Alan Berg at the world premier of 'Outside Industry.'
Words by Sarah Frazier.
Filmmaker Alan Berg joins Big Heavy World at IndieCon for a screening of ‘Outside Industry: The Story of SXSW,’ November 11th, at the BCA center on Church Street. Often called one of the biggest music festivals to date, the documentary explores the early evolution of the festival itself, performances that brought the crowds, and the controversy over its rapid growth. Along with this we will see how, “…it follows the four founders as they navigate through the successes, backlash, criticism and even arson to become the biggest music industry event in the world.” I got to interview Alan this week about the film and his success over the years.
Even before speaking with Alan, I learned of his background. What I found was a man who has been dedicated to his field in film and the arts. Alan tells me, “I began my career as a political reporter, and had the good fortune of working in good shops with good mentors. So that was important because they taught me the tools of the trade. One other advantage, although I didn’t realize it at the time, was that working against the deadlines of daily news gave me a lot of reps — every day I was editing and writing, so it’s sorta like minor league ball. The largest hurdle was the transition from fact-driven storytelling to character-driven storytelling.”
Coming from the mindset of a writer, it’s easy to appreciate how hard getting proper footing in the business can be. Mentorship was the groundwork for much of what Alan would later accomplish. Getting this type of field work was an obvious blessing for Alan in the long run because it helped initiate the eventual development of his Arts and Labor collaboration. When speaking about Arts and Labor, Alan tells me that it has been a blessing, “I think part of the reason is that we seek to attract and develop new talent. I was taught early to always focus on the narrative. Nice photography, fancy editing, slick graphics, all help tell a story, but if there’s no underlying plot it’s like frosting without the cake. When you step out creatively and take risk, there will be no shortage of people enumerating in vivid detail the number of ways in which you’re gonna fail.”
I think there is a vital point to be made here, and Big Heavy World can be said to hold a lot of that idea of collaborative effort in hand. However, getting back to the IndieCon aspect of the interview, I ask Alan specifically what made him want to explore the nuts and bolts of the SXSW music festival. Alan’s relationship to the SXSW festival circles all the way back to 1987.
“I was a covering politics in Austin when the festival launched in 1987, and it just looked like a lot of fun. My wife and I went to the shows and we just thought it was so cool that this was happening in our city. Fast forward to 1994. I’m working for the ABC affiliate in Dallas, and I convinced my boss to let me do a half-hour on SXSW as a break from covering politics. That went on to win an Emmy, and then the founder of SXSW, Roland Swenson, called and asked if I was interested in helping them document the festival. So for the next five years I’d take time off, go down to Austin, and coordinate taping of SXSW. We started to make a documentary back then, but the whole music license thing was a gordian knot. So I asked Roland what we should do, and he said “you know, last night I was watching a doc on the Newport Jazz Festival that was made from film they shot in the ’60s. So maybe we just sit on this a while.” I said, “Damn Roland, I’ll be an old man.” Well, a decade later we dusted off the footage, added some new and old and made the documentary. It was important to me to close the circle.”
It seems for Alan this endeavor was somewhat of a lifelong one in his own relationship with music itself. Coming from a small Baptist town in Texas, much of the ideals that came with the community were those of a conservative nature. It was in the spirit of rock n’ roll that Alan would find his sense of freedom. One of the first artists Alan truly connected with was during his 6th grade years. It was then that he was introduced to the over-the-top rock performer Alice Cooper. My mom went bat-shit when I put up the album’s pull-out poster of him hanging himself. I saw it as his way of giving the finger to a world where everyone’s trying to tell people what to do. She saw it as a sign that I was headed straight to heroin. Later on, seeing the midnight showing of ‘The Song Remains the Same’ at the old downtown cinema was a window into somewhere else. As far as influence, music showed me how creative expression can feed the soul.”
The 'Outside Industry' production crew.
It is always nice to have that generational gap where one side is calling you crazy and the other is urging you towards revolution. Isn’t it strange how history seems to work out that way.
Ultimately, we veer back to Alan’s own documentary that pays homage to the music he so loves. What Alan truly wants people to gain out his documentary is what he has been practicing all his life, whether he is conscious of it or not. It comes down to doing what you love for Alan, and the change the can be seen in the transition of the music industry. “The film documents how a group of creative folks built something that’s valuable and enduring without any real blueprint. I love the fact that the starting point was their shared love of the arts as opposed to a business plan. Which means that at the end of the day, it should be about creating a great sound, because that’s the only thing over which a musician really has any control.” I believe the content of what this film explores is appealing to both the music and movie enthusiast. The message that rings true is that we should give our respects to the people who are able to share what they love with others, and when opportunity knocks, we should get off our lazy asses and answer it. Come to the BCA center on November 11th, to see Alan Berg’s new documentary film, ‘Outside Industry: The Story of SXSW,’ supporting a collaborative cinematic and musical effort!
For more information about IndieCon, Big Heavy World’s two-day grassroots music festival, Nov. 11 & 12: http://bigheavyworld.com/tunk/?p=4724.