remain a Timeless Mystery, unless the headphones are way too loud, in which case the artist of choice is usually Madonna. Should have just stayed at home and streamed the torrents.

    The Holier-Than-Thou Press Guy: Seems to think that he is the only writer or photographer in the building. Gets in everyone else’s way. Makes copious use of the press suite, though primarily to check Facebook and get massages. Very rarely contributes to a relevant publication.

    The Clueless Consumer: Two words—fanny pack.

    The Guy Who’s Too Indie For You: Hates The Clueless Consumer, to an overwhelming and completely unproductive degree. I can never figure out if these people are making fun of what they represent or wholeheartedly embracing it. Important subgroups include Guy Who Wears Hat From Grandmother’s Attic and Girl With Crazy Hair Who Looks At You Funny.

    Guys Wearing Helmets With Bike Wheels On Them: I have absolutely no idea who these people were or what they were doing.

Of course, all of these groups stand in stark contrast to one particularly miniscule one: The Unassuming And Humble Important People.

* * * * *

I eventually made it over to the Decemberists concert, but not before trying my hand at some Day One music discovery. Arkells was the first band I saw, at the Canadian Blast BBQ in a tent outside the convention center, and they turned out to be one of my favorites. As frontman Max Kerman, dressed like a dictator of a small, socialist country, pierced the silence of mid-set guitar rests with his visceral wails of “Oh, the boss is coming!” I couldn’t help but feel a working-class solidarity with my head-bobbing companions in the audience. I’ve always wondered where all the frustration and jaggedness of early 90s rock (including the initial efforts from bands like the Foo Fighters) went; watching a slightly disheveled Kerman trying to decide how to hold his mic stand while effortlessly slashing out cords that left an aftertaste, I think I found out.

From there, I went back to the “Day Stage” to check out Meiko, who generated as much pre-festival Next Big Thing hype as anyone. Her smoky voice, easily digestible pop hooks, and bashful girl-next-door stage presence won her favor with the audience, even if her acoustic ditties lacked thematic variance (one song was introduced, “This song is about this guy I was friends with, and he had a girlfriend, and she thought we were getting it on. But we weren’t! We were just friends”; another, “This is a song I wrote not too long ago about a girl who was stalking me because I was friends with her boyfriend. She thought she was gonna find some craziness or something, but there was nothing to find, because we would just play guitars”). She was very good, but it was hard not to wonder whether the time had passed for a girl with an acoustic guitar singing about boys with girlfriends, and whether Meiko, who’s already made the late-night talk show rounds, will, like so many before her, become a permanent up-and-comer.

The same fate might await Mumford & Sons, who played the “Day Stage” a day later, but it won’t be for a lack of originality. Songs from the English folk quartet tend to feature layered four-part harmonies and relentless but refreshingly carefree bluegrass noodling—choruses are created by either blending or strictly demarcating the two. Instead of having a full-time drummer, percussion responsibilities are divvied up: singer/guitarist Marcus Mumford on the kick drum, banjoist/dobroist Winston Marshall on the hi-hat, and keyboardist Ben Lovett with the shaker (upright bass player Ted Dwane is exempted). The band’s pedal-stomping percussion style gave the songs a march-like feel that, paired with the harmonies and backcountry instrumentation, made them sound incredibly organic. They felt alive.

The “Day Stage,” located on the second level of the convention center, doubles as a café, and is meant to serve as a musical respite for those attending the daily panel discussions. Led by industry experts, the panels cover a variety of topics relevant to the community. This year, however, they reflected a single collective impulse: to put humpty dumpty back together again.

Panel titles like “Artist as Entrepreneur,” “Great Expectations: Artist Development Meets Economic Reality,” “Bloggers Are Now In Charge,” “Indie Labels Keep the Faith,” and “Are International Deals the Answer to American Artists’ Problems?” betray a pretty good sense of where the music business is going. Even the panels claiming to offer good news had, for the most part, titles that sounded bizarrely sinister: it can’t be a good sign that “Making Money With Music AND Keeping It” is supposed to sound triumphant and that, next to the other titles, it does. Brothers Todd and Jeff Brabec, co-authors of Music, Money, and Success, used their panel “There’s Still Lots of Money In Songwriting and Music Publishing” to remind everyone that there’s absolutely no money in record sales and to suggest that musicians look for revenue in kids’ toys, ringtones, Hallmark cards, video games, Broadway shows, and karaoke. They discussed movies and TV as well, but if the “Placing Your Music in Film and TV” panel later that day was any indication, such endeavors are—shall we say—competitive.

