In Texas, coming apart at the seams

The South by Southwest music festival is Glastonbury, Mardi Gras and New Year's Eve rolled into one.

I'm standing in line at JFK when a man ahead of me falls to the floor, clutching his chest. Commotion erupts as paramedics rush to the scene. Next to me, a large West African woman shakes her head. "Travel sure is a stressful business." She's not wrong. Part of my job entails running around the globe to hear music in many diverse locations. Right now, I'm en route from New York, where I've been at a recording session. (We've put the veteran punk rock producer David Kahne together with the Dead 60s, best described as a Liverpudlian Clash. David and I are confident that the band will be the latest sons of the city to achieve global fame.) I'm on my way to Austin, the self-proclaimed "Live Music Capital of the World", for the South by Southwest festival.

A music industry secret

For 14 years I've been escaping the rain-sodden British Isles in March to watch bands in the Texas sunshine. Back in the early Nineties, there were very few Brits in attendance, and country music filled most of the venues. Bands played only in the evening, leaving the days free for exploring - or attending a seminar on regional radio if you were feeling guilty. Even then, there were grumblings from some of the old hands, fearful that brash new A&R types like me were discovering their little secret. I very quickly fell in love with the experience: it was like Glastonbury, Mardi Gras and New Year's Eve all rolled into one. Only the terrifying hangovers ever threatened to take the magic away. For the American music industry, it was their spring break, when they could leave behind their corporate woes.

Given that Austin is where George W Bush sat in power over at the State Capitol (the model for the one in Washington and bigger, I am constantly informed), it's surprisingly the last bastion of ideological soundness in the South. A substantial student population and a welcoming attitude towards musicians and artists have always made for a more bohemian atmosphere than you might expect from an affluent cowboy town. But, for all that, there are rumours that when the big music festival starts, all undesirables are swept off the streets so that the visitors get to see a Disneyfied version of the city.

You can also only push the locals so far. A few years back, during a set at the local equivalent of the Hard Rock Café, the Californian hardcore act Icarus Line, having bust one of their guitars, smashed the glass cabinet surrounding Stevie Ray Vaughan's guitar, which was mounted with reverence high up on the wall. The offending guitarist was chased right down the length of Sixth Street when he refused to return it, and was nearly lynched.

Banging on police cars

The British music industry abroad is only moderately better-behaved than a coachload of football fans. At midnight, everyone is coming apart at the seams. People are banging on the bonnets of police cars asking to be taken home, thinking they've met a taxi driver. Luckily, pretty much everyone you meet in Austin is charming. A bartender is keen to engage me in a conversation about Iraq. He is against the war and wants to know my views. I'm a little cautious, having been too free with my opinions in the past. My republican sympathies in the months after the death of the Princess of Wales saw me dumped unceremoniously at the side of the road one year by a deeply offended driver.

Do I get much work done out here? In the past, I would come with hundreds of bands written down on my to-do list. These days I have a much more laissez-faire attitude, and arrive with only a few tips to follow up. Mostly I am happy to bump into fellow travellers and see where these random encounters take me. On previous trips, such unplanned excursions have taken me to see fledgling shows by the White Stripes and Arcade Fire. I ended up going on a shopping trip around the thrift stores with Scissor Sisters, watching Jake Shears try on gold-lamé bolero jackets. This year is no exception, as I find myself in a tattoo parlour with the Watford hardcore band Gallows. Nothing can ever be predicted in this town. Everything is bigger in Texas, especially the memories.

Mike Smith is Managing Director of Columbia Records

Mike Smith is a Charge Nurse and Emergency Nurse Practitioner at the Epsom & St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: How we killed our dreams of freedom