I’m not at SXSW this year.
Am I mad? Not really. My FOMO is negligible...although Austin in March is splendid, and hey, a jillion bands, and my lovely colleagues. And barbecue and beer! Add in that I have a lot of friends and family there, my Dad was born there, and there are few places on earth where I feel as at home. I hit it last year with my management clients and good friends blondfire. We had a blast.
In past years, I had amazing nights running around with the likes of Foster the People, Ryan Adams, The Ting Tings, Holly Golightly, and too many more to count. I’ve been there for the music, film and interactive fests, and for the nascent comedy stuff. I'm not saying I'm Forrest Gump, but I've been there for nearly every iteration of the festival, at every level. Add to this the fact that my father was born and raised in Austin, and that I have been visiting family and friends there since childhood, and, well, you get the idea.
So me not being in Tejas for the gathering kinda hurts my heart. But it’s cool. It’s an opportunity to reflect, at a remove, on SXSW and its place in the world.
I attended my first SXSW of many in 1999. I had just started at Bug Music, my first real job in the music business (after years in a band, which doesn’t count as a job or being in the music business). As the millennium wound down, SXSW was entering its 13th year, only 6 years removed from its modest origins at the Hyatt. The inaugural 1987 confab attracted about 700 attendees. Roughly, the capacity of Antone’s.
By ‘99, thousands attended. Yet SXSW remained a relatively low-key affair, comprised on one side of striving independent bands trying to get a deal, and on the other of cynical A&R weasels -- a term that I don’t hear much anymore and honestly kind of miss -- looking for the next pot of gold to glom onto. You’d mark up your printed festival guide with your priorities and backups, load up on tacos, and head out for the evening, hoping to maybe discover something. That year, I saw lots of great music, as many as 16 acts a night. One of my favorites was Iceland’s Bellatrix, who got some modest heat coming out of the fest, only to fade and break up a couple of years later. I still remember 'em, anyway.
As to the festival’s other components, the conference offered up panels and a keynote. That’s about it. The keynote speaker that year was Lucinda Williams. There were no “day parties,” with the exception of a Bloodshot Records’ barbecue at Yard Dog on South Congress, with an art show by Jon Langford (to this day, I still kick myself for not buying one of his pieces). Mostly, day time was for sleeping off your hangover from the night before, and maybe struggling your way onto Congress for some migas con queso at the late lamented Las Manitas.
Most incredibly for anyone newer to the festival, there were no marquee names in town. Not one single artist or band that had sold more than a few thousand records. The biggest names that year were Spoon, the Flaming Lips, and a handful of relatively new acts that would become marquee names, including Neko Case, Death Cab for Cutie and Queens of the Stone Age. (It was a pretty great year.)
The biggest moment of that year’s festival, Lucinda’s ripping keynote and QotSA’s killer Emo’s showcase notwithstanding, came on Saturday afternoon. A buzz rippled through town. Tom Waits was in Austin for a surprise show at the Paramount Theater. A real bona fide legend! Everyone scrambled to get a spot in line. The Chronicle named it the best show of the entire year in their annual wrap-up.
That billing seemed impossibly quaint a few short years later. In 2009, Metallica would play for 2,000 fans at Stubb’s on the second night of the by-then-4-night-long music festival. They were not promoting a new album, but a partnership with the video game Guitar Hero. Lines snaked around the block and down towards Sixth Street. For a solid two days and nights leading up to the show, the band’s set dominated most conversations on the street and in bars...until the next night, when Kanye West dropped in for a surprise show, and everyone buzzed about THAT.
There wasn’t much buzzing about any new or undiscovered talent, though.
Every year, the list of platinum superstars has grown. With them came brands. And the day parties. And the branded day parties. At some point about a decade ago, the film festival -- which launched in 1994 and built a solid reputation launching acclaimed documentaries like the Oscar-nominated “Spellbound” -- became a launching pad for major studio comedies and genre films, including “Knocked Up,” the “Evil Dead” reboot, “Bridesmaids”, and “Ex Machina.” The interactive festival, which started in ‘94 as part of the film festival before splitting off into its own 2-day gathering the following year, continued to grow at a mind-blowing pace. It now eclipses the music festival in terms of registrants, with an accompanying music aspect to it that has effectively turned the entire 10 days into a music festival (including the actual music festival, and its numerous official and unofficial offshoots).
Now, the interactive festival alone sprawