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Personal Essays

My SXSW Diary

South by Southwest is really about the music, so forget about all the parties and cab rides and breakfast tacos. That’s exactly what our correspondent told us when she handed in her expense report. Here’s what (she said) happened between the bars.

Wednesday, March 17

Dear Diary,

Every year, thousands of bands descend on Austin, Texas, in the hopes of landing a record contract. As a music journalist, my job is to find the best and bring them to the world. Don’t be fooled by my humility. This is a tough job. Why else would there be free massages in the press room?

Being at South by Southwest isn’t just important, though, it’s also an honor. I didn’t pay for this $375 all-access badge. I didn’t pay for this $250-a-night luxury hotel room. I have to earn these through hard work, long nights, and clever observation. With that in mind, maybe I should rest up tonight.

Holy crap, there’s a Project Runway marathon on Bravo tonight. Yessss!


Thursday, March 18

Dear Diary,

Last night, while I was yelling at evil Santino and his cohorts on Project Runway and stuffing my face with jalapeno poppers, the Flaming Lips played a secret show. They opened with “Bohemian Rhapsody” and ended with “War Pigs,” and apparently it was mind-blowing. The fact that I missed the Flaming Lips show makes me very, very angry—though mainly at Santino.

Today I went to afternoon music showcases. A clever journalistic trick at SXSW is going to the label-sponsored day parties, where most of the bands play alternate sets in more relaxed venues. But at the New West Records party, the line for beer is wicked long. And at the Bloodshot Records party, I can’t even hear my friends. I motion to them that we should head to a real bar, where we can hear each other and expense the drinks.

“You were standing next to Neil Young!” my friend finally tells me after we leave.

Oh my GOD! The guy from Crowded House!?!

Well, I’m bummed I missed my first celebrity sighting, but tonight is the real kick-off to my challenge of bringing unknown acts to the masses: Morrissey!


Dear Diary,

Morrissey was sooooo awesome. Did you get all my texts? He played “How Soon Is Now” and “Girlfriend in a Coma” and then a bunch of stuff I didn’t recognize, but he was really, really good. He sounds great, he looks great. Well, I couldn’t see, but he sounded like he looked great. Man, celibacy must keep you young and handsome. Ha ha very funny, Diary. I’ll have you know a Norwegian label owner tried to pick me up tonight.

After Morrissey’s set, word leaked out that Ray Davies was going to play a secret show. I waited for hours—well, minutes—only to discover he cancelled, and the stage was taken over by electronica/performance artist Goldfrapp. She may sound like a menu item at Starbuck’s, but Goldfrapp is more of a “Gypsy”-era Stevie Nicks with dancers in wolf masks. You know, I can tart about in front of wind machines wearing silk capes and mumbling come-ons, too, but it doesn’t mean I do it. (Shut up, Diary. That happened, like, twice. )

After the Goldfrapp incident, I was ready to find a great underground act. Here’s another clever journalistic trick: Find the longest lines at the smallest clubs, and that’s how you know which buzz acts are about to break.

“What’s this line for?” I asked one trendy girl.

“Free shoes!” she said.

The line was too long, but I’m totally gonna download that shit from iTunes.


Friday, March 19

Dear Diary,

Gogol Bordello was amazing. Echo & the Bunnymen sucked. The Go! Team ruled. I know because I read the reviews while eating migas at Trudy’s.

So what’s on tap for our crack girl reporter today? It’s a hard call. This afternoon, My Chemical Romance is playing a surprise show at Emo’s. As you know, Diary, MCR has become something of a religion for me, apparently because I’m a 16-year-old goth. There are two problems, however: 1) I left my bullet-proof vest and fake sniper rifle at home; 2) I hate 16-year-old goths. So I think I’ll head to the Sub Pop showcase, where Britt Daniel from Spoon and Bob Pollard from Guided by Voices are playing. I don’t actually like Spoon or GBV that much, but at least there’s not a bunch of punks in black hoodies standing around drinking Red Bull. Here, I’m surrounded by aging hipsters who get cranky waiting for beer—ahh, my people.


Dear Diary,

Tonight it seems like the whole world is headed to the Arctic Monkeys. I’m not sure, but I think they’re an Icelandic cover band. Novelty acts like this are a surefire hit at SXSW, where most journalists don’t have the patience to actually seek out real, breaking music.

I, on the other hand, am going to see the Magic Numbers, a fantastic four-person, brother-sister group who sound like the Band and look like My Morning Jacket. Their set is a reminder of just what this festival is about: It’s not about the free beer, it’s not about the lines and the hype, this festival is about the music. The music is what matters. As I’m basking in this epiphany, who comes up but the Norwegian label owner?

“Weren’t they awesome?” I ask.

“I am going to sign them,” he says. “Let’s do a shot.”

At the bar, we down two shots of Patron. “So, who else have you seen?” I ask.

“The Beastie Boys, Neko Case, Animal Collective.” He hands me another shot. “I am going to sign them.”

This seems strange, but whatever. He’s buying.

The next band is Snow Patrol, and though I love their album, their slow, gorgeous pop anthems are really harshing my buzz. The Norwegian label owner and I go back to the Four Seasons for an invite-only showcase so exclusive only he and a few other Norwegian label owners know about it.


Ddear Daisy

I thnk ’m sgnedd to Nrwgianm recrdfg lbel;;. Gooodnibbbb


Saturday, March 20

Dear Diary,

Good morning! It’s the last day of SXSW, and I am superexcited to be here. Today is the day I—why are you laughing at me, Diary? Yes, I know my shirt’s on backward. Yes, of course, I remember … I did WHAAAT??? Jesus Christ! Stop laughing, Diary. I hate you! I hate you the most!


Dear Diary,

I don’t really hate you the most. I’m calm now. I’m fine. I just need some breakfast tacos, an IV drip, and a personal chauffeur. Sadly, none of that is in this year’s swag bag. All I know is that today I am not drinking. Whatever I do or say, do not let me drink. Today is a no-drinking, all-music day. It is a day of beautiful sounds and personal triumph and it will begin as soon as I finish this U.S.A. movie starring Marky Mark.


Dear Diary,

This afternoon I ran into a fellow journalist I hadn’t seen in a long time. He’s been having the time of his life at SXSW. He’s seen Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and Rogue Wave, and Be Your Own Pet, and Billy Bragg, and Kt Tunstall, and Bobby Bare, and he’d even seen unknown, unsigned band he was convinced would be the next big thing. He was glowing, like he really understood SXSW, really knew how to work it, really got what it was about. But when he asked me if I knew where the Spin party was, I have to admit, Diary, I lied. I can only imagine that the true spirit of SXSW dawned on him somewhere around San Antonio.

By the way, Diary, I know I said I wasn’t going to drink today, but what I meant was that I wasn’t going to drink during the day. I meant I was going to wait till sundown, and look! No sun! I mean, it’s not nighttime but it is, y’know, awful cloudy.


Dear Diary,

My feet hurt. My life hurts. I have 15 text messages and they’re all from Norwegian label owners.

But tonight I saw the Pretenders. Growing up, I didn’t get the Pretenders. They were a band that cool people liked, but I was too caught up in boys, top 40 music, and MTV to really get it. The good news is that I get them now. I really dig them, Diary. Chrissie Hynde is a piece of work, a badass, axe-wielding grandma with more swagger than all the goddamn Strokes combined. I’m so glad I got to see them. I may be 20 years late, but at least I’m here. And if there’s any justice in this cruel, cruel industry, tonight is the night they will finally get signed.