A little about my new book, coming out in Feb. I introduce it wearing an elf hat.
A little about my new book, coming out in Feb. I introduce it wearing an elf hat.
I’ve never believed music festivals are just for the zealots, young punks who have to mash themselves against the lip of the stage or dress in “festival fashions”. Festivals are for all of us who love music, love it enough to want to be there as its happening, even if being there gives us sore feet and headaches more than it used to. Multi-act festivals are inherently more democratic than single-acts shows. As long as you love music, you’re invited. But if 9 hours of standing up amid the elements is a bit intimidating, that’s fine. You just have to be a little bit squarer, a little more prepared, a grownup about it. So you can have as much fun as the kids.
I’ve put together what I’ve called a Mix-Tape of preparedness. Listen. Then rock on.
Side 1: Before
I. Communicate Expectations. You’re probably going to this festival with someone else. Unless that someone else is a cyborg duplicate, you and your pals will not all want to see the same acts. At a mid-sized festival (think 30-50 bands at an Outside Lands, a Lollapalooza or Bonnaroo) it’s highly unlikely. At a giant festival (The “world’s largest music festival” Milwaukee’s Summerfest had 700 bands last year. SXSW Music had nearly 3 times that many), it’s a mathematical impossibility. And whatever their taste, your friends reasons for attending will be at least somewhat different than yours too.
So who are these good people and how do they approach such things? Do they like to stay all day or see three acts and go home? Are they looking for a sampler platter of music or a binge on one genre? Do they have a must-see band or are they mostly along for the experience? Remember the advantage of being a bit older is that you and your friends have some experience to fall back on, some war stories about great shows and one’s you just as soon forget.
Have a pre-conference jawbone with coffee, or booze or my choice, lavish desserts. Ask about everyone’s skin in the game and don’t be afraid to show your own.
Now having a meeting about concert going might sound about as hip as bringing a life jacket to a waterpark. But believe me, this meeting thing is about maximizing fun and not throwing a wet blanket over it. Showing up with everyone wanting different things is asking for an argument midday with everyone running off in different directions. Which sucks. Then why did you go together at all?
II. Listen. Prep.
We’ve been around enough to know that festival going ain’t just about seeing your favorite bands but discovering new favorites too. We also know that going in cold may be the easiest but not best way to do that. We music junkies are already hooked up six ways from yesterday to streaming services, music blogs, favorite radio programs. We’ve got two raised-fistfuls of ways to discover new music without ever leaving the house. Doing the same with 300$ festival tickets and a weekend of your life is lighting birthday candles with a flamethrower.
Read the festival lineup. Make a quick three column list of must-sees, could sees and never-heard-of-em’s. Compare it with your friends lists. Now take your “don’t knows” and their “must sees”, plug them into the online music service of your choice and listen. Give an artist two songs and pass judgement. Now redo your lists, based on what you’ve heard. There’s your potential new favorites list, ready and waiting.
III. Compare Notes.
Any festival worth its hype has a place on its website to create your ideal schedule and share it with a friend. Do this with your friends and bring it to the meeting. Show them your schedule and include when you’d like to arrive, leave and eat meals. Again, not very “rock n roll” right? But is isn’t any more "rock n’ roll" going to a great set of shows and only remembering how hungry or tired you were and wondering where the hell the john was. A little planning gets rid of distractions and lets you focus on the music. And face facts. We aren’t 19 anymore. Our body and its stupid complaints are more distracting than they should be.
IV. Weed out.
Not the green, fragrant kind (we’ll get to that) but the process of elimination. Every festival has its own set of physical conditions (outside/inside, raucous/intimate) and some bands just aren’t suited to them. You aren’t doing yourself as a fan or them as an artist any favors seeing them at a show where their music has to battle circumstance. So skip the solo guy playing the guitar at the giant summer outdoor stage or the 19-piece afro-percussion band inside the 900 square foot club with tin walls. If the musicians are any good and you don’t live in the middle of nowhere, they’ll be back around soon and you can see them where the music, not the setting, is primary.
Side 2: At the festival
I. Suiting up. Each of us is old enough to probably remember the pre-giant music festival days where the only entertainment were the bands. Nowadays, a festival is a event unto itself where the audience are just as much a part of the show. Which means you might feel tempted to dress in something fun even outrageous, befitting the occasion.
