biographical / Non-fiction

Impressions of SXSW from Far Away, Getting Farther

ImageA long time ago, I really liked music.

Actually that’s still true today. I like music more than I like almost everything. Yesterday I told Julie (who is someone I probably like more than music) that if I had to choose between Andy Warhol’s work and the song “Roadrunner” by the Modern Lovers, I would kiss those screen prints and Brillo Boxes goodbye in a second. That’s a pretty tricky thought experiment though, because the way most people tell the history of the Modern Lovers involves Andy Warhol somehow. This is an oversimplification, since the Velvets were around before Warhol and did their best work without him around, although who’s to say where the influence starts or stops?

Anyway, I have nothing against Andy Warhol; I just chose him off-handedly because he’s obviously important. But Roadrunner, man. Great song.

So South By Southwest is going on.

And when I was a teenager in Omaha, the old-timers were already mourning what SXSW had become. In the days before the early 2000s, I guess it was a place for unsigned bands to be discovered by labels. By the time I heard about sxsw, it was mostly the labels putting on showcases and it was so expensive to go and stay in Austin that week, that unsigned bands just wouldn’t go.

Still, Nigel and I dreamed of going to sxsw, but the cost and distance to Austin always exceeded our grasp.

I write for a tech website so I got a smart phone and joined Twitter and started following people who do the same sort of stuff. Many of them are writing from SXSW. Many of them are from Brooklyn. All I’ve heard about from sxsw is about people going to viral marketing conferences and where people have been spotted wearing Google Glass and TED talk this and bullshit that.

Brooklyn, and New York more broadly, is a place I fell in love with via music. It is also a very strong brand.

Did you know

“the idea that art and commerce are at odds is a remnant of an old culture war: dogma presented as forward-thinking but really just protecting an outmoded status quo.”

Of course you already knew that. How long has it been since you took the phrase “sell-out” seriously? If you aren’t commodifying everything you do, putting ads in front of your youtube videos and monitoring your page views, you’re just an idiot and someone else is making that money. No band is going to turn down an opportunity for their song to be used in a commercial.

Pope Julius dictates art because he pays Michelangelo.

And you know art has always been at the behest of commerce. Why did everyone paint stuff for the church? Because the church paid them. Lucky painters did paintings of rich families. Even the Impressionists needed their patrons and they still were all poor and covered in lice.

And those examples are just painters! The more expensive and new arts–like film–don’t even have an illusion of being made with hands free of commerce. Some of the most seminal and revered films–Battleship Potemkin, Triumph of the Will–are openly propaganda. Every Hollywood movie opens with a corporate logo.

I haven’t sought out music coverage from SXSW, because I just don’t listen to that much contemporary indie rock, or much contemporary music of any stripe. SXSW doesn’t really have much to do with indie rock anyway.

I guess I see most indie rock as the form of the pop song played on guitars instead of via computer, and sung by a person with a pretty normal sounding voice rather than a computer-aided super voice.

And indie rock has a lot of pretense of “art,” but if it’s all commerce, does indie v. major label matter much? And how is using the same formula for a pop song–same line-up of two guitars, bass and drums, that has been used since Buddy Holly–innovative or impressive?

So I’ve been listening to American Primative guitarists and jazz music and Penguin Café Orchestra and space-age big band, and operettas and none of them are at SXSW, so for all I know it hasn’t changed, but I have.

Everything is technology of course. Last night, talking to Julie, I talked about how the acoustic guitar–even mine–is made in a factory (in Nazareth, PA), and the frets are a technological development, as is the bridge and the interface is the strings. It’s on a spectrum with Google Glass. Maybe it isn’t a spectrum. Maybe they just share a category. I mean, anything could share a category, depending how you categorize.

So it isn’t with any pretense of authenticity or superiority that I ignore most EDM or whatever. I just look at a computer screen all damn day, and I don’t want to make music while looking at my computer screen, and frankly, seeing a musician making music on their computer live is a comically depressing, post-modern display. But there’s no denying that it’s very now.

I sold off the Stratocaster a few days ago. The slow winter months tend to result in my selling something of value. Last year it was my amp, which was too big and loud anyway. This year it was the Strat. I liked the way that guitar played, maybe even more than the Telecaster that I kept and will probably have to sell next year, but the Tele has more sentimental value. It’s just a product that I used, when you get down to it.

Even the SXSW that old timers pined for–unsigned bands trying to become signed bands–is commerce based. Everything is.

The fact that everyone clamors to get into conferences given by someone who made millions of dollars running a web-based company probably isn’t categorically different from clamoring to see someone who made millions of dollars playing two-chord songs to teenagers.

Isn’t that sort of Andy Warhol’s point with the Brillo Boxes? Look for art in consumer design, because those are the same thing.

It’s not like the bastards won. There was no one else fighting.

It’s not like the counter-culture is being co-opted by the business guys, because there isn’t a counter-culture. There is only aesthetics. It’s not like an indie rock festival is categorically different from a tech conference.

It’s all how you categorize things, right? You can’t really afford to be so naïve.


I don’t feel so bad with the radio on. It helps me from being lonely late at night.


17 thoughts on “Impressions of SXSW from Far Away, Getting Farther

  1. Did you get a chance to seeTina Roth Eisenberg’s Keynote session discussing passion and knowledge from her diverse business experience, and how taking your side projects seriously will lead to your success? Do you think it will lead to your success?

  2. I’m still really interested in experiencing SXSW, even if it isn’t what it used to be. Technology is what separates our generation from all the others to ever exist, and I like events that celebrate that.

  3. Great thoughtful post, thanks for writing. I guess it all amounts to a bunch of neoliberal guilt – there’s a lot of navel-gazing going on in the corridors of consumerist power these days!

  4. Good Honest Question:
    Yes, there a difference in selling vs selling out and commercial vs commercialized.

    If you look at “Old timer” history 🙂 you only need to study Pete Seeger.
    It is / was always about The power of song.

    Pete was / is about the power of singing together – making the world a better place. He is known for ” fighting the good fight ” and a member of the “counter culture” people like Dylan, Baez, and many more came up behind him.

    He was a simple man who made some money but he wasn’t an “artist” who wanted to get “rich”. He stood for something – he was a willing to defy Joe McCarthy – couldn’t earn a living for 17 years cause of the blacklist. Would anyone of you have the stones he had? Would you be willing to fight the power to make the world a better place? Be willing to fight and sacrifice on principal?

    Does anyone blow off the corporation money to fight for anything? Sacrifice money for anything you hold more dear than money? They’ve studied happiness you know – and what makes you happy it isn’t money!

    Getting rich, getting power, that’s just great….. but what good does it do.

    How have you made the world a better place?

    So when you get to be 65 or 70 and at the party with your friends/family and people want to celebrate what will you be listening and dancing to?

    My guess it’s gonna be the songs out of Motown because they speak to the heart, and you can sing, and enjoy each other.
    That’s the power that music / art delivers.

    Back then It was about Power to the People! Marvin Gaye “What’s Going On” Standing In The Shadows of Motown” The Funk Brothers

    Using music to help each other get through the battles waged to create a better life for everyone – to fight the good fight. Yes lots of bands got rich which is wonderful / fabulous – but the money came because the music was GREAT the music came first. When music is truly great it lasts forever!

    See: Pete Seeger

    Folk Arts

    About Money – Greed

    Music Business

    Standing In The Shadows of Motown

    Standing In The Shadows of Motown Live!


    Educational CyberPlayGround @cyberplayground

  5. I have yet gone to sxsw but live near coachella. Its sad the way its gotten, everything is at your fingertips and some ad is being shoved down your throat every second

  6. I went to SXSW and played a series of live dates around the Austin area with my group at the time, and found it to be a celebration of previously famous groups of different stripes – i.e. successful business ventures. It was a seriously dispiriting place for an independent musician to have to fight for attention in.

  7. “Selling out” is relative. There is a difference between taking money for the use of a song in advertising (sync rights) and things like actually changing one’s act to fit the A&R guy’s idea of what your band should sound like. Those aren’t the only two things called “selling out” of course, but I don’t really call the former “selling out” in the same sense, just as an example.

  8. Interesting post, never been to SXSW but have been to Austin CIty Limits, managed to get a vip pass, a whole lucky story in itself, where as a musician I was supposed to be doing the talk.. I ended up just watchin the great music and it has to be said the older musicians who were rockin it hard in 100 degree heat while the new comers were doing their short crowd pleasing sets.. Big difference…I think there are musicians out there who just hate all the online marketing which needs to be done these days, often seems more important than the music…. I get bored with it.. I like the live experience of playin to people who love music, not the people who make the money off it or just wanna be on whatever the next wave is… waves come and go…a real musician is timeless….you are right the money and art have always gone hand in hand and there will always be penniless musicians much more respected in their own right as there were, I am sure, always painters/writers etc who were respected but never got the front page in the past…but you can’t buy respect….maybe the next one or two down from Leonardo was better but never got the break…who knows! hope you get to keep the telecaster!

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