Attending My 30th and Final South by Southwest: A Farewell Essay

Veteran music publicist and lifelong music fanatic Cary Baker has attended every South by Southwest conference since 1988 — and now, as the festival incredibly celebrates its 30th anniversary, he’s making one last trip to Austin, Texas, before saying goodbye to SXSW. Here, he shares his memories of SXSW, from the festival’s humble origins when $10 got him access to 300 performers, to its later years when the event started attracting thousands of acts (including A-listers like Lady Gaga and Justin Timberlake), hundreds of corporate sponsors, and countless spring breakers.

I attended my first SXSW in March 1988, one year after the festival launched. I was 30 years old. When I got to Austin, I called Barbara K of Timbuk3 (I was working at that band’s label, I.R.S. Records, at the time) and asked her, “I’m here. Now what should I do?” She replied, “Walk down to 6th Street. You’ll hit it.”

I did.

As I took my five-block walk from the Crest Hotel (now the Radisson) to 6th, I was standing in line for a gig and happened to spot a gentleman of about my height and build, but clearly about 30 years older, and wearing a cool fedora. He looked like a real music guy and clearly reveled in being in music’s new annual mecca. I looked at him a little more closely and then it struck me: 30-year-old me was staring at 60-year-old me.

I never intended to attend SXSW for 30 consecutive years. But through a variety of record company expense accounts, on the dole, as my own boss, with strep throat and the flu, and with a sprained ankle, I have managed to attend every SXSW except the first.

So it’s with a mixture of emotions that I prepare for my 30th and final SXSW.

I’ll elaborate on that in a minute. But first, understand what SXSW looked like in 1988: SXSW took place at the Crest (Radisson). All panels were there, as the Convention Center had not yet been built. One could attend panels by day, abscond by car (no GPS yet) to the Salt Lick at dusk, and then park one’s rental car in on a weedy cross street around the corner from Liberty Lunch in time for the Wild Seeds, the Raunch Hands, or Dash Rip Rock (always Dash Rip Rock at every turn). There seemed to be only a couple hundred registrants — chiefly music industry and media pros. I felt as though I’d met 125 of them, and some became lifelong friends.

Austin was younger, too. Very much the Live Music Capital of America, it was also indie and weird, and it boasted an appealing low-rise downtown dotted with converted warehouses and the occasional vacant lot — all in the shadow of the Driskill and Texas State Capitol. Migas con hongos at (the now-shuttered) Las Manitas was a daily must for breakfast meetings.

Jump to 2016. I needn’t waste words on SXSW’s development, nor that of Austin. SXSW, of course, is a huge multinational, multifaceted event that transcends simply music, having launched definitive interactive and film festivals while sprinkling in fashion and gaming. Sadly, the week also became a spring break destination, with hanging on 6th Street becoming a main event. It became corporate-sponsored to the nines (the two-story Doritos statue becoming indelibly emblematic). And downtown Austin, of course, no longer has vacant lots, nor free parking on side streets around the corner from Liberty Lunch — which itself was razed to clear space for the Willie Nelson Blvd. district. Cranes loom overhead on every block, pouring foundations for the newest luxury residence tower or Plimpton Hotel.

At some point, it became difficult, costly, and sometimes perilous (one DUI mauling, one shooting) to navigate through the throngs. One night, about three years ago, I was attending a client’s set at the Continental Club (1300 block of South Congress) before a show in the next hour at St. David’s Church (E. 7th & San Jacinto). I looked north on Congress to a sea of brake lights on the bridge between Riverside to Cesar Chavez and it dawned on me that the fastest way to get to my next show was not to hail a cab but rather to walk. Twenty-four blocks later, I arrived at St. David’s drenched in sweat. But I got there. And that was 58-year-old me.

My decision to stop attending SXSW comes at a time that I’ve allowed myself to believe that certain things in life should have beginnings, middles, and ends. I’ve come to the end of my (consecutive) SXSW attendance. But may I acknowledge that SXSW helped me establish and maintain a somewhat successful career, maintain ties with the media, and cast a wide net for business development. But my career is in good shape and nowadays there are other ways to forge and maintain relationships. Besides, I’ll still be attending the Americana Music Festival and Conference and Folk Alliance — both of which are smaller, music-centric, human-scale, and more cost-effective.

Human scale has become important to me in my “old age.” Perhaps for an encore, SXSW should debut a little spinoff music conference in a hotel with 200 targeted registrants? (SXSW Classic™ could own October!) Sure, when they figure out how to put genies back in bottles.