The popularity of the panels has decreased in recent years with the rise of corporate-sponsored “day parties” around the city, which are free to the public and often feature some of the festival’s biggest acts. Now, a great many of the festival’s venues boast prominent daytime components, which the press unfailingly cover at the expense of the panels. So, invariably, while some of the most powerful people in music are gathered in the convention center to discuss, debate, and plan the future of the industry, the journalists are outside, running from venue to venue, tripping over each other to get the first photograph or first blog post about whatever likely irrelevant subject will soon take nearly identical forms atop their various websites’ “Exclusive SXSW Coverage.”

So, naturally, when Kanye came to town Saturday night for a “surprise” concert with Kid Cudi, Common, and Erykah Badu, the reporters flocked. It wasn’t really much of a surprise, seeing as Kanye confirmed days earlier that he’d be playing in Austin that weekend; it was clear that the show was happening at the corporate-sponsored FADER Fort by Friday night, when their website all but confirmed everyone’s suspicions. It was announced that the entire show would be streamed online for free, yet, as LA Times music critic Todd Martens pointed out Saturday morning, “One thing's for sure: Kanye will have the attention of nearly every journalist in Austin tonight.” Let me repeat that: anyone with an Internet connection could watch this show for free, yet practically “every journalist in Austin” covered it. Martens continued, “Here's hoping he makes the best of it, as the three-hour window in which he's scheduled to perform will be pulling attention away from the hundreds of artists aching for a piece of the spotlight.” Would it really have been so terrible if the press outlets had someone watching the stream from home and, on this final day of a festival that’s about discovering new music, sent its reporters on the ground to, gasp, discover new music? Or at least report on some of the dozens of other established or otherwise interesting acts that played that night? Couldn’t we have just appointed some guy from Billboard to go and make sure Kanye was actually there, shared some photographs, and been done with it?

Members of the music press must know that the system on which their livelihoods depend is crumbling. The topic they cover no longer has any “real value”: the smoke and mirrors, the glitz and the glamour, the press conferences, the guest appearances, the reviews, the cover stories, the merch, the blogs, the tweets, the breaking news, the concert packages, and the box sets can no longer obscure the utter worthlessness of the essential commodity at the heart of it all—the music. This business was toast the day people started figuring out that they didn’t need to pay for it. But instead of re-tooling its product, re-focusing its efforts, and re-positioning for the Internet age, the industry has tried to build a house of cards so tall that everyone forgets it has to collapse. The media, through its endless reflection and repetition of meaningless coverage of items ever-increasingly peripheral to the music itself, has played no small part in the industry’s continued overvaluation; through its continued refusal to deal with anything except the most immediate, headline-grabbing events, it has provided the consumer with dangerously imperfect information. Like any bubble, this one has to burst, and there isn’t a single bailout or toxic asset purchase that can save it. But hey, at least you’ll always know the exact date to expect a new album from Fuckshovel (who played Thursday at Spiro’s) and, as a likely added bonus, what they think about Oasis.

So forgive me if I was a bit taken aback by the Decemberists, who absolutely nailed their first beginning-to-end live performance of their ambitious concept album The Hazards of Love, and Mumford & Sons, who nailed their performance, too, even though they’re unsigned and still waiting to release their first full-length. It wasn’t the bands’ proficiency that caught me off guard. It was something in their music and the way they performed it. They were optimistic.

* * * * *

“Now you wish you listened to your parents and went to college,” chuckled Little Steven, pleased with his speech’s opening line and the reaction it got from the Friday morning audience. The adored E Street Band guitarist drew a huge crowd despite the 11 a.m. start time (mere hours after 6th Street typically settles down), and he didn’t disappoint. “I want to spend some time on something we never discuss in these things,” he continued. “The music! I understand why it doesn’t get discussed: because it sucks! I mean it blows. It’s terrible. It blows major moose cock. Nobody’s buying records? No shit! They suck!”

In a mere fifteen minutes, Little Steven managed to survey the history of rock ‘n’ roll, pinpoint exactly where it got off track, and offer his solutions. “With Sgt. Pepper, the album became king. We’ve now come full circle, back to singles. If you’re wondering what 1962 was like, this is it!” According to him, “A new phenomenon is even more dangerous to performance than the video: bands are skipping the bar stage.” “Rock ‘n’ roll was founded as dance music,” he continued. “We had a mandate. We made people dance. We did not work. We got fired. We were homeless. It required a lot of energy. Working class energy: get up, go to work, and kill kind of energy. Not sit around and wait for inspiration. One day we stopped making dance music and started thinking about it.”

