Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Too Much Fun Preamble: Well, How Did I Get Here?

I have no fewer than seven posts about Fun Fun Fun Fest to write over the next few days. In addition to act-by-act accounts of all the music I saw over the three days, I have stories about the four very different Austin artists I interviewed Saturday and Sunday. As I usually do before beginning massive projects, I took all of Monday off to decide about whether I cared about offending anybody.

Most of the time, I cleverly give my strong opinions on local bands that are too obscure for anyone to care what I think. If I do my thing on all the national bands I saw this weekend, all with followings, people are inevitably going to get mad. I've already stepped afoul of one of the finest musical opinions in Austin. Robert, the rock-authority leader of the great La Snacks and one of the few people allowed in the backstage area at the FFF Fest I didn't feel way too uncool to hang out with, loved The Hold Steady. Anna C. and I hated The Hold Steady. So there you have it.

As I was coming back into the paying-customer area after my get-together Sunday with the fine gentlemen of Eagle Claw, I ran into a maybe-not-even-twentysomething who recognized me. He was just outside the fence trying to peer over into the mystical Narnia of Backstage, a land I'm sure he imagined in visions of freely flowing champagne and frolicking starlets. It's more like tangled equipment cables, the same beer you can buy outside, and lots of little clots of people who know each other already chatting quietly or sitting and staring. Not so dramatic. I thought briefly about giving the young man my media wristband, since all I really had planned for the rest of the night was half a bratwurst (and holding my breath until Anna relented and let me see a few songs from Mastodon). I thought better of it. They have serial numbers on those things, and in the unlikely event this young enthusiast attempted to hog-tie Bethany Cosentino I'd just as soon not have that come back around on me. So I told him to start a blog instead. Pretty proud of this.

Most of my friends in Austin are writers or musicians or both. I'd want to know, if I were them -- upon finding out that Western Homes got free a three-day pass to Fun Fun Fun Fest, two tote bags, a couple of tacos, and to shake hands with "Weird Al" Yankovic -- how that could me next year.

Musicians? I don't want to name names when it comes to how each local band that played got booked at the Fest. I heard at least a little of every Austin band, and not a single one of them didn't deserve to be there. There were plenty of out-of-town acts worse than the least interesting local band. But I talk to a lot of musicians in Austin who want to know how to play at specifically this festival. They think, often, that they deserve it based solely on their talent and that the festival will instantly confer upon them the recognition they feel they deserve.

They may not know that every local band plays earlier than two in the afternoon, hours before the bulk of the crowd shows up. They may not know that by getting to this point, many of the bands have already gotten to the level where they're playing to much larger audiences nights in Austin and outside of town. Austin is so competitive, especially when it comes to rock bands, that by the time you're "big enough" to play Fun Fun Fun, you may already be so well-known that it doesn't matter. Oh, and "big enough" does not mean you're making any money. It probably means that you're just able to break even when you go on the road... when absolutely everything goes right. And your reward for that is getting to tour so much that you can't hold a day job and your spine becomes permanently curved from sleeping sitting up. Be careful what you wish for.

So, here are a few ways you can get booked at Fun Fun Fun. You can be friends with someone who books it, from your old hometown before you moved to Austin or from your job. You can tour like a maniac until finally some writers from outside Austin pay attention to you, assuming your style fits into the narrow confines of what's hip right this minute. If you're not a rock musician, you have more options. Being completely unique helps, whether you're a folk-rock orchestra or a wrestling nerdcore rapper. If festival performers GWAR, Monotonix, and Peelander-Z have taught us anything, it's that a strong visual performance can render musical originality and/or competence totally moot. In hip-hop and dance music, community-building is paramount -- Nick Nack and Butcher Bear are ubiquitous presences in Austin dance and the League of Extraordinary Gz formed out of several smaller crews to use strength of numbers to force open doors of opportunity for local hip-hop. No band this year was booked just for having great music. Every act from the smallest on up had demonstrated its ability to draw and entertain an audience. If you can figure out to do that, your band can play Fun Fun Fun Fest, easy. The chicken or the egg....

What about writers? That's a simpler question. Allen Chen and Paige Maguire of the Austinist decide which bloggers get credentials for Fun Fun Fun Fest, and I appreciate very much being included among them. I haven't met Allen or Paige; I probably should have this weekend but I suck at socializing. Every moment I was at the festival I was conscious of the honor it was to be selected as a representative of the media. I pitched that my coverage would focus on the experience for local bands, with a secondary emphasis on my outsider's take on all these out-of-town acts I would normally never see. I adhered to the intent of my pitch obsessively. I probably didn't eat enough and I certainly inhaled more dust than is healthy for humans while hustling around trying to see every band that interested me.

Even during the other big yearly Austin music festivals, I only see local bands if I can help it. Remember what I said about being unique? Whether you're a musician or a blogger, you need to have a simple pitch for what sets you apart. As I've developed Big Western Flavor to the extent that I can get into things for free, I've learned how to make it about more than just making fun of bands I don't like. I have a mission statement now. With the way music listening habits have changed in the past 10 years, everyone's tastes are set to shuffle. People are more receptive to new ideas in music now than ever before... look at the throngs dancing to Nortec Collective, or the stunningly high amount of listeners willing to sit through an entire set by Deakin. I think the best way to develop your critical thinking skills as a music listener and a musician is by focusing on local music; on developing artists who are in close to the same situation as you and are readily accessible when you have questions or comments.

You didn't need an all-access pass to meet amazing musicians at Fun Fun Fun Fest. Sam and Zac from Zorch, Giuseppe from Tofu Kozo/Boy + Kite, Justin from Sissy Face, Will and Dani from Megafauna, Reed from World Racketeering Squad... there were plenty of awesome Austin players out on the main grounds with the regular people. If you'd been to their shows you would know who they were.

It's better to participate in a scene than observe one passively! Music writing in the past few years has trended into many, many people all discussing the same very few bands, and from the evidence offered by the mostly smelly Orange Stage groupthink kicked in a long time ago. I would rather spend my time in tiny clubs with cheap beer rocking out to musicians who know me by sight and are grateful for every face in attendance than worry about getting into whatever's at Stubb's this week. I wish more musicians here felt the same way because then, man, we'd really have a scene.