The question I hear most about SXSW — after "What's the best thing you've seen?" and "What are you looking forward to seeing the most?" and "Really, you do this for work?" — revolves around the idea of the Prevailing Trend. "With 2,000 bands clamoring to be heard, what's the one takeaway; the thing you're seeing again and again and again that you never expected to encounter in such tremendous volume?"
This year, in terms of music, it has to be what I sometimes call "rock-plus" — ever-larger bands that spice up their catchy rock songs with horn sections, string sections, multiple drummers and so on. New Orleans' MyNameIsJohnMichael, for example, played a bunch of nice, bracing tunes, but a tremendous three-piece horn section made them stand out. Meanwhile, the sheer number of drummer-and-another-drummer bands ought to hearten any out-of-work percussionists left in the business. With Arcade Fire and Bon Iver and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros dominating a large corner of the indie-rock market, bigger is, well, bigger.
As for SXSW itself, the big hit in 2012 so far appears to be almost unconscionably long lines of people. If your business sponsors one of the heavily curated, heavy-hitting, prominently sponsored all-day/late-night parties — Fader Fort, PureVolume House, Hype Hotel, et al. — it's not enough to gather a gigantic list of emailed RSVPs. You then have to make those people stand in line for more than an hour to obtain a wristband, which can later be used to gain admittance to the party you desire — after standing in a long line of wristband-holders, of course. It's not a new phenomenon at SXSW, but it seems to have proliferated this year.
In an age of "download an app on your iPhone so you can automatically place your Starbucks order without making eye contact with the barista," these around-the-block get-your-wristbands-and-scram lines are a puzzling little phenomenon. Why not just have people queue in the moments just before the event begins? I get that wristbands speeds along the lines once the shows are actually happening, and that the inconvenience discourages some of the insane overcrowding, but it feels suspiciously like a way to make one's event appear worthy of struggle; to convince sponsors, participating bands and the media that this is the place to be.
In the five years that NPR Music has been throwing a daytime party at The Parish during SXSW, we've more or less scrapped the idea of RSVPs; come early, stay a while, stand in line until you get in, hope to see you there. But this year has taught me that we're doing it all wrong.
In 2013, I want NPR to get out in front of a burgeoning trend: Next year, we should rent an abandoned building, plaster it with signage, set up a large card table at the end of the block, and encourage festival attendees to form a line that would extend down the street. There, music fans could stand still, wait all day, get nothing and see no one. Imagine the buzz of anticipation! "Maybe the line leads to an exclusive collaboration between Norah Jones and Mr. Muthaf---in eXquire!" "I hear they're giving away New New iPads!"
Over time, after maybe a day or so, people would no doubt get frustrated and leave, but think of the buzz! We'd inspire trending topics on Twitter and everything, with hash tags evolving throughout the day: First, they'd be all, "#lineupNPR" or "#NPRgetinline," and then they'd transition to more colorful youth slang, with hip buzzwords like #sadface and #NPRfail. But once we disperse the sun-bleached, rage-scorched crowd at the end of the weekend, mollifying the aggrieved with wristbands guaranteeing priority placement at next year's line, all will be forgiven and forgotten. You won't believe where the line might lead in 2014!