SXSW 2014: Doing Things Differently, Doing Things the Same

I'm heading to Austin for SXSW again. This year I vow to make up for past mistakes, avoid running around, to eat sitting down, skip anything with a line and see every band on my list.
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I'm heading to Austin for SXSW again. This year I vow to make up for past mistakes, avoid running around, to eat sitting down, skip anything with a line and see every band on my list.

My list includes 20 bands I'm hoping to book for HuffPost Live Music, giving precedence to bands I haven't seen over bands that I know I love, opting for artists with names like Diarrhea Planet, No Joy and Nothing over reunited heroes like The Hold Steady.

I've attended SXSW in various capacities over the years, though I was relatively late to the game -- a friend of mine is celebrating his 20th year. I first made the trip from New York in 2006, working for a record label, which meant helping bands lug gear, driving, equipment rentals, hustling to find synths day-of-show. I saw what it was like for a young band, flying from a great distance (i.e. France, I wouldn't recommend the trip) to play to 20 people in a pizzeria, an empty convention center meeting room, a small record store and a radio station. I sat with the band at the airport as they prepared to return to France, frazzled and forlorn. They barely spoke. They spent close to $10,000 on the trip, and their overall impressions could not have exceeded 500.

In 2011 I returned as an interviewer for AOL Music's now-defunct site, sitting down with 80-100 bands for on-camera discussions in the intimate great hall of the convention center. It was hectic, we never knew who was arriving when, and often knew little about them when they did show up. It might be a young band like the Fresh & Onlys, a rapper like Big Sean, Jewel, Duran Duran or some iTunes-popular singer-songwriter I'd never heard of, who ended up being our best interview, though for the life of me I can't remember his name.

Year after year, regardless of work schedule, we have found time to violently outdo ourselves on the last night. After our marathon run of interviews in the convention center in 2011, we celebrated by trading our per diem meal vouchers for whiskey. A coworker talked our way into the Vice afterhours by namedropping AOL, "Have you ever heard of the internet? Because that's who we are." I remember sitting on a ledge outside, eating tacos with our crew at 3AM, drunk, exhausted, crazy, exhilarated. It felt like all of the hard work we'd done had unraveled somehow at the end, that we'd reduced the city to a sea of Taco Bell wrappers and Budweiser empties.

Hangovers aside, I've always found SXSW to be, from a personal standpoint, extremely rewarding. I'm allergic to networking, I can't update my LinkedIn, I don't want a business card, I don't even like housewarmings, but I love talking to people outside our comfort zones, where we can stop being cool and actually be ourselves. I've made some great, lasting friendships at SXSW. I've always found it to be what it is purported to be; an overcrowded opportunity to see dozens of new acts and an increasing number of established bands (and brands) vying for relevance.

Each year, branding and sponsorship are more visible. The big stories at SXSW 2014 include Justin Bieber, Jay-Z and Kanye, Lady Gaga, etc. The 62-foot Doritos vending machine #BoldStage, once graced by Lil Wayne (when people cared about Lil Wayne), still looms large, both literally and figuratively threatening to crush Austin's weird, not-so-little scene.

This year, more of my friends have opted to stay home. I've heard more complaints about crowding, loss of focus, lines, SXSW not being what it was. I can't disagree, but like most things, SXSW is what you make of it. It may not be what it was, but it is what it is. I choose to do what I came to do -- see the bands I came to see, spend time with friends and check out the city, bike to gigs (and remember where I lock up, for once), wear earplugs and cap the Lone Stars at 8. If all goes according to plan, my flight home should be a breeze.