To which I say “enjoy” but don’t feel like you must. Much more important are comfortable shoes (see “Standing Up. Hours of it.”), layers to get warmer/cooler, a small over- the-shoulder-bag for water, earplugs, keys, flask, bus pass etc. Think of fashion here as utilitarian first. Wear a papel robe if you'll have a better time doing it. Otherwise, you want to focus on the music. And clothes that make you uncomfortable are a distracting pain in the rear.
III. Easy on the booze. Off the drugs. None of us just fell off the the 10th grade turnip truck. We’d had the “I got bombed at that show” experience 100 times and no one is impressed with those stories anymore. A 22 year old knackered at a concert is be expected. A grown adult with a job and two nickels of dignity to rub together is pathetic.
Put the shit down. Have a few drinks, a hit of whatever. But no more than a normal weekend’s amount because you’ve probably been excited about this festival for months now making it the furthest thing from a normal weekend.
Then why not celebrate you say? Use your head. You really need to juice up dozens of bands, thousands of people, something as amazing as a music festival with MORE STIMULATION? Then you’re an ADD kindergardener and let me suggest a weekend detox with Yo Gabba Gabba. On mute. In the dark.
V. Sit down if you need to.
Yes, really. No one cares. No one is going to give you a not-rocking-out demerit. We are years past the point of anyone’s “cred” being in question? What are your friends doing this weekend? Putting up storm windows?
VI. Communicate. Repeating from Side 1. Honest communication makes for good festival going. If you’re tired, say so. If you’re hungry, tell your friends and go eat. Don’t whine of course but also don’t think that not listening to your body is being a good sport or a more dedicated fan. It’s stupid. You’ll be in much better shape to do all of that if your body isn’t yelling at you. And you’ll be a better festival buddy if you’re on acting like passive aggressive by not saying what you need.
That includes going home. When you’re done or feeling like the end is coming, say so. Then discuss. And keep right at the front of your mind that music is eternal and wonderful and everything great in life but so is friendship. Don’t knock over one for the other.
I. Day after. You’ll probably be sore and tired. I wouldn’t book time at the gym, a day at the playground with your kids or plan to work late. Think of it as the day after a long flight. Go as easy as you can.
II. Follow-up. I love this part almost as much as the festival itself. If you heard anything you liked at this festival you liked, download some tracks immediately, book time at the nearest record store and put your discoveries in regular listening rotation. That way for at least a week or so, every time you fire up your music library, you’re reminded of the fun you had the festival. The festival then has a comet tail. It’s a complete waste to spent all this time and money and energy planning, getting excited and attending something that you, effectively, forget right after its over.
You’re going to be tired, no doubt. But hopefully tired and happy and ready to share in your joy. Upload your photos and share them. Tell a few friends about the great new bands you experience. Make what you experienced part of your life instead of a memory. Which, hey, is why we love music so much to begin with.
I spent this past weekend as a guest of the Idea Festival, a 10 year-old meeting of great ideas, world-class thinkers and performers in Louisville, KY. I spoke at the event in 2006, when it was much smaller and concepts like "social media" (my topic) were new. This fall, I, along with Cariwyl Hebert of Salon97 and writer Jeff Rider and co-founder of Longform, Max Linsky were invited to cover the festival on social media channels. Though guests of the festival, our coverage was, by mutual agreement, editorially independent.
Here were my takeaways.
While nothing Mr. Sims said was revolutionary, the idea is one creative people need to constantly remember: Fear of failing is failure. Trying, no matter how badly, is a little bet towards a tangible future. And just as Pixar had no idea how to become Pixar, without the attempt, however silly and pointless it felt at the time, they never would have been.
More importantly though, Ms. Lowen's film and companion book back up their advocacy with fact: Bullying is a measurable, horrible drain on our economy, our culture and the very upward process of humanity. A complicated, interconnected world like ours here in the 21st century needs working together and collaboration not I'll-take-mine-and-screw-you-thank-you individualism. A culture intolerant to difference (and this is at all levels. Lowen and her team found that most schools with a bullying problem have a bullying culture at the administrative level) is a culture slowly committing suicide.
Advocacy minus fact is just screaming into the wind. The team behind Bully does better.
We were only in town for a few days but I had at least 3 meals (St. Charles Exchange, Proof on Main and The Mayan Cafe) that would rival anything I've eaten in in better known foodie towns like Portland or Austin. Who knew?
