Good Times Among the Garbage: Five Things to Know About SXSW

Ouch by Southwest: random dude gives a heads-up in “Todd P. Goes to Austin”

Todd P. Goes To Austin is a concert movie featuring acts promoted by notable Brooklyn gadfly-promoter Todd Patrick. Shot over the course of two different SXSW music festivals (2008 and 2009) unified into one sprawling monster, the movie offers pungent sketches of what downtown Austin looks like during the annual film/music/interactive gathering. Here’s five lessons the film has for understanding what SXSW is really all about:

1) People stand in the street and act like idiots (and the locals hate them). Take it from someone who grew up in Austin and attended every year from 2000-04, then again in ’09 and ’10. The dirty secret of SXSW is that the natives hate the festival (at least those who aren’t interested in going downtown and checking out what’s on tap; they number far more than you might think). Sure, businesses around the downtown venues make out like bandits, but it ties up the city for days (especially the already overcongested, nightmarish I-35 freeway) and increases the atmospheric nicotine content tenfold. People stand around, blocking traffic while taking photos of each other, oblivious to basic concepts of cars vs. pedestrians. (Behold the power of alcohol.) You see all of this in the movie. If attending, try not to be one of those people.

2) “Power to the people” has nothing to do with it. Initially, Todd P. approaches SXSW with a cagily antagonistic attitude, dissing the legions of swag-conveyers, sports-drinks conveyers and other emissaries of corporate art. His unofficial showcases, he says, are meant to be “the opposite of what’s just down the block.” He has a point: SXSW is a long way from its beginnings as a scrappy festival for down-home acts.

Watch Todd P Goes to Austin on Fandor:

Corporate sponsorships are legion, and the on-the-ground street teams are everywhere, offering samples of whatever new flavor Powerade’s got going and other items of similar value. The art of navigating the festival has a lot to do with figuring out your priorities: do you want to get as much free stuff as possible, or do you want to see some movies and bands? It’s easier to do the former than the latter; it’s really hard to separate the noise from what’s actually important.


Matt and Kim

3) There’s almost no line separating Big Bad Corporate from indie DIY. Patrick voices his opposition to SXSW’s big-money stakes and its reputation as a kind of indie rock “American Idol,” where small bands can go big-time overnight). The documentary then cuts (with intentional irony?) to Matt & Kim, one of Mr. P’s most commercially successful acts. The duo — a couple whose peppy, high-energy jams are unambiguous paeans to positivity — have so far hooked up deals with Mountain Dew, Converse and Virgin. Their 2009 single “Daylight” is certified gold and is the only non-hip-hop song in the video game NBA Live ’10.

In a 2009 interview with Pitchfork, Matt noted “we’re really making an effort not to bring up ticket prices even as touring becomes more expensive. […] The idea of actually getting money back from releasing an album is a complete surprise to me. So you have to be open to other opportunities.” Fair enough, but the point stands: there’s no clear divide between anti-corporate rhetoric and bottom-line compromise. Pure principles don’t have much to do with it, no matter what Todd P says.

4) Despite all the garbage (literal and figurative) on the ground, it’s a good time. As Mr. P. grudgingly admits, the festival is fun, even if it’s a “big monster.” If you keep in mind that the festival is an experience as much as a showcase, it’s all good. For example: do you like to drink? Good, because everyone else there certainly does, and there’s more than enough free booze to go around. An essential part of the on-the-ground experience is keeping 16-hour-days in a near-constant state of mild inebriation. What’s not to like?

5) Just go with it. Late in the film, Matt & Kim apologize to anyone who had trouble getting into Todd P.’s showcase, in suitably expletive-laden terms. SXSW is big, popular and legendarily overattended: navigating it by yourself is a fool’s endeavor. Getting into what you want could be hard, maybe impossible. These things take time, but can be made worthwhile: stand in line, be patient, be nice, talk to people and enjoy the entropy. For all the problems, this is not a difficult place to enjoy yourself for little-to-no money.

Vadim Rizov is a freelance film writer based in Brooklyn. His work regularly appears in Sight & Sound, the LA Weekly and the AV Club, among others.

Watch Todd P Goes to Austin on Fandor.

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