The tech is new at SXSW, but the music strand remains distinctly old school
In Texas, tech and film have moved on from the disruption transforming their sectors and are dealing with new realities. Music, by contrast, clearly hasn't
The Groove: This “wearable glove device that enhances the dancer’s expression” is demonstrated at the SXSW festival 2017 in Austin, Texas. Photograph: Brian Snyder/Reuters
Austin is currently hosting not one but two rodeos. In the shadows of the skyscrapers that now dominate the downtown landscape, the SXSW musical rodeo is in full swing. Meanwhile, in the Travis County Expo Centre, Rodeo Austin gives you a fair that any self-respecting cowboy or cowgirl would appreciate, from steer wrestling and team roping to mutton bustin’ and barrel racing. It’s a crowd-pleaser, pulling in 300,000 people over a fortnight.
Rodeo Austin also music on the bill. Dwight Yoakam was the big draw on the opening night, and Charley Pride, Fitz & The Tantrums, Kenny Rogers, Chase Bryant and more have also hit the stage. It’s clear the organisers know their market.
It’s always struck me as strange that these two Austin worlds rarely intersect, especially considering the plethora of cowboys frequenting both scenes. Isn’t game supposed to recognise game?
Perhaps it’s a sign that the music part of SXSW isn’t quite the same game it once was. Overshadowed in many ways by its tech side – this beano is now more closely linked in many minds with Twitter’s arrival here a decade ago than with any new band – the SXSW headlines largely remain the same.
Some 2,000 newish bands play out of their skin in the hope of attracting attention from someone to help them further climb the ladder. Established names roll into town to suck up all the promo oxygen and fat fees from brands who want cool and relevance by association. The names change every season, but the process remains the same.
There is something reassuring about this predictability, especially the first part of the equation. It’s still about the power of a live band to have you going “Wow!” (Or, seeing as we’re in the US, “F*cking awesome dude!”) Many SXSW bands have inspired that feeling in me over the years, and it probably the reason I keep coming back every March (well, that and the breakfast tacos).
You see a band you know little about, they play three songs and you get a tingle, a shiver down the spine, a vindication about why you sped by the stop sign and kept going in search of this buzz rather than getting a job in a bank.
Still, even if the art continues to captivate and the brands continue to fund a good chunk of this, the discussion of the business around the art is another matter. The topics and themes up for discussion at SXSW every year are still responding to and reacting to the past. The tech and film sides have moved on from the disruption and change transforming their sectors and are dealing squarely with new realities. In contrast, there’s a bang of the old school to the music discourse here.
On one hand, it’s quaint. On the other hand, it’s a sign of a glaring lack of cop on, something also clearly evident in how badly SXSW has dealt with the brouhaha over heavy-handed clauses in contracts for international artists. Not responding to issues that clearly inflame and energise your core audience is also a sign of complacency.
Occasional resets are always a good idea, and it does strike you that SXSW might benefit from one right now, especially on the music conference side. So much of what is going on in the sector warrants deep analysis and examination. SXSW could – we say could – still be a good place to do this.