SXSW Diary

Noise Complaints, Breakfast Tacos & Being Better Than Everyone Else

6th St., Austin’s equivalent to St. Laurent Blvd. Photo by Joe Cornfield

I arrived at my South by Southwest accommodations in Austin, TX on a sunny, humid Monday. Located just a few blocks from E. 12th St. and Chicon St., the notoriously rough intersection in the city’s east end, my host’s place would be home to 15 musicians and fans for the duration of the festival.

I was staying with Dave, a friend of a friend, and his roommate Eli. Dave is a well-spoken Harvard grad with a passion for folk music—his dog is named Townes, after the Texan country musician Townes Van Zandt.

Eli is a former snowboard pro turned high-functioning alcoholic with an assortment of drugs in his sock drawer that would rival some pharmacies both in number and in variety.

During the week of the festival, if he wasn’t on one of his 12-hour sassafras-and-MDMA binges, he was at home telecommuting to his high-paying desk job while
doing hits of nitrous oxide from an endless box of whipped-cream chargers.

Having arrived in the city a day early, I was planning on spending the night collecting myself, organizing my week, and researching artists. Instead, Eli and Dave immediately dragged me off to a local bar in South Austin for some BBQ and PBR.

A couple of hours later, I found myself in my first official SXSW line. While the festival boasts an impressive amount of free shows, often with free beer provided by sponsors, the trouble of actually getting into them is the most common festival-goer complaint.

Most events require online RSVPs to get on the guest-list. If you miss the RSVP, whether or not you have a badge or wristband, you’re out of luck. Once you’re on the list you have to brave the lines, which often stretch across entire city blocks and last for hours.

Officially, there were 2,000 musicians registered to showcase and around 15,000 registered attendees this year. However, those numbers were at least doubled by unofficial musicians and festival-goers who chose not to buy an expensive badge. This massive influx of official and unofficial traffic dominates the downtown core for the week of the festival, packing all of the venues and bars past capacity.

On my first night in Austin, only one guy in our group of four had the foresight to RSVP to the event we were attending, a patio party with free beer DJed by the Hood Internet.

Aint No Love Photo Joe Cornfield

We ended up passing back an iPhone with the same RSVP four times to get us all into the club, a game-time manoeuvre that gave us access to a night of free liquor and great music.

Even if you plan for months in advance, this kind of last-minute finagling is often necessary to get into the more exclusive parties. Fake RSVPs, cut-off-and-taped-back-on wristbands, and backdoor entrances are a few of the tactics we used to get into venues over the course of the week.

After getting a ride home from a generous Austinite who probably shouldn’t have been driving, we were surprised to find a raging afterparty going on at the house. A Denver-based dubstep duo called Bedrock were making use of the multiple Marshall stacks in the living room, much to the dismay of our neighbours. After 10 noise complaints and two visits from the police, Bedrock finally shut down their improvised system and we all found a few square feet of floor space to pass out on.

The next morning I set out to explore the city. I choked down a couple of breakfast tacos, a Tex-Mex standard consisting of potatoes, eggs, bacon, and cheese in a soft taco shell, picked up my festival badge and took a walk around downtown Austin to get my bearings.

That’s the thing about SXSW—on paper it doesn’t look that big.

After checking out some venues, picking up wristbands, and tracking down some free food and a lot of free beer, it was time for me to fulfill my professional obligations. I headed to a small club called Spill on 6th St., Austin’s equivalent of St. Laurent Boul., for the Planet Quebec launch party.

Spill was just one of three venues in the downtown core that were dedicated to showcasing Canadian bands at SXSW. Ironically, despite travelling about 3,000 km to Austin, I kept finding myself at Spill, the Canada House, and the Canadian Blast BBQ over the course of the week, seeing bands that were mostly from my hometowns of Montreal and Toronto.

That night at Spill, I was checking out Ain’t No Love, a genre-bending hip-hop/electronic group based here in Montreal. Camera in hand, I took up a spot at the bar beside a fast-talking record executive. I learned he was also there to see Ain’t No Love. “They just have such a marketable image!” he explained, excited.

While it’s not necessarily the first compliment an artist would ask for, Ain’t No Love’s unique image and sound have attracted the attention of fans, labels, and promoters alike.

Aint No Love Photo Joe Cornfield

Comprised of DJ/producer Liam Clarke, MCs Roly Broere (aka 1990) and Eli McBean (aka Beanz) and singer Saidah Conrad, ANL fuses bass-heavy, dubstep-influenced beats, gritty lyricism, and soulful hooks to create a sound that bumps as hard in the club as it does at a college house party.

Riding the momentum of sold-out shows in Montreal and Toronto, Broere had a simple explanation for their early success. “If you look at it, we literally cover the entire spectrum of like, race, weight, gender, class, style, everything—anybody can feel comfortable with us.”

But their diverse image and unique sound has also been an obstacle.

“With our genre, if it even exists, it’s hard to hit up and be like, check out this real hip hop, because it’s not,” McBean said. “And there’s no electro blog that really wants to put us on because its not electro.”

The struggle for recognition and success is one shared by the majority of the mostly indie artists at SXSW.

Everyone is trying to make connections, meet bloggers and have their music heard by the right people. The festival is a sea of talent, with great bands in every bar and on every corner; how any of them are able to separate themselves from the crowd is a mystery.

Clarke isn’t as mystified.

“There’s no secret, you just have to be better. You have to be better than everyone else.”

Read SXSW Diary: Part 2 next week.