chronicles of a music cashier: sxsw 2011
SXSW is sort of like childbirth. By the time you’re ready to do it again you’ve pretty much forgotten the pain/exhaustion/vows never to repeat it and you just remember how much fun you had/how cute your child is now. So naturally I signed on to work SXSW again, because I had forgotten what signing up to work SXSW entails…
I’m going to give you the night-by-night rundown of my gig, you’ll notice that there is a significant absence of music in my stories. That’s because I worked as a cashier this year, manning the door at one of the downtown venues, and wasn’t able to hear much of what was being played inside. It’s okay though, I do live in Austin after all. Half these bands will be back at some point this year playing sets lasting longer than 30 minutes, so don’t feel bad for me. SXSW was just about the experience this year, and an experience it was…
night 1: the zombie apocalypse
So I should start out by saying that being a music cashier means working from 6pm until about 2:30am all four nights of SX music. You show up at SX headquarters at 6:00 where you are fed (I won’t be able to even look at pizza again until at least September) and then hustled off to your venues with a fanny pack of money, and a canvas bag of supplies. Since it was my first night ever as a cashier I was assigned an assistant, and thank god for that. Not because I needed her help, but because the door was so painfully slow that first night. A native Austinite she regaled me with stories of getting high and seeing Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, and even Janis Joplin play at the now defunct Armadillo club. She was a lovely lady, and a lifesaver from the boredom of my seven hours manning a door with no line.
It wasn’t until my shift was over, and I’d been hustled back to HQ to have my money counted out, that things got weird. It was sometime around 2:30 and I walked, completely sober into the bizarre nightmare world that is the end of a SXSW night…
I only had five blocks to walk to the bus stop but it was a lot more like walking five blocks unguarded in an African game preserve than any metropolitan street. All kinds of drunk were on display – angry drunk, loud drunk, overly friendly drunk, crying drunk, sick drunk, you name it. My first thought upon turning onto Congress street is that this is very probably what the End of Days will look like. In addition to the hordes of people very publically flirting with alcohol poisoning an impromptu drum circle had attracted a massive audience of flailing bodies dancing in an apparently beat-less vacuum. I’m sure if I had been drunk, and not dead sober coming off an 8 hour shift, the scene would have felt more like a Willy Wonka Wonderland than an apocalyptic ad for AA.
When I finally came in view of the bus stop I saw that my bus was there and breathed a massive sigh of relief, until I got closer and realized that a mob of maybe 200 people were all trying to board it. I walked to the edge of the mob to observe the shouting match between the bus driver who insisted the bus was full and no one else was getting on, and the crowd who maybe believed they’d ingested enough liquor to defy the laws of physics and wanted aboard. One particularly heinous frat boy was leading the clever chant of “Fuck you bus!” At one point he suggested tipping the bus over and roughly 7 hands surged forward only to be again defeated by physics. At this point some kid toward the front of the mob projectile vomited onto the side of the bus. Perfect. Finally the bus pulled away and the mob was left standing on the sidewalk, which was now dripping puke.
The following hour was spent contemplating Capital Metro’s massive fail in not adding any additional buses to the ONE late night route that drives north (past the University). It was also spent dodging vomit, debating walking home, and avoiding people offering me their weird half-eaten street food and/or their phone numbers. Finally, a second bus arrived and a stampede ensued. I was sure that I would make it on this bus. But somehow the mob kept pushing itself onboard before me. Finally I was one person away from the door when the bus driver shouted “Okay, that’s it! Bus is full!” I felt a surge of panic and tears welling up in my eyes. Some boys in the front started arguing with the driver and while he was distracted I just snaked my way up and onto the bus. There was no way I was missing this one. The bus was beyond packed, and probably louder than any show at SX that night. I held firmly to the pole behind the driver’s seat. A fitting end to my night (sometime around 4am) at the stop before mine, near the University, a boy on his way off shouted to the bus driver “Hey, some kid threw up in the back of the bus by the way.” Why yes sir, of course they did.
night 2: the night of 1,000 cover charges
Night two was not destined to be a repeat of the night-one snoozefest at the club door. The minute I got there I was faced with a promoter in the throes of a full-fledged freakout over the cover charge. SX had set it higher than the promoter wanted and an epic battle ensued that resulted in no less than five changes of my cover charge throughout the night. One of the changes (from $5 to $7) lasted for exactly one (very disgruntled) patron.
Aside from the ever-changing cover charge, the biggest amusement of my night was the mysterious “napkin guest list.” One of the bigger bands had apparently invited every hipster man, woman, and child they’d met since touching down in Austin and told them not to worry about cover as they’d be on the band’s guest list. What’s funny about this is that not only does SX not really do band guest lists, but no band even attempted to give me said guest list. So group after group came up to me during the night insisting that so and so had invited them by taking their name down on a napkin, and didn’t I have the napkin guest list?! Yeah, listen to yourselves people a napkin guest list for a 40 minute set??? Sounds pretty legit to me.
night 3: def jam and crumpets
There’s only one story worth mentioning from Night 3. My last showcase set of the night was billed as having a “special guest” apparently this guest was a big up-and-coming rapper on the Def Jam label. I will not use his name so as not to single-handedly ruin his street cred with the following anecdote. My stage manager had given me a big ol’ guest list for Surprise Rapper with the names of everyone in his entourage. When they rolled up around midnight I didn’t even need to consult the list, this crew looked exactly like what you imagine when someone tells you “there will be an entourage coming from Def Jam.” But then, not once but twice, smaller units of the crew came down from the bar to ask me, in 100% seriousness:
“Yo, do you know where we can get some hot tea around here?”
Both times it happened I could hardly contain myself. Was this code for something? Was Hot Tea just some sort of contraband euphemism? If it was they were going to be pretty disappointed when I directed them to the nearest coffee shop. But no, sure enough both groups returned with large to-go cups complete with dangling tea strings. Apparently Def Jam loves their hot tea. One of life’s little surprises.
night 4: dead
The theme for night four is dead and it describes both my personal state and the activity at my door. Out like a lamb apparently. Saturday night was the Perez Hilton party at the W Hotel and Kanye West’s show at the Electric Plant, and I think all 38,000 SX registrants must have just picked one or the other, leaving me with a painfully slow door all night. I just watched the minutes tick by until I had one more SXSW under my belt. And then I slept for about a week.
I think I’ve officially adopted this as my SXSW anthem:
“The Good Times Are Killing Me” – Modest Mouse