Welcome to Austin, Texas, for this year’s South by Southwest conference. I’m told there are almost 1,300 artists playing the festival this year, packed tightly into four days and nights of showcases. SXSW started with much more focus on unsigned bands, but as it has grown over the years, it has come to be about building buzz for young acts or giving a jolt of coolness to older, better-established artists. More and more people came each year; then the Web bubble burst and things thinned out nicely for a while. This year, despite the ever-consolidating record companies slashing jobs and budgets, it seems more crowded than ever.
I got to Austin relatively painlessly yesterday. In the two years since I was last here for the SXSW, they’ve added direct flights from New York, which is an enormous help. I landed and immediately had to sprint to the panel on which I was sitting, titled “Reaching the Grown-Up Music Audience.” Since I could pretty much spew out the pitch I’ve been giving for Tracksthe last two years, I didn’t have to prep much. When the other panelists—luckily, coincidentally, mostly friends of mine—saw that I could rattle off the statistics in my sleep (60 percent of CDs are now bought by people over the age of 30; spending by the over-30 audience more than doubled between 1991 and 2001), they left me to do that rap. The panel was fine, nothing revelatory.
Then it was 4:30 or so and I hadn’t eaten all day. Late lunch with KCRW’s Nic Harcourt, who is the leading taste-making DJ in the country, spilled over into dinner with an old co-worker, then into a third meal (though I had ceased eating by now) with another set of friends. So I was very late getting out of the gate to hear any music. I saw the very talented country singer-songwriter Mindy Smith, the promising R&B act Van Hunt, a few others I just bounced through. Bailed early—meaning 1 a.m.—in desperate need of sleep.
Today will be frantic—various daytime parties (for KCRW, for Hear Music/Starbucks, and for my old employer, Spin), then our Tracks event this evening. Somehow we pulled together a great bill—Kris Kristofferson, Toots and the Maytals, Joss Stone—and it’s at the one venue that’s open to the Austin public, so hopefully it will be more fun, less industry. Then I really need to be more aggressive about seeing more music later tonight. I’m also doing a Q&A session with Joan Baez tomorrow, for which I’m very excited but need to do some prep work so as not to fumble in front of 500 or so people.
I went to my favorite spot for breakfast, a little Mexican place called Las Manitas (not terribly original—it’s everyone’s favorite spot, but it is that good). I ran into Jon Pareles from the New York Times. Though he specifically said, “Don’t put me in your Diary!” I need to pause and mention what an inspiration he continues to be. He was running through the countless shows he hit last night, bands I’d mostly never heard of, and it’s amazing how he maintains such enthusiasm and commitment, such range and openness, such integrity and dignity. I could never do that newspaper grind, but as a music journalist, it’s really hard to find many examples of people who have continued to do this for a living without becoming bitter or jaded or tiresome or disinterested. I’ve been fortunate to find new ways to approach the music I love over the years, to stay engaged through new challenges and new responsibilities. Launching Tracks is the latest, most fulfilling, scariest, most exciting chapter in this ongoing project. So, wish me luck—and remember, like George Clinton said, funk is its own reward.