South by Southwest’s Addictive Allure

Festival Junkies

Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart once likened his legendary jam band to a mode of transportation. He meant the band’s knack for moving audience members from one spiritual plane to another, but the Dead was also famous for fans who loved a road trip.

Something of the Deadhead spirit endures at today’s popular music festivals, even events like just-concluded South by Southwest, the Austin, Texas, confab that seems far removed from lazy, hazy days of tie-dyeing T-shirts and listening to “China Cat Sunflower.” Yes, admission prices have climbed to the heavens, along with the level of corporate sponsorship, but the thrill of traveling to a distant place for a quasi-religious experience continues to transform levelheaded music lovers into festival junkies.

Of course, between stagnant salaries and high unemployment rates, it’s hard to imagine fest-goers affording a sandwich, let alone a ride home. But Madison-based festival frequenters insist that traveling to Texas, Tennessee or California for giant, multi-day music events like SXSW, Bonnaroo and Coachella is preferable to front-row tickets closer to home — and perhaps more affordable.

Kenneth LaBarre, owner of Roll It! Take It! Media, a Madison-based company that produces live video of music festivals for television and the web, is one of these people.

“People used to follow the Dead or Dave Matthews, but now they go to fests because they can see more music, find out about new bands and get more bang for their buck,” he says. “They’re being savvy consumers. It makes sense to travel to one location, camp for a couple of days, listen to lots of music, then go home and work, work, work until the next one.”

Then again, being a festival junkie isn’t really about being sensible. It’s about getting a little crazy, whether that means staying up all night, dancing like MC Hammer or stuffing your last dollar into Courtney Love’s bustier.

Jamie Quam, the UW student who handles promotion for Memorial Union Terrace and Rathskeller concerts through the Wisconsin Union Directorate music committee, says SXSW 2010 was so important that she was willing to sacrifice food and sleep to attend. Attending the festival helps the committee predict trends among college-age music listeners and book shows that will draw larger crowds — and more business — to the Union.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, something I may never get to do again, so I’m willing to have a smaller food fund for a few weeks and stay up until the wee hours of the morning doing my homework,” she says.

Quam is a textbook case of how this obsession unfolds: with exhaustion, hunger and overstimulation of the eardrums.

Peter Truby, a self-professed festival junkie who books concerts at the Project Lodge and volunteers for Madison’s Forward Music Festival, says fests appeal to many people because they offer an entertainment experience that’s more holistic and ritualistic than attending a single concert.

“You’re part of something much larger than yourself,” he says of South by Southwest, which he attended last week. “You’re surrounded by thousands of people, but you can carve out your own experience. You can’t re-create what you’ve seen there” — he cites a memorable performance by South Carolina’s Band of Horses — “but you want to go again.”

Truby says this feeling of being part of something big and historic is fairly uncommon at traditional concerts. And while the magic happens at Midwestern fests like Pitchfork and Lollapalooza, where 20,000 sweaty fans cram themselves into a park and ogle their favorite performers, he says SXSW is the most transcendent.

The festival, which takes place in downtown Austin each March, promotes diversity of experience with a “choose your own adventure” format. Events take place at dozens of bars, restaurants and music halls rather than a single park or amphitheater. So many of the city’s businesses have joined the party that what was once a small meeting for the music industry has become one of Austin’s biggest sources of tourists and revenue, according to a 2008 analysis by the Austin Chronicle.

“You walk down Sixth Street, and literally every nook and cranny where you can shove a guitar amp has one,” says Tom Wincek of Madison bands Volcano Choir, All Tiny Creatures and Collections of Colonies of Bees.

There’s another reason for Austin’s hefty revenue stream: South by Southwest is expensive. In 2010, badges for admission to concerts, music-industry panels and other music events sold for $750, and wristbands for access to music showcases were $180. Badges for all three parts of the festival — music, film and social-media events — ranged from $920 for early buyers to $1,225 for those who purchased them at the last minute.

Local lo-fi musician Zola Jesus, who just attended SXSW for a third year and is poised for big things thanks to recent raves from The New York Times, Pitchfork and eMusic, believes festivals are fine and dandy. But, she says, they’re hardly a spiritual experience when you’re working your ass off.

