A friend and I had talked about trying to go to Austin for a day trip earlier in the week, but as the weekend on the far end of spring break approached, the idea had stopped coming up. I was relatively surprised to wake up to the “South-by today?” text, but not wholly unprepared. I drowsily packed a bag together for the day out, phone charger, slim jim, and seven or so Frio Lites, left over from a chilly Thursday on the rocky shore of Canyon Lake.
The two-week-long music festival hosted fewer A-list acts this year, and it experienced less corporate investment than in years past. In accordance with the scare over the Austin bomber during the second week of South by Southwest, acts like Ludacris and the Roots cancelled shows.
The numbers for attendance have yet to be calculated for this year, but in the past the music festival has seen as many as 167,800 visitors, hailing from all across America. In 2017, the festival was estimated to garner a whopping $325 million for the Austin economy.
Outside of the gates, one of our party ran up to a man on the street leaving the show. “Germ, hold up! I love your music!”
The rapper, whose performance we had just missed, was friendly. After talking for a minute, he gave all of us handshakes and stepped into a white Jeep Grand Cherokee. I had only heard his songs in passing, but I pretended to be a fan in the moment.
After we were gifted our paper bracelets by a sunburnt man in a blue polo shirt and fishing hat, we followed the labyrinth of line-dividers, which spat us out into the middle of a scene straight from the Vans Warped Tour. The free, Thrasher-sponsored event, which the online poster referred to as Death Match, hosted rappers SahBabii, Kamaiyah, and YBN Nahmir, among others.
The fairgrounds were flooded with stylish youths and pop up food-cart bars. Teens were smoking pot under the shade of the yellow tent over the main stage, and there was a quickly assembled halfpipe in the corner of the yard. The concert had also hosted skaters signed to the Thrasher team.
When Sahbabii played his encore, “Pull Up Wit Ah Stick,” the crowd of 100 or so went wild. There was a small mosh pit confined to a 20-foot space in front of the stage and concert goers kicked up an incredible amount of dust in the process.
To play in SXSW has become a kind of legendary status, the dream of independent musicians since the festival began growing momentum in the 90s. The festival prides itself on spotlighting independent artists.
A great deal of the music at the festival stylistically falls into the indie genre, but the horde of local or traveling small-time bands that play less-advertised shows along the bars on 6th Street are rarely getting paid. Playing for exposure at one of the most highly attended music festival in America doesn’t seem like such a bad deal, but in reality, the exposure is an exaggeration.
Independent musicians might get a few good photos of themselves drenched in sweat, face frozen in concentration mid-guitar solo, and they might sell some shirts. Other than that, there are rarely talent scouts sitting in for 2 a.m. unofficial bar concerts. Even if they were, 2017’s festival hosted some 2,000-plus musical acts.
That night, we drove back to San Antonio in relative silence. We were all wiped from a day of walking around in the sun, our bellies full of grease and cheese thanks to a restaurant whose menu named its pizzas things like “The Editor in Chief.”
We had eaten out on the restaurant’s back patio of the restaurant, where we saw the only genuinely independent musician of the day. A woman in her early twenties played the acoustic guitar and sang. Her friends sat in the back of the audience and clapped the most enthusiastically, but everyone was applauding her.
The only non-original song from the singer’s set was a tastefully enacted cover of Good House by the Smiths. It felt good to enjoy the music from the Smiths again, as I finally could experience the music it in its ideal form, wholly removed from Morrissey. Independent music is played up to be the backbone of the Live Music Capitol’s yearly mega-festival, but it isn’t. Different companies fork up money to sponsor huge events with famous signed artists.
In the best case scenario, like in the Thrasher show, the company knows what its customer’s want, the musician gets paid, and you can have a pretty good time. In reality, independent music is the skin of the festival, the part that is made most visible to prospective attendees, holding the larger body of the event together.
In my bag I had forgotten to pack sunscreen, letting my own skin pinken in the Austin sun. It was nearly 1 a.m. when we got back. The night air was cool compared to the day’s sweltering heat, but my face felt hot.