He scoffed at the notion that “it’s not cool to play cover songs.” “It teaches you how to write, play each instrument. You learn greatness from greatness.” He went on, “When you’re a bar band, you sneak your own stuff in between the great songs, so your stuff has to be almost as good or else you’re embarrassed. So you’ve gotta work hard.” He smirked. “Maybe you steal a little from here or there, that’s OK. You’re only as good as who you steal from.”

“The energy you manufacture and harness as a dance band stays with you your whole life,” he insisted. “Your job is to blow people away when you’re a bar band. It’s not an option: you gotta get people out of their seats every night!” He went in for the kill: “The Beatles were a bar band for five years, the Stones for three, we were a club and bar band for seven years. All of a sudden people think they’re better than them?”

He took the obligatory jabs at the major labels: “The entire entertainment business is run by people who don’t have a feel for the content. They don’t get it. That’s a major problem. The lawyers and bankers running the world right now are not doing a good job. Let’s have some co-presidents [of labels], so at least we have the artistic side in the room.” “The labels will sometimes find a record, occasionally a great one,” he conceded. “But they’re gonna have a tough time with that second one because no one at the label knows how they made the first.”

Little Steven then connected the “crisis in performance” to failing record sales by deriding what he called “the auteur theory,” which places “inaccurate emphasis on the notion of the self-made artist.” “Once upon a time, it took an army of talented people to work on a record,” he recalled. “Now you have to do it all yourself? No wonder everything sucks!” “This is why people steal records,” he concluded. “They think they fall off trees. They don’t know people try to make a living off these things.”

The day before Little Steven’s speech, Quincy Jones delivered the festival’s “Keynote” address. People (including, for once, the press) turned out in droves to see the legendary producer who, at 76, is both a reminder of the good old days and a notice that their last trappings are nearly gone. Perhaps realizing the same, Jones rambled on for an incredible two-and-a-half hours, spending quite a bit of time reliving some of his proudest moments (he teared up while playing a video of close friend Ray Charles performing “My Buddy Quincy” in 1991) and greatest achievements (not hard when your credits include Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, Oprah, and 27 Grammy’s).

On his Chicago Sun-Times blog the following day, Jim DeRogatis raised a decent point: “In light of the seismic changes in the industry, the selection of Quincy Jones as the keynote speaker was an odd choice.” “Jones,” he continued, “is pretty much the personification of the old-school music industry, representing a platinum standard for success that clearly will never exist again.”

Almost certainly true. But DeRogatis didn’t let up: “Jones' talk was rambling, unfocused, occasionally amusing but more often annoying for the fact that he really had no wisdom to impart to the capacity crowd of aspiring musicians, essentially just bragging about a career that has spanned 78 r.p.m. records to digital downloads.” He went even further in the article’s online comments section, quipping, “Passing acknowledgment of the state of things in 2009, with little insight into how they got this way and none into how they can be fixed, coming at the end of an hour of rambling self-aggrandizement and shameless name-dropping, does not a keynote make.”

Jones may not have given us much insight into how things “got this way,” but DeRogatis’s words certainly do. So do the words of the dozens of other music writers who used their columns to pan Jones’s speech. Yes, he name-dropped. Yes, he asked us all to hold hands and recite a pledge about loving each other. Yes, he teased us with the promise of a “real treat” at the end and then made us sit there even longer to listen to a couple of musicians who were very talented but a little tough to take after sitting for so many hours in the same chair.

But when he put his arms around his guests, 23-year-old piano virtuoso Alfredo Rodriguez and 14-year-old America’s Got Talent champion Bianca Ryan, it was hard not to smile. For a man who’s done everything and knows everyone, he clearly took an awful lot of pride in his young protégées. As much as he talked about the past, this was a man also looking toward the future.

The industry is indeed different now—DeRogatis is correct that we will likely never see someone like Quincy Jones again. But that’s precisely what makes such vitriolic criticism of him so baffling. In a world without too many, Quincy Jones is a hero. His story, which begins with a young life of petty crime on the South Side of Chicago, is genuinely inspiring. Given that context, his “name-dropping" doesn’t seem like mere vanity—it carries with it an implicit you can do it, too. It’s the Great American Success Story, about how far talent, hard work, and a fair amount of luck can take you.

