SXSW 2014: the last words
The round-up of features and thoughts from Austin, Texas – plus has SXSW lost its soul?
It has been all about SXSW round these parts for the last few weeks. You’ll find my piece on some of the films and documentaries from SXSW Film here, the best 20 bands I saw during SXSW Music here and an overview on the trends, ideas and perspectives from SXSW Interactive here (the headline on the last piece is a beaut, if I may say so myself). There was also a lot of other coverage on the blog and you’ll find all of those pieces on this link.
This was a strange year at SXSW and make no mistake about it. While there has always been a lot of mumbling offstage about how the festival has become so big or how it has changed, this was the year when that mumbling was amplified. Chalk it down in the main to the appearance of Lady Gaga and the huge corporate presence which is now part and parcel of the event. David Carr’s piece in the New York Times caught some of that flavour, even if it also seemed a little crass to push the fatal, horrific car crash which occured during the event and killed three people into the mix. There was also a very strong post by writer Andy Langer, which was picked up by Forbes, which also focused on the overbearing sponsorship at the festival.
But this corporate buy-in has been part and parcel of SXSW for quite some time and no-one seems to have objected (noticed?) until March 2014. That ludicrous storeys-high Dorito’s stage which resembles a supersized vending machine did not suddenly turn up on Red River and Fifth in 2014 – this has been in situ in Austin every March since 2012. You couldn’t miss it. You can probably see it from space.
In every sense, it’s the largest manifestation of how corporate much – much, but not all – of this event has become. You could probably spend all your time at SXSW Music going from one stage sponsored by a corporate entity to another where all the bands, food and drink come for free. It’s a perfect encapsulation of how corporate much – much, but not all – of the music industry has become.
Having written in the past about the dovetail between bands and brands, it’s fascinating to see these theories put into practice in Austin. As we’ve noted here the other week, playing SXSW is a tough financial game for most bands so you can understand why many acts will lean on a sponsor to help them pay the bills. In return, the sponsor or brand, the person who is paying the piper, will call the tune when it comes to advertising, marketing and promotion. There may have been some subtle examples of the brand/band love-in at SXSW but I’m damned if I could find any. Instead, it was as maximalist as a Skrillex tune, a blaring barrage of noise and hustle with the brand logo to the forefront on all occasions.
And yet, you could wander a few blocks away and find another side of SXSW where a band or act you’d never come across before were playing out of their skins. They may not have been the ones who got a wad of cash for playing a sponsored day party – fees for these events ranged from a few hundred to several thousand depending on the act’s pulling power and the bargaining ability of their agent – but they were at SXSW to play some shows and see if it would help their overall gameplan.
They’re the reason I still go to SXSW Music every year. I think I caught two “established” acts in action over the week – an early morning show in the convention centre from Damon Albarn and a late-night shivers-down-the-back-of-your-neck appearance from Lucinda Williams in a packed courtyard – and the rest were newbies. That’s my SXSW experience. Of course, if you wanted to see name acts playing, there was no shortage of them here.
It’s interesting to read the various musings about SXSW losing its soul because I reckon there were people saying the same thing after the second event back in 1988. Indeed, you get the same carping and complaints about SXSW Interactive as a panel looking at the history of the event showed with some ridiculous statements about how the event was now full of “women in stilettos”, a reference to how there’s now as many marketing departments represented as coders and geeks.
You will always get people who don’t welcome change, who want an event to remain the same in the future as it was in the past. But life is not like that. SXSW began as a local event for local people by and large and it has morphed into the biggest music festival in the world in the space of a few decades. It’s gigantic in every sense, from width to depth, so it’s no wonder people will wish it was different.
Yes, the corporate shilling is largely unavoidable if you stick to the main drags, but it can be done by staying well clear of the mainstream. It may not be as easy as installing ad-blocking software in your computer, but you can do SXSW and avoid most of the heavy-duty sell-sell-sell from the brands who’ve paid handsomely to be here and need to get bang for their bucks. The problem is that it is easier to just moan about the branding than forge your own path. Expect more “has SXSW lost its soul?” pieces to run a year from now.