Back in the days before the long-awaited death of the major label system forced the music business to return to its roots as the ultimate cottage industry, the giant bag of promotional crap given to each of the 10,000 registrants at SXSW used to be a lot heavier.
Mind you, none of this stuff was ever really worth keeping, except perhaps for the “hangover kit” (aspirin, Alka Seltzer, etc.), ear plugs, bottle opener and a few of the hefty stack of music magazines (for something to read on the plane back home). The Oscars giveaways these ain’t, and in fact, the bag itself is usually the coolest thing.
The design is by a different musician/visual artist each year. For 2008, it’s Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. Past favorites include Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, Daniel Johnston, Robyn Hitchcock and Chicago’s own Jon Langford. They’re great for your trek to Whole Foods.
The most notable thing about this year’s bag, in addition to its skimpiness, is a green plastic toy soldier of the classic “kids’ army guys” variety, except this one is holding a guitar instead of a rifle, and he’s twisty-tied to a color card that identifies him as “Sgt. Solo,” brave representative of Armed Forces Entertainment. (Why they didn’t just go with “Sgt. Rock,” I’ll never know; maybe there were copyright issues.)
The blurb at the bottom of the card reads: “Plug in your weapon, turn up the power and fire away. Your limo is a Humvee and your ride is a Blackhawk. For over 50 years, America’s stars have earned their stripes by performing for our country’s greatest audience. Find out if you have what it takes to tour the world entertaining the troops with Armed Forces Entertainment.”
Yes, you read right: These are your tax dollars hard at work in a promotional effort to recruit rock bands to travel to Iraq and Afghanistan to entertain our troops. Mind you, if anyone deserves free entertainment, it’s the brave men and women making incredible sacrifices for their country overseas. But really, wouldn’t they be better served by the government spending that money on better benefits and health care, more useful gifts for a theater of war (like adequate armor on those Humvees) or, heaven knows, upping the diplomatic efforts to end these conflicts?
These are things worth mulling while visiting the group's Web site, which features an even more bizarre piece of promotional artwork via the illustration of a doctored Sherman tank -- the kind that won the “good war” of WWII -- with an acoustic guitar replacing the turret and gun barrel and a swirl of paisleys beneath the treads, all under the banner “SXSW Music.”