My band Ketamines decided that we didn’t care about money and flew to Austin, Texas last week to play the world-famous SXSW. Ketamines had been having a great year, we just released our LP Spaced Out and figured that going to Austin would be a chance to build momentum and establish vital industry connections. This is hilarious in hindsight.
There are two SXSWs — the “official” industry behemoth with a million bands and showcases, and then there’s the other SXSW — the endless free parties and middle-of-the-day showcases. The latter is thing that most people think of when they see the SXSW hash tag on Twitter. Ketamines booked five “unofficial” showcases, which are free shows happening simultaneously to SXSW with audiences of three to five people, mostly from bands waiting for their turn at the glory-wheel, all staring at their cellphones. Unofficial SXSW is a lot like playing in Kelowna, but a lot further away.
Officially selected SXSW bands are given two choices: $250 cash or wristbands to SXSW, and in the eyes of the U.S. government, wristbands are a form of payment, so they want you to have an artist visa that costs $2,500. Lucky for us, we were not good enough to get selected, which means that we could bring our guitars and some emails that said “we are not going to pay you, so come if you hate yourself enough,” which seemed to do the trick.
We got to our hotel in Austin, which was a half-hour north of the city and was what you might call a worst-case scenario. A neighbouring hotel room housed two large dogs that barked, non-stop, day and night, for a week. Our carpet was damp-enough to wet our socks (and we had to rotate sleeping on it). One night we came back to human feces in the elevator and puke in the hallway. The mean front-desk lady wouldn’t give us an extra blanket.
Day 1, Ketamines were set to play three showcases. Showcase No. 1 was at the Spider House, a sprawling complex with seven stages more or less going at the same time. We played in the biggest, most empty one. Some kids drove from New Orleans to see us, but that set was far from our best so we felt bad for them. We scurried to Showcase No. 2, a house party in the middle of nowhere, but when we arrived the show was being “set back” because no one was there, and so we promised to come back after set No. 3 which, in retrospect, was a total lie.
Set No. 3 was a lot better, in the way that getting punched in the stomach is better than getting kicked in the groin. We played second last and in this awesome outdoor venue called Cheer Up Charlie’s where we were the background music to 300 people saying their goodnights and making plans for the next day. Ketamines played two more sets that week that were so uneventful and depressing that they hardly warrant mention. If only our LP had received 7.1 on Pitchfork instead of 7.0.
Going to SXSW with a band was a unique, humbling experience that we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemies. Of course, it wasn’t all bad: unlimited free beer and tacos, we got to see The Spits, and we made some new friends with like-minded bands. We all love music and we love playing even more, which is why SXSW is so dispiriting. Even the “good” shows we went to as audience members were largely filled with throngs of people who had gorged themselves on bands and completely stopped being able to force themselves to care. And thus our lesson learned: just because you can doesn’t necessarily mean you should.