Can you imagine a sports writer reacting to a Willie Mays tribute with 1500 words of “been there, done that”? Can you imagine anyone, as many did during Quincy’s speech, leaving the room? Should Joe Montana be regarded as less great because every speech he gives doesn’t include a checklist of how to become a Hall of Fame quarterback? Say what you will about the way we praise our star athletes, but there is something about them that moves us. Something that can’t be reduced to the clichés we tend to rely on. Whenever we’re down—either individually or as a community—we look to our athletes to pull us back up.

We also look to music—in the aftermath of 9/11, tribute concerts from Paul McCartney, The Who, and U2 took on an almost spiritual meaning. So then why, when someone manages to achieve the kind of overwhelming greatness that Quincy has, when someone ingrains himself so deeply in American culture that we can barely even separate him from it, when someone does it the right way, must we rush to find fault? Maybe while we’re all sitting around, scratching our heads, and trying to figure out who killed the good old days, we needn’t look further than our own over-critical ranks, determined to turn heroes into dumbasses, dumbasses into villains. We’re not exactly experiencing a glut of role models, yet we somehow feel the need to criticize Quincy for not telling us the exact formula he used to be successful in what we admit was a fundamentally different music environment anyway. What DeRogatis doesn’t realize is that while Jones’s age may limit his ability to teach us, it only enhances his capacity to touch us.

The sports industry has figured this out. The sports industry also happens to be thriving. When will those of us in music stop tripping over ourselves in search of the next nihilistic, self-contained goofballs for long enough to allow ourselves to be inspired?

* * * * *

“We saw ourselves as a multimedia kind of concept piece. We didn’t really want to tour, we didn’t really want to sign to a record label. Wow, we were so modern,” quipped Devo’s Jerry Casale, who was featured alongside his bandmates as “SXSW Featured Speakers” about an hour after Quincy’s address. “We’d all get in a car,” remembered frontman Mark Mothersbaugh, “drive up to Cleveland, go into a record store, and go, ‘Hey, need a Devo record?’ And the guy would go, ‘Let me see,’ and he’d go down to that last little bin at the end with the oddities, and he’d go, ‘Nope! Got the one you brought in last week!’ And we’d go, ‘OK, see you next week!’”

The band showed their newest music video (“Don’t Shoot, I’m a Man!”), bantered with each other for about half an hour (Casale: “When Toni Basil choreographed David Byrne in “Once In a Lifetime,” we had already spent a year and a half with her, she had seen every show, and she basically gave him Mark’s moves.” Mothersbaugh: “I’m always the last to find these things out.”), and took several questions from the audience before posing for pictures and asking, genuinely, if anyone was actually coming to see their show Friday night.

They were, of course. Playing at Austin Music Hall the night after Outkast’s Big Boi, Devo unveiled their new stage show and played several songs from what will be their first album in twenty years. And while Big Boi began his set by musing, “I don’t even know what to play we’ve got so many motherfuckin’ hits,” Devo, whose crowd visibly outnumbered Big Boi’s, performed their entire set with a youthful enthusiasm usually reserved for up-and-coming bands who still can’t quite grasp their success.

The night was probably the festival’s best, as Devo was following a surprise performance from Metallica, who stopped by Stubbs to promote their new Guitar Hero game. SXSW briefly turned into Metallicafest, as the concert was populated by a surprisingly large number of people best described as the kind of people you’d see at a Metallica concert. But several casual fans, like myself, were there as well, eager for a chance to see the high-octane thrashers play such a small venue. While they weren’t exactly taking pictures of the audience with their digital cameras—that was the Silversun Pickups, who preceded them on stage—the guys were clearly having fun. At one point, frontman James Hetfield cracked one of his massive grins and bellowed, “Thank God for loud, live music!”

Once the mosh pit subsided and everyone was done scouring the ground for the dozens of guitar picks tossed into the crowd at the end of the encore, people began funneling out, back to 6th Street where they could grab some food (likely at one of the several stands or carts, which had names like Best Wurst, A La Cart, and Last Stand at the Alamo) and go back to wandering the endless bars, eager to find the Next Best Thing but a little more eager to find the Next Free Beer. “Have a good night,” one exiting man told another. He didn’t hesitate to reply. “Already did.”

