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SXSW: from NYC to Austin, a local musician's perspective and photo gallery
When I initially began weighing my options for relocation, I was still living in New York. Austin, a purported 'oasis' in Texas, had only entered my mind during this process because of clamoring friends eager to direct me as I prepared for and soon voyaged away from New York. It was not easy to leave the city that had shaped me. Immediately following high school graduation, I had set off for New York with the kind of bravado only a teenager can possess -- that asinine invincibility. Years flew by before I grew antsy and curious about life in other cities.
To live in L.A.: to drive with the windows down through glamorously warm-breeze-blowing nights. To live in Seattle: to meander through continuous gray days months at a time, answering the question of what to do with cozy, dedicated, indoor creation. To live in Austin: to surrender to sunny surrealism marked by hammocks and the time to lie in them, to melt into a dimension wherein the rhythm of the music is the heartbeat of the city. I needed to detox from New York; I needed a long time to pass before I heard the word "networking" again. I longed for sunshine. My music, I thought, deserved to and would best grow in a place where people harvest music. To live in Austin, to pack a 1996 Honda Accord so full with instruments that my stomach is positioned dangerously close to the steering wheel, to drive for three days without air conditioning through increasingly hotter air, to wonder if I'm making a big mistake.
New York had been my mold that cast me into adult form and I knew this. I knew it less while living in the city than I did upon trying to live in non-New York. Anyone can blend into a city like New York. People say the same thing about Austin, but I don't think it's true. Austin moves at a slower pace and exudes a distinct feel. But everything in Austin changes in March for SXSW.
Austin during SXSW reminds me of New York in that city-centric way. But as with any popular city or festival there are parallels that remind me of why I left New York in the first place. When SXSW hits Austin, residents are bombarded with inconvenience from multiple angles. Lattes cost more, beers cost more and food from restaurants or food trucks costs more, too. Traffic is already a problem in a town growing as quickly as Austin, but traffic during SXSW has become a major hindrance. Although anticipated, the expectation doesn't make the traffic any less inconvenient. I spent nearly double what I normally spend on gas during SXSW and I didn't travel more miles -- I just spent more time sitting in traffic. Taxis, even when called in advance, may require over an hour wait. Parking is a nightmare. The buses and metro may be filled. Your bike, if it happens upon the fate of my husband's bike, will be stolen. Drunk people scream through the streets no matter the time. Other drunk people pass out on the streets, hoping you'll see them sprawled out on the sidewalk before tripping over their tattered skinny-jean legs. They vomit, fight, grope one another and, generally speaking, behave in ways many people would behave had they been drinking for free since 11 a.m. It seems as though no matter how much Austin prepares for SXSW, the festival continues to reel in more people than expected each year and the combined resources of the city can only go so far. Visitors should come to Austin during the festival expecting the sort of inconveniences that appear alongside an attraction this large. Residents have been taught to expect these inconveniences.
There is a silver lining among the inconveniences, though. Some of these inconveniences affect visitors only and create moneymaking opportunities for enterprising locals. Take hotels, for instance. Not only do hotels raise their rates for SXSW, but also the rooms sell out quickly and there aren't enough rooms in town to accommodate all of the visitors. Renting a room or a house through a website like Airbnb, Homeaway or Craigslist can yield quick and easy income for an Austinite with a flexible living space. In most thinkable circumstances, SXSW provides outstanding demand for that of which there is not enough supply. Just about any local can explore myriad business opportunities during SXSW. This is a good thing. It boosts the economy of the city of Austin as a whole while simultaneously fluffing the personal bank accounts of entrepreneurial Austin residents. SXSW 2012 fluffed my income enough to afford my purchases of a PA system, 3 microphones and stands, a nice delay pedal and a new guitar amp.
The perspective I have of SXSW as a musician is one I presume is not unique. It is an incomparable festival. Life as we know it in Austin comes to a standstill for the sake of music and there is something innately rewarding about that. Music can be heard on every corner and reverb through microphones across the city tucks me into bed when I finally resign to sleep. I played two shows during SXSW and opened for two headlining acts from other cities, both of whom I like, respect and otherwise might not ever share a stage. Opportunities like these arise beneath the wings of a festival like SXSW. Music is on every mind in town during the music portion of the festival. To play with passion during SXSW should come secondhand. People are listening with passion and to be given a chance to reflect that back to an audience so easily is a gift.
The shows can be more complicated than non-SXSW shows, though. Loading gear in and out of clubs quickly to and from cars illegally parked with their hazards on in the rain. Beginning a show without much of a chance to sound check because there are simply too many bands playing for most shows to be anything other than behind schedule. Wading through some of the unavoidable slime that drips off of a certain percentage of people employed by the music industry. All of these things are par for the course, but they are sometimes illuminated during SXSW. It is mostly inspiring and fun; it is only marginally a drag. The good far outweighs the bad on the topic of playing shows during a music festival so big you can feel the current of electricity throbbing through the air.
And then SXSW ends and Austin goes eerily quiet during the gloriously peaceful week that follows.