With the advent of Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits, and Coachella, the value of South By Southwest (SXSW) as a consumer option has become debatable.  These new European style mega festivals provide all that there is in relevant music buffet style over 2-3 days and you can walk away knowledgeable about 40 bands you never knew about.

South by Southwest, the Austin Texas based confab that uses the weekend of St. Patrick’s day each year, is a one of a kind event that overlays bands on the rise, as well as Texas and Indie legacy musicians onto a small venue landscape in a way that no other city is really capable of. There are attempts, New York has the CMJ festival, Toronto the NXNE festival, and San Diego is in the midst of growing the San Diego Music Thing, but none really compare, none have become the all in one CES, Film, and Music supernova over time that South By Southwest has become.

Is it for you?  You have to start by asking yourself, what’s your best chance to see a band like the White Stripes play in a room of 100 people in your lifetime?  I did this and was forever thankful.  Muse took over San Diego this past January, selling out the Sports Arena and having both major alternative radio stations having “fanboy” reactions that were a little, umm, delirious.  Yet when they played the last SXSW I attended, I went to see them, at 1000 person Stubbs BBQ. 

Diverse talent pool at SXSW

You have to want that, small club proximity to your pick to be the next cultural phenomenon in music.  If you don’t, go to a festival and get out your BIC lighter.  If you do, then South By Southwest is the only option on the planet that delivers this result every year.

The other thing I’ve always been interested in concerning this event is the crazy sponsor parties.  We all watch the Oscars and the Grammys on TV and hear about the after parties on TMZ and really understand that participation isn’t an option.  But at SXSW these types of events complete with hosted bars, gift bags, and second appearances by the top talent at the main event, are as big apart of SXSW as the main concerts themselves.  You haven’t lived until you’ve snuck into a private showing like the C3 party featuring Queens Of The Stone Age, the Revolver Magazine party featuring Spoon playing for 120 people off of a loading dock, or Nickel Creek playing a 200 person listening event in the banquet room of the Driskill Hotel.  You aren’t really provided invitations to these events, I’ve come closer to getting arrested sneaking into this stuff, than really any other thing I’ve done, but they’re there, you’re there, why miss out?

San Diego, as previously mentioned, is attempting to mature its own version of this.  I’m sure the founders of the San Diego Music Thing are basing their expectations modestly and realistically.  The San Diego version, set to move to the Sheraton Mission Valley this Year and expand to a wider footprint of local music venues, is doing all it can to marry up the assets of the city: several outstanding small clubs, the leading craft beer market, and proximity to a ton of music and music tech industry types in LA and San Francisco to create educational programming for willing musicians from the entire west of the Mississippi landscape.  Whether it takes hold is still really up in the air.  There’s a lot to offer, plus the advantage of San Diego’s extreme capacity to house an incoming convention crowd.  But critical mass will always be determined by the same things that make SXSW the holy grail: will you see a band like the White Stripes in their most primitive light, and will the associated events catch fire in a way that makes you feel that you’re at the Grammys in a way that was made for you?

Back to Austin, all the hotels sell out, so if you want to go, be prepared to have to MacGyver a place to stay the same way ComicCon fans suffer here in July, but find relief in the fact that San Diego has a non stop flight to Austin and not enough people are on it such that you can still get at ticket 2 weeks out.  That same flight (or 7) out of LAX sells out 120 days in advance every year, just like the hotels.

I’d be remiss if I neglected to add the part about San Diego’s finest musicians participating in this event.  Everyone you can think of from the Stone Temple Pilots to Jewel to Rocket From The Crypt, have done their time at SXSW multiple times.  None possess a better insight than Steve Poltz who turned 54 this year having been participating nearly every year since 1994.  Others have been there earlier, but no one has a more thorough understanding. “The staff at the Crowne Plaza where I’ve done most of my showcases over the years hug me every year I return, like family.  I play Mojo Nixons Jalapeno Pancake Breakfast every year at The Continental. I’m bringing Stinky and John Castro from the Rugburns this year, hoping to play 12 times or more and still have time to get lost in the crowd and go see bands, too” said Poltz.  Although you would think Steve would be the sage who has seen all that SXSW has to offer, last year he won a fan contest to attend the Bruce Springsteen show and “cried” during Springsteen’s keynote interview during the daytime panels.

This year Hills Like Elephants, Wavves, The Burning Of Rome, Steve Poltz (again), and Retox are a brief listing of the bands from San Diego that will hit SXSW.  It’s always fun to run into the hometown groups and buy them a beer (they’re all broke by the time they get there).  

This is a rant about a thing that nearly no one who reads this magazine will really ever participate in, but at least 1000 words later, you know why SXSW exists, and if you happen to trek out there one day, and your standing outside Iron Works BBQ next to Iggy Azalia, or in a Driskill elevator next to Tom Waits, you’ll have a sense of the value of that moment. 

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