* * * * *

Devo played until 1:30, but I still woke up early the next morning to catch the “SXSW Interview” with The Hold Steady. Once that was over, I hopped on an early afternoon shuttle headed for Auditorium Shores, an outside concert venue on Lady Bird Lake that hosts South by Southwest’s closest thing to an actual “festival.” The shuttle buzzed with the kind of excitement only possible in 70-degree-plus weather. As we were turning into the parking lot, we spotted something on the elbow of the road: about a half dozen boxes of partially shattered beer. After hypothesizing with my companions about how it got there and half-jokingly pleading with the driver to make a quick pit stop, the driver spoke up: “Only in Austin.”

Shows at Auditorium Shores are free to the public, so, for hundreds of locals who don’t bother forking it over for access to the rest of the week’s events, this was their annual “South by Southwest experience.” People were still laying out their blankets when I arrived. High school sweethearts, frat guys, young families—all were gearing up for a day in the sun with some bands they may or may not have heard of.

I arrived just in time for Fastball, one of my favorite bands growing up (their triple-bill with Sugar Ray and the Goo Goo Dolls, on my 11th birthday, was the first time my family took me to a concert that I wanted to see). The crowd was still forming, so I easily navigated my way up to the stage. I smiled and started to sing along. I hadn’t heard anything from these guys in so long that I had almost forgotten they existed. “Gotta love a free show from a decent band,” said a man standing next to me.

Someone in the audience called out for them to do a specific song. “You want to hear that?” replied lead singer Miles Zuniga. “I wish we knew it. You’d think we’d know all our material, but things get in the way, like beer and bourbon. Don’t worry—we’re gonna play ‘The Way.’ You really think we’d come all the way here and not play that? In front of a festival crowd, no less? No, we’re actually gonna play our new jazz album for the rest of the set. I hope that’s alright. We’re not the best jazz musicians, but it’s really our true passion.”

My thoughts drifted to one of Fastball’s contemporaries, Third Eye Blind, who played the previous afternoon. They were more or less my favorite band from elementary school until they stopped releasing new material during my early high school years (there is absolutely no chance that I ever listen to another album as much as I listened to Blue, their second). I only saw them in concert once, shortly after they released what is still their most recent full-length album, 2003’s Out of the Vein. I couldn’t wait to see them again.

I waited in line for about half an hour with hundreds of other nostalgic twentysomethings before I got in. They had already started, and were hopping around like they never stopped playing. But they were shells of their former selves—when lead singer Stephan Jenkins asked the audience to fill in the vocals, it was less out of showmanship than his inability to hit the notes himself. A sunglasses-wearing Tony Fredianelli had lost a step or three on the guitar. Original bassist Arion Salazar was sorely missed. As I looked at the indifferent faces of the older members of the crowd, I understood that the band’s shoddy playing was reinforcing their stereotype as a bad 90s band. They pranced around like rock stars but sounded like middle-aged men going through the motions. The show seemed more like a reunion than a comeback, and a tear welled up in my eye as I realized that the legacy they never had would remain just that.

Fastball was different, though. They weren’t trying to be something they weren’t. They repeated their name after every song. They advertised their merch. They made fun of themselves (“We do have merch, we didn’t just come out of nowhere”). They cleaned up their own set. They wore sunglasses because it was sunny. And above all, they embraced their mortality. When they finally did get to “The Way,” it was a reminder of a happier, more carefree time. A time when we listened to Top 40 radio, we watched TRL, and everyone seemed to have a record contract. That era has long since past. Now, the music industry is dying. But that doesn’t mean the music is, too.

The crowd had grown considerably by the end of their set. The lines for lemonade, snow cones, kettle corn, and turkey drumsticks were just starting to develop into the behemoths they would become by the time Erykah Badu came on. I grabbed a funnel cake for probably the first time in ten years and started searching for a place to sit. I imagined that the guys in Fastball were doing more or less the same. For a moment, while industry execs a couple miles away continued to throw up their arms, it could have been any place, any time: anonymous people watching mostly anonymous bands, eating the foods and drinking the drinks that make them happy while the sun shines on approvingly. A little of the past, a little of the future, but mostly neither, and either way, no money whatsoever. But in Austin, Texas, in 2009, for Arkells, for Mumford & Sons, for Third Eye Blind, for Fastball, and for the band that followed them who wondered “how we ended up on a stage with these huge artists,” that’s just how it was going to have to be.

 

Jamie Berk