SXSW 2013: the post-match analysis
Thoughts and musings as the Austin festival comes to a close and 45,000 people head for home
It’s always interesting to walk around Austin on the Sunday after SXSW ends and the circus finally leaves town. All those temporary stages have been taken down, all the bands and their entourages have scarpered in search of other gigs and giggles and all the fuss and hubbub and hot air and sales pitches have been replaced by silence and birdsong on a balmy spring evening. There are also no longer would-be boho-hobos grabbing some kip on the soft chairs in the lobby of the Hilton. All that remains of the whirlwind of the last 10 days are reams of posters on the walls around the city’s convention centre. And large credit card bills.
When you look back at what just happened in Austin, you do try to extrapolate certain themes. It’s what we journalists do. For instance, I’m not the only one who noted the heavyweight branding takeover or the return of that big-ass vending machine stage (a stage which featured a performance from Chuck D amongst others – most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps, but some will sadly shill for a brand of potato chips). To paraphrase SXSW Interactive speaker Nate Silver, such branding exercises ensured some sort of signal emerged for their respective paymasters from the noise which dominates a gathering of this ilk. The more you pay, the clearer the signal.
But aside from such unsubtle and unskilled corporate muscle-flexing which has become par for the course here in recent years, there were other issues of note too. In the convention centre, there were stirrings of a rebellion from the artist’s side, with people like The Trichorist’s David Lowery and co arguing for a new deal for artists in all the onward and upward momentum and disruption which is still unfolding at a rate of knots. Lowery and his comrades are simply – and sharply – pointing out the disconnect which is in full swing where the artists just aren’t either benefiting from or, in many cases, even being considered when new plays come into being. Then, there are issues like this to consider, something few in the industry are prepared to tackle.
Away from the convention centre, the artists’ lot is also not a happy one, even as the music plays on. As someone who comes to SXSW Music to scout for new bands and sounds, the days and nights of constant gigging are perfect for me. But I increasingly wonder at events like this about what the acts get out of all this activity and huffing and puffing around town. They have to put up with crappy sound, insufficient soundchecks, cursory linechecks, constant hassle to get from one gig to the next, the knowledge that most of the audience don’t have a clue – or even care – who they are and often a gnawing sense of doubt about what the hell they’re doing here in the first place.
It also very clearly and bluntly shows them their place in the haves and have-nots queue. Some acts get to play the parties everyone wants to play, but the vast majority have to make do with the scraps and the off-grid events that rarely draw or attract the people the acts want to draw and attract. It’s not fair or nice or polite, but it’s how things go. Any act playing SXSW needs to consider this long before they apply for a showcase berth or even book a flight to Austin. If you’re going to play the game, you need to realise the playing pitch is skewered and uneven.
And yet for all that, there is nowhere else on earth which offers to much opportunity for new acts to attract audiences and attention. Sure, the acts who benefit most are the ones who have agents, attorneys, managers and PRs to help them get on radars before the event – and acts who get booked for the right parties – but there are surely still enough people in town looking for something new and different to make it worth an act’s while to give it a go. The alternative is to stay at home and moan about their lot in life – and we know how that one goes.
Mo’ SXSW: you’ll find my piece on 10 key ideas from the last week here, I’ll be writing about the music-on-film side of SXSW later in the week in the paper and I’ll be covering the 20 best bands I saw in Austin in The Ticket on Friday.