“Festivals…are really hectic, and in the case of SXSW, like summer camp,” she says. “The culture is really overwhelming and extreme. Everyone is ready to have a party, whereas I’m more focused on making this week productive and beneficial to my career.”

Bessie Cherry, co-founder and executive director of the Forward Music Festival, admits she’s also not the biggest fan of fest-junkie culture or South by Southwest prices.

“Honestly, when it comes to music, I appreciate single concerts so much more than festivals at this point in my life,” she says. “I think I’d rather spend $100 on four or five really great shows in Madison, Milwaukee or Chicago than go to a fest featuring the same bands. But festival-going is really more about the traveling experience, the friends who go with you and those you make along the way.”

Festivals can provide more value, she says, if they focus less on the hottest artists of the moment and more on the real-life needs of fans. Caitlin McCabe, owner of White Label Media, a local company that helps businesses develop branding strategies and online communities, agrees. While attending the “interactive” portion of SXSW 2010, which focused on the digital media industry but featured music events as well, McCabe noticed that many of the event’s sponsors weren’t tailoring their offerings to their audience.

“It’s more than picking up a media kit and buying a booth,” she explains. “Sponsors need to take a close look at the types of problems their audience might be having at a festival, like transportation, and solve those problems.”

Tapping into other festival-goers’ knowledge can help you save money should you choose to attend South by Southwest, Coachella or another major event.

Tim McCarty, who works in a local accounting department, says lacking the right traveling companions may be the biggest impediment for would-be festival-goers.

“A good group or travel partner is essential because the economies of scale shift and things become much cheaper,” he says. “Not everyone can fly to a festival, rent a car, then fly back to their job, so it pays to be creative.”

Creativity is especially essential if you find yourself in a bind. McCarty recalls running out of money while traveling through Europe in 2001. To make ends meet — and to experience the Love Parade, an enormous, three-day-long techno fest in Berlin — he spent his last few dollars on 48 cans of Beck’s beer, which he sold from his backpack at the event.

While McCarty doesn’t recommend that everyone become a beer peddler, he does suggest sticking to a daily budget. “If you have limited funds, make it a game to find ways to save money, whether it’s walking around and people-watching or going to the museum when it’s free.”

When it came to this year’s South by Southwest, taking in daytime events was key for those looking to conserve cash. Most concerts that started before 6 p.m. were free — and these were prime venues for seeing cutting-edge acts. “You definitely don’t need a badge or wristband to see the bands you probably want to see, but you do want to pay attention to what’s going on online,” says Andrew Berry, a first-time SXSW attendee from Madison. “There are several different Twitter accounts that just list free events.”

Meanwhile, Ryan Matteson, founder of the Madison-Milwaukee-Chicago music blog and a four-time SXSW attendee, says the showcase of Wisconsin musicians he organized this year wouldn’t have been possible without diligent planning and saving. After booking a cheap flight months before the fest began, he teamed up with a few friends from high school to share the cost of a hotel.

However, Matteson’s biggest penny-pinching tip also involves getting to know South by Southwest’s daytime schedule. “Free food and drinks are everywhere at the day parties,” he says. “You can get at least one free meal a day. There’s tons of competition, so people go all-out. For ours, we had enough breakfast burritos for 200 people.”

Knowing when not to attend a festival is also important, Matteson says.

“I’ve been to Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits, too, and they’ve all been great. It’s really about choosing the fest with the most acts you want to see, not necessarily the one that’s the cheapest or the trendiest. Consider seeing the bands that might not come to your city.”

Perhaps the most crucial piece of advice, even for the fest-obsessed, is to make like a Boy Scout and be prepared — with an extra cell phone battery, Band-Aids and a backup plan. And if that fails, think like a Deadhead: Don’t freak out.

McCarty says he learned this lesson on the Phish tour, the latter-day equivalent of the Deadhead experience. “I left [Wisconsin] with a VW bus, $500 and a blanket, and I got to Colorado with a blanket,” he says. “You have to be ready to go with the flow and enjoy the whole experience, even if something goes totally wrong.”