Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

SXSW 2013: the brands takeover

The power of the brands ensures the bigger acts dominate the narrative at SXSW

Fri, Mar 15, 2013, 13:56


Every time I leave my hotel in Austin, I get an instant reminder of who the new powerbrokers are in the music game. Across the street from the hotel, the most outrageous music stage ever pressed into use at SXSW is ready and waiting for action.

Yes, I know that’s quite a claim, especially given the festival’s history and its ability to use every square inch of spare ground in the city for music performances. But how many times do you get to feast your eyes on a 62 foot high stage decked out as a vending machine to plug a brand of crisps?

Yes, this is a stage at SXSW 2013

Over the festival, many bands will play the Doritos’ stage (indeed, Public Enemey played there last night). If the stage’s debut at last year’s festival is anything to go by, both acts and audiences will feel slightly ludicrous by what is going on.

Both are dwarfed by the huge stage and both are under no illusion that they are playing second fiddle to the act of plugging the crisps. But this is 2013 and, to carry the fiddle analogy on a bit further before it falls completely asunder, he who pays the fiddler calls the tune.

The brands are everywhere you look at SXSW. There are whole buildings repainted in the livery of various tech and telecoms companies like Spotify and Samsung. The parties and gigs that everyone is talking about always have a sponsor attached who is aiming to maximise their investment in the biggest showhouse in Texas.

It’s the brands who ensure that the bigger acts, the acts who increasingly set the narrative of what SXSW’s music festival is all about, perform in venues they’ve long moved on from. Given that SXSW doesn’t pay the acts who play its festival, the bigger acts have to be lured with someone else’s chequebook. SXSW may be the best place to go in the world to catch new exciting bands – which is my main reason for being here – but increasingly, people talk chiefly about the big acts doing small shows.

It means we’re dealing once again with the haves and the have-nots. The haves are the acts who’ve already made it, the acts with established audiences, the acts who are household names, the acts who are the one-percent.

The have-nots are the vast majority of acts at SXSW, the acts who are here to catch a break, any break, and make the most of an expensive trip by van, bus or plane to the heart of Texas. Sure, you will have a clatter of up-and-coming buzz bands alligned to the right agencies or championed by the right blogs who will also get some action, but it’s largely a game of haves and have-nots.

Because of how the music industry has changed in the last decade, brands have become the key investors in the sector. Labels no longer invest as before, so commercial patronage has take up that role. And while the brands are great for spending the cash to make a big splash, there’s little or no emphasis on developing and empowering new talent. What’s the point in that? They don’t have established audiences the brand can hijack to flog their wares.

And yet for all that, SXSW still has lots of magic. You can go beyond the brands, ignore the hard-sell and find some new act playing their hearts out who will go onto greater things in the future. SXSW was where I first caught bands like Bon Iver, TV On the Radio, The Gossip, Fleet Foxes, Local Natives, Kendrick Lamar, Warpaint, Haim, Danny Brown and many, many more in action. That rather than staring at a known band on a stage flogging crisps is really what SXSW should be all about.