What’s in store for SXSW 2016?
Final thoughts from Austin on this year’s SXSW bonanza and a look at what might be ahead for the event
You weather well for the rest of the year after a good South By Southwest. You see bands you’ll be talking about and writing about in the months and years to come (full rundown on the best 20 acts I saw at SXSW 2015 to come in The Ticket on Friday, though you can guess some of the list from recent posts). You come across speakers and talks and ideas and sparks during the Interactive run which resonate for ages and crop up in the strangest of places and at the weirdest of times afterwards. You also usually see a movie or two as well which go on to become hits on the big or small screen. You go to Austin and the rest of the year is mapped out.
But many who went to SXSW this year went away thinking and muttering about a change in the Austin air. Some will remember that such a change was in the air last year – the late David Carr noted it when he was wrapping up SXSW 2014 as did Andy Langer – but it was noticeable in 2015 by virtue of footfall or, more specifically, the lack of same. Usually, you have long, lengthy queues to get into the venues hosting daytime events and parties but, save for the crush out on the East 6th around where the Spotify House, Hype Hotel and The Fader Fort were based, you’d little problem bouncing from venue to venue. Add in the number of industry folks who stayed home and you’d an event which was missing a lot of the key players from the last five years. Last year’s tragic car crash resulted in a much more noticeable security presence downtown with cops and cop cars on every block and junction, which made for a much safer festival.
And yet for all the absent faces, SXSW remained as big as ever. Perhaps it really is, as this piece puts it, too big to fail or perhaps the only way SXSW can sustain itself is by continuing to get even bigger. It dominates Austin like nothing else around bringing in millions in revenue and tourist dollars. It’s one of the reasons why there will be at least two new gigantic hotels open for business downtown by the time SXSW 2016 rolls around. Perhaps this spurt in hotel rooms will mean a fall in prices? A return to 1987 prices to mark the event’s 30th anniversary? Probably not.
One problem for SXSW as it heads to 30 is cash and the need to hold onto it. SXSW is a business which generates huge revenues at these flagship March events between sales of passes to delegates, wristband sales, sponsorship buy-ins, trade show sales, event planning and much more. They probably hope that such recent offshoots as V2V, Eco and Edu become similarly profitable. They’re doing what all successful companies do and growing their business.
But at the same time as you’re expanding, you need to keep an eye on the core business. While Interactive and Film continue to be hugely impressive events, Music is beginning to look a little slack around the edges. Many delegates who’d paid big wedge for the badges around their necks were giving out this year about very simple things around access to the official venues at night, the lack of control over queues and the kind of rudimentary details which most long-running events have sorted out long ago. SXSW relies heavily on volunteers (which is becoming more questionable given the revenues the event now generates) and as you’d expect, some know their onions and some, well, don’t. There was certainly a feeling this year that carelessness has crept in to some parts of the operation.
One area where SXSW really do seem to have given up on is the daytime conference programming during the music event. Compared to Interactive and Film, the Music panels, keynotes and workshops are dull and lacklustre in both pitch and execution, so it’s no surprise that people choose to go to the unofficial daytime parties to see bands rather than hear panels debating the same topics which have been debated year in and year out. While I still might go to one or two panels during the event, I stopped paying attention to this side of the festival back in 2007. Judging by this review and my own experience at a really annoying and terribly nostalgic panel about the future of music magazines, I made the right decision. That’s a disappointing outcome for someone who’s a big fan of talking heads’ shows, public interviews and panel tittle-tattle, but SXSW seemed to stop caring about that side of things so I just went along with them.
So, what’s the prognosis as SXSW heads to its 30 birthday? There’s no doubt that the scope exists for the conference to continue to grow and expand, but is that growth and expansion with the inevitable increase in visitors really a good idea and in the best interests of the festival? Over the last few years, the festival has been on an unprecedented growth spurt but there’ll come a time when that peaks and it becomes about sustainability. The festival is never going back to the old days when the music execs gathered for an annual chinwag and signed bands they saw in some dive bar on Sixth Street. Bands simply don’t arrive as unknowns in Austin and leave as heroes. Instead, every single buzz act at SXSW 2015 had been spotted and pitched and trailered in advance. That’s the new reality.
However, for all that, there’s still a charm to SXSW’s music strand which draws you back. Part of it is the city of Austin and part of it are those random sightings and soundings which only happen here. Like seeing a great act like Kristin Diable playing a blockbuster show in a charity shop yard on South Congress. Like seeing the biggest queue of the weekend, a queue which stretched up and down and up and down again Red River, at the K-Pop night. Like seeing a bunch of new bands all weekend long display great potential. It’s those things which remind you of why you’re here and why Austin still casts a spell every spring. The task for SXSW is to get those elements back in the headlines rather than the narrative being all about wanting fries with that.