This one, from a Madrid gallery showing is my favorite.
Though Cariwyl and Jeff and I were talking about taking a trip around the world so see all of them in the flesh. Or glass.
We got to hear speakers from both the Kentucky prison system, administrators of the program and the inmate/actors themselves. And there was a documentary made about the program in 2005 available on Netflix streaming.
Go to the friggin Idea Festival next year Sept. 24-28. It's affordable (an all-access pass is $450 for 4 days), different, and still at a managable size where you don't spend most of your effort figuring out how to get a seat, have lunch and find your friends. And we'd like to come back and would love to spend some time with you.
Endnote: Videos from this year's Idea Festival will be available soon. I'll be sure to post my favorites.
This weekend, I'm going to be at the Idea Festival in Louisville, KY. I'll be covering the festival on social media and as an informal advisor. Also covering the Festival will be Cariwyl Hebert of Salon97, writer Jeff Rider and Max Linsky, co-founder of Longform, all people I love.
Our friend Baratunde Thurston will be throwing down.
1. All stories have a beginning middle and end, like a piece of music. The end is never "that's my story" but the beginning can be "let me tell you a story."
2. Every word you say pushes the story forward. if it's there to add color, background, etc, it should be one sentence and quickly return to the main thrust of the story. Do not get caught up in side points, asides, pauses for jokes.
A story is a journey. It must go somewhere. No one travels looking backward.
3. When constructing a story, always bear in mind "why is someone listening to me? What are they supposed to get out it" If you can't answer that, you are telling a lousy story. Attention is a precious commodity. Do not spend it poorly.
4. What is the message you're trying to bring home? Please laugh? Please buy my product? Here's the lesson I learned? A story must serve its message but it must be a tale unto itself. Otherwise is a parable. a sermon or a commercial, not a story.
Finally, stories do not overstay their welcome. They hold a precious moment and vanish. Tell yours and sit down.
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After 10 months, 50 essays written and a trillion cups of coffee my book is done. I'm in production talks and last-minute this's and that's with my publisher now. Barring disaster Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books you Haven't Touched Since High School will be available at bookstores and online in February of 2013.
I am thrilled to be done but don't quite know what to do with myself. Since last August, I've had June 1 of this year in my sights, a giant stone wall of reckoning to sprint towards but avoid hitting. I didn't exactly avoid hitting it (I turned in the manuscript on June 6) but that I finished at all, I'm calling a triumph. This was the longest thing I've ever written. And from what they tell me, 10 months is an aggressive deadline. I made, nearly almost.
I emailed the last essay to my editor at about 7 in the evening. I had cancelled on dinner plans (as I had 2 weddings, several birthdays and countless engagements important and small this last year) in order to finish writing. When I did I called my wife, my parents and brothers, then wasn't sure what to do next. I wasn't hungry, was far from home, and was too tired to find a rooftop to dance upon. I also havn't quite understood the enormity of it yet. If we can call it that.
So I took myself for frozen yogurt. As the sun set and the Upper West Side of Manhatan swirled around me, I wondered if I would ever complete a creative project this large again in my life.
And then I wanted to do it again, to try this nonsense with a whole new idea, to write smaller and bigger, in print, in print or for the radio and television and some medium that has not yet arrived. I imagined myself making this walk for frozen yogurt a dozen more times, in a dozen different places after finishing a dozen different projects. And for a moment, I had the idea that I would die well before I had said everything I needed to say.
Practical Classics might be a complete bust. But I told myself and anyone who would listen this past year that the best I can gain from it is the idea that writing is regular to me, is something I do without torture or self-coersion, that it feels easier, that it feels more like me.
I am closer now. I've been trying to put together an essay about finishing my book this week without much success. I wrote this post as practice. I hope gametime is easier.
Next up is prepping for touring and promoting this thing, starting the proposal for book #3 and in general joining the world of the living again. I don't see myself being any less busy. But I do find myself filled with joy and wonder, with gratitude that I get to do this at all. And that it makes me feel like I can leap between mountain tops.
This book is almost finished. Speak to you when it is.
I’ve been attending the South by Southwest Interactive Festival as an attendee since 2000, a speaker since 2003 and an advisory board member since 2005. Since 2008 I have hosted Fray Café, a storytelling event on the Sunday evening of the conference. Fray Café has been at SXSWi as long as I have.
