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The common line about SXSW Music is that you can hear music everywhere. You can hear bands play in backyards, backyard patios, backyard pavilions and backyard grills. You can hear bands play stages that are 3 inches tall and stages that are 60 inches tall and stages that are just a series of milk crates that are overturned. You can hear bands play in alleys, you can hear bands play from inside the sewer system like in Ninja Turtles, you can hear bands play on streets, you can hear bands play from a Secret Show in a treehouse, and you can hear bands play in a restaurant that during the day sells the worst pizza you’ve ever eaten.
I spent the day at SXSW Music yesterday, but I didn’t experience that phenomenon. Well, I saw a lot of bands, but I didn’t hear them. I spent most of the day at SXSW wearing noise cancelling earmuffs and heavy duty earplugs. I never heard a lick of music for 7 straight hours.
Lately I’ve been worrying that I’ve been taking music for granted. It’s incredible to be alive in 2016, with literally any music ever at my fingertips, and I wouldn’t want to be alive during any other time (except to eat a dinosaur. That would be sick). But I’ve started to worry that the fact that literally everything I do has a soundtrack isn’t necessarily the best for me, my love of music, or for the music itself. I listened to Flatbush Zombies on my headphones while using the toilet at Midway Airport on the way out here. When I stopped to get something to drink in Janesville, WI, on my way, I heard a Little River Band song. I bet the percentage of time I’ve spent driving not listening to music in the 14 years since I’ve been driving is less than 2 percent. I listen to Spotify on my phone when I wash dishes. I listen to Spotify on my phone when I walk my dog. I listen to records when I’m napping on my couch. I listen to records when I’m reading on my couch. I listen to Spotify with my phone overturned on my couch while I play video games.
I work at a vinyl company, so obviously, I care a great deal about music. But I worry that because I listen to music all the time, and because I am fully taking advantage of this time to be alive (and the free stream of What a Time to Be Alive) I am not caring about music as much as I could, or as much as I used to in a pre-Spotify era. This concern is widespread. It was at the heart of that No Music Day stunt from a few years ago. It’s the central thesis of Ben Ratliff’s new book, Every Song Ever, in which he asserts that we need to start listening for different things in music--virtuosity, loudness, etc.--instead of just blankly listening to the endless stream of music.
So, I decided to get some noise-cancelling earmuffs--as in they don’t ever play music, they exist solely to blot out noise--some earplugs, and hit the streets of SXSW in an effort to spend a day not listening to music at SXSW. Would I come to a revitalized appreciation for music? Would I lose my mind not hearing anything? Would my trips to the bathroom be less meaningful? Would this be the final frontier in SXSW hot takes?
My first stop upon hitting the SXSW Ground Zero wasn’t music at all; it was the Silent Room, an art installation by Simon Heijdens that blocks out all external noise. It was considerably more disorienting than wearing the plugs and muffs--which was disorienting in and of itself; have you ever clapped and not heard yourself do it?-- but mostly because it brought the deafening silence into a physical medium.
The first band I saw was New York’s Sunflower Bean, who looked like they stepped clear out of a Rolling Stone pictorial in 1972. It became very clear that evaluating a performance by a band like them is virtually impossible if you can’t hear them; it’s basically like watching people pantomime with instruments at a Guitar Center. They seemed legit though.
Next, I saw multiple DJs spin at Fader Fort. If you are of the opinion that someone DJing is a boring experience to partake in, imagine watching them without being able to hear them. It feels like you're eavesdropping on someone as they animatedly fill out an Excel spreadsheet. I wish I could tell you who I saw, but I missed out on another SXSW staple: the repeated self-plug from the stage.
I saw the Oakland rapper Kamiyah in between the DJ sets, and that was the first time I acutely felt some FOMO, because her A Good Night in the Ghetto was my soundtrack for my flight out here. She was fun to watch though; she worked the stage and actually got the crowd going nuts, despite most of them, I’m assuming, not being familiar with her.
At this point, I walked around SXSW and just dropped in to a variety of showcases. I was prepared for not hearing anything, but what I wasn’t prepared for as part of this experience was how profoundly isolating not being able to hear was. I never talked to anyone for close to 6 hours; never said a word, and wasn’t even able to eavesdrop on conversations to make me feel like a human who is interconnected to other people. I had one guy approach me on the street, to, I’m assuming, compliment my Brock Lesnar t-shirt, but he gave up when I didn’t take my earphones off to talk to him (I’m committed to my SXSW coverage bits). By the time I connected with some fellow Vinyl Me Please employees at YouTube’s event, I was super excited to be able to talk to someone. But then I couldn’t talk to them effectively because I couldn’t hear myself, and was talking too quietly for a music venue.
It was at this point that I could faintly hear music again; YouTube’s event at CopperTank was basically one big echo chamber, and my plugs and muffs couldn’t stand up to cement floors and brick walls. So, it’s not accurate to say I didn’t hear Maren Morris, but her performance was muted. But I didn’t need to fully hear it to know that she is on the cusp of being the biggest thing in country. She’s maybe the first post-Kacey Musgraves country star; a woman clear to follow her arrow wherever it points, including songs about ‘80s Mercedes.
Before I headed to Fader Fort to ride out with a dream double header of Rae Sremmurd and Kacey Musgraves--not even a commitment to content could keep me from hearing that--I took off the earmuffs. At first, all noise sounded like a flat wall of sound, a cacophony I couldn’t separate into its individual parts. Music merged with voices merged with the sounds of the street. Then, the speakers at Coppertank started playing Future’s “Stick Talk.” It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.