The other night, I had one of those magical SXSW experiences that fuel the dreams of the thousands of non-industry folks that pour into Austin every spring hoping for an intimate brush with their favorite bands. The night before, I got a text from a friend who had just moved into town saying “Hey, what are you doing tomorrow night? I got us on the list for HATH” HATH is apparently an abbreviation for the Head and the Heart that no one uses, so I had to think on that for a second, but once I realized that he was referring to the major label indie folk band of “Rivers and Roads” fame, I was no less skeptical, and I told my friend so. He said he found a post buried deep in a SXSW subreddit, messaged the guy who claimed to be able to get you on the list, and voila, got a confirmation email minutes later. The definition of too good to be true, but if it was true, I sure didn’t want to be the one missing it. So on Saturday night, I got into a short, inconspicuous line in front of the Scoot Inn on the eastside, near the entry of which hung a modest banner reading “T3 Presents The Head and The Heart” (another reason I was skeptical - everyone in Austin knows C3 Presents, but I’d never heard of the homonymic “T3”). We made it to the front of the line, showed one of the women working the door our IDs, and wouldn’t you know it, she couldn’t find us anywhere on the list. Too good to be true. But before we could sheepishly back out of line and laugh our way to a less exclusive bar, another woman who had overhead our misfortune walked up and said “Let me just check the VIP list, you never know.”
In true SX miracle form, our names were somehow on the VIP list. We were given gold wristbands and told that drinks were free inside with a VIP band. We grabbed a beer and sidled easily, effortlessly, without any shoving or elbowing, to nearly the front of the stage. We were two of maybe 120 people watching the show, which ended up being a full set with an encore, another happy surprise, as I was expecting maybe a 3-5 song set from such a random miracle. They played everything you’d want them to play to spark the just the right amount of early-twenty-something nostalgia and genuine excitement for their new material. I left smiling and smitten with the world and SXSW. And then I tried to get an uber home. I live about a mile and a half away from the venue, and 45 minutes and $16 later, I was riding a little less high on the shimmery magic of the evening.
People on both sides of the event love to find things to complain about when it comes to SXSW - local Austinites maneuvering through the flocks of industry out-of-towners scootering from event to event while they’re trying to get to work, music industry bigwigs and hipsters talking about how the event peaked years ago - but the fact remains, there’s tremendous value created by SXSW every year, regardless of how you slice it.
In 2018, SXSW’s economic impact on the Austin economy totaled a whopping $350.6 million. It remains the single most profitable event for Austin’s hospitality industry, and continues to feed the Austin “Live Music Capital of the World” ego. Honestly, in a city like Austin, the value of the techy, hipster clout lent by SXSW, even if it’s almost cliche at this point, shouldn’t be minimized.
And the value of SX obviously extends far beyond the novel and economic. We’ve all got to find new music somehow, and with thousands of performers from 60+ countries playing in official and totally unofficial showcases alike, it’s hard to avoid new music at SX. As an A&R rooting around the internet day in and day out for new talent, you have to balance what the data tells you and what your gut tells you, but it’s impossible to replace the value of seeing a new band live. You can feel electricity in the room, watch the way the crowd responds. And you can make the same statement for music lovers who don’t spend their days searching for new artists for a living. Finding a new band or artist to dive into is the BEST feeling. Sure I was magically on the VIP list for a knockout HATH show, sure I saw Big Boi perform Shutterbug from the sidewalk down the street from my office; but one of the most exciting parts of SX for me this year was stumbling upon an Australian band called Quivers at the end of a Tuesday night at one of my favorite eastside hipster bars. They have roughly 30,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, only a small fraction of which are based in America, but they had every SX soul in that Austin bar engaged and grinning. Their earnest guitar pop leaning slightly towards 80’s nostalgia had me bouncing on the balls of my feet, wishing I had cash to buy a record, and thinking “THIS! This is why we SX.”