In that same span of time, South by Southwest Interactive has grown from a few thousand attendees to nearly 25,000 in 2012. In 2011, it surpassed SXSW Music, the organization’s oldest and signature festival, in numbers of badge holders. What was once a conference occupying 1/2 of one floor of the newly-built Austin Convention Center, now includes 15 “campuses” all over the city. Many of the friends I first made at SXSW no longer attend as doing do is too expensive, too focused on "making it" rather than making anything in particular, no longer relevant or all these reasons combined.
About 500x that many attendees have never known SXSW outside of what it is now--Huge corporate-sponsored parties, companies and products getting “discovered” that week in Austin, long lines at everything and a breathless sighting of Pete Cashmore. Their experience is no better or worse than mine, just different.
10 Things I Learned at SXSW 2012:
1. Justifying it. I have a book due in June. And a lot left to write. That needs to be my focus right now and a week of staying out late and eating migas three times a day in Austin is a distraction. A lovely one, but still. Plus neither my wife (a conference speaker this year) nor I have a full time employer to whom we can pass along the cost of attending. That cost could buy you a very nice vacation or set you back until mid-July.
So how to justify the expense and time of going? Moneywise we got lucky and made cutbacks where we could. Timewise I borrowed a card from attending more businessy, less "bring-on-the-migas!" conferences (like this one).
I booked breakfast meetings. I went over the the speaker's list and then my social media rolls about 3 weeks ahead of time to see if there was anyone in Austin who I had a) communicated with virtually but never met or b) met in a business context but would like to get to know socially. Know some of these people better might benefit me professionally someday. Making new friends is always a benefit on multiple levels.
Since I'm almost 40, I don't stay out as late as I did at my first few SXSW's. So it's easier to get up in time for breakfast and grab coffee and toast with someone before morning sessions begin. About 1-3 of those meetings in the morning and I felt ok spending the remainder of the day screwing off.
Meetings also have a cosmic momentum of their own. At nearly every meeting this year, I would get a couple of text messages from someone else asking if I had a moment to meet. This isn't because I'm Mr. Superstar or something. I think you put that energy out and the universe can sense it.
2. Panels. This strategy felt ok with me because, the more I attended throught the week, the more I felt like panels (with few exceptions) were a waste of time. It wasn't lack of content but way way too much content to keep straight and sort. Hundreds of sessions, talks, conversations and panels means an attendee either a) spends several hours pre-conference deciding what they'd like to see knowing full well they'll get to maybe 20% of it b) plays it safe and only goes to panels squarely in their area of interest or c) plays it equally safe and only attends sessions put on by famous people. The last option means waiting in long lines, punting on other sessions in order to wait in long lines and running the very real risk of being crowded out of the room anyway.
Those options all kinda suck. SXSW has hit a point when the attendee must either be uptight, myopic or a star fucker to derive benefit from conference sessions. The solution lies in certain tweets user experience, something South by Southwest, for all its talent firepower, has never been that good at.
What if somehow the conference could take a list of interests and preferences you supply and spit back a list of sessions you'd probably like? And what if you could tweak that list based on what what hotel you're staying at, where you'd like to eat lunch and how much time you'd like to walk between sessions?
That's probably harder than I'm making it out to be. But if anyone has access to the talent for it, it's this conference. Or they could confer their blessing/assistance upon Sched.org or Plancast or some other company that has already built most of the technical infrastructure for such a thing.
And even though I've said it a thousand times, a clear, systematic approach to recording and podcasting sessions would go a long way towards solving this problem. SXSW has largely rolled out recordings unannounced, haphazardly, and buried-deeply-in-its-site-1996-hide-and-go-seek-for-the-user fashion.
If I knew what was being recorded, how and when I could get it, I could make smarter decisions about what panels to see now and what to wait and catch up on at home.
If I've paid for a conference badge already, what's the harm?
3. Annoyance. SXSW Hassle is now an annual ritual. Every September I try to reserve a hotel room for and am asked to surrender my right lung for the right not to sleep on the street during the festival. I then find myself saying "1000s of dollars, 2 hour waits for lunch and endless jostling by hordes of strangers because my friends can no longer afford to attend. This is the last year I will submit to this nonsense, SXSW! Good day to you sir!"
And every year I come back and it's not as bad as I thought. The crowds and inflated prices are now a fact of life. I can be mad at them or I can not go. Thus far I have still managed to spend time with the people that matter to me, make a few new friends and attend and produce events that make SXSW so special to me. The Red Eyed Fly, home of Fray Cafe for the last 8 years, gives us the room at very favorable terms. Ditto the site of my last-night-of-SXSW dinner, a 9-year tradition. And my friends old and new still manage to find enough places to eat, have coffee or meet up that haven't been so totally overrun as to make them unbearable.
4. Must Haves. As a result,this year was the first time I put it to words my list of Must Haves. There may very well come a day when not enough of my friends can afford to attend or venues can't afford to cut us a break or I can't spare the time or the money or the headspace anymore. At that point, South by Southwest and I will have lived out our meaningful life together and will part as friends. I take things a year at a time. Minus Fray Cafe and 20x2, a critical mass of friends and the opportunity to make 3-6 more, SXSW will not have enough for me to return. That hasn't happened quite yet.
5. Fragility. I would be an idiot to not to keep in mind how fragile this all is, how easily jobs or kids or the economy or the passage of time can keep anyone or all of these wonderful things from happening. And how that is no one's fault. South by Southwest is wonderful but it is not life. It is a ship-in-bottle-sized version of the spirit we want our lives to have--inspiring, loyal, supported and real. But to get angry when life interferes, when someone must stop going or can't go this year or a venue closes, or new people show up or an event is simply not possible is yelling into your own pocket, an angry, myopic, silly waste of energy.
SXSW is a growing/evolving thing as we are. The challenge is to accept that, move with it and STILL make it special.
6. Newcomers. "Every year is someone's first SXSW" my wise friend James McNally said, which I take to mean "Don't be the schmuck moving the goalposts and saying 'everything was awesome when I first got here. But now that YOU'RE HERE it's not anymore."
Put another way, to an entire generation of attendees, South by Southwest is about loud parties and waiting in line, and seeking out venture money and free beer. And they would look at my friends, with our out-of-the-way gatherings, and paying our own way and say "Why?"
They are entitled. They're entitled to have the experience be anything they want it to be. As am I. It's pretty easy to stay out of each other's way and no one is hurting anyone else just by being there.
7. Newcomers Part II. New comers are inspiring. They remind me that South by Southwest is an experience that can give over and over, to diferent people, at different times in life. And there are always more looking for the rewards I have found from it.
In the weeks leading up to SXSW, I heard from at least a half-dozen acquaintences that they were coming for the first time. I invited them to everything I could, advised where appropriate and tried to meet individually with as many of them as I could. I can say that now most, if not all, are friends.
That's the beauty of that second week in Austin. You get to know each other quick. And yet it feels 100% real and usually endures.
8. Breaks. On at least 3 occassions, I took a long walk with an old friend I'd run into on the streets of Austin. I was probably missing a panel or a free taco or a spotting of Sean Parker but whatever. Those things will happen if they are meant to. Time with an old friend in this midst of that chaos is a precious gift. And a needed repose when you are no longer the 25 year-old adventurer I was my first year at the conference.
9. Shoring up. Footnote to #5. Just because certain things are fragile doesn't mean we should be content with them staying that way. So after I turn my book in this summer, I'll be putting in some hours to make sure the parts of SXSW I care out have solid home bases and enduring legacies.
10. Take off and go. I crossed the half-way point of my book right before we arrived in Austin. I've a ton to do before my June deadline. SXSW was both a break from it (I didn't write while there) but also a reminder, a reminder that I am excited by the path I am on, incredibly lucky and grateful that I still get to do this each spring and feel as though my relationship with it gets different but better with time.
SXSW and I are in the long game for now. There are many adventures left to be had.
I was fortunate to be an Artist-in-Residence at the Ragdale Foundation this past January. I was luckier still to be in residency with a really great group of other artists. One sat down next to me at dinner the first night and asked me, without a hint of irony, "Kevin, would you tell me about your artistic process?" I didn't know I had one, but I felt pretty dang honored to be included.
Each of these folk is very good at what they do. Consider my mentioning them her an endorsement as I'd happily recommend reading/listening to/watching their work anytime.
Here they are...
Find and support these artist's work. You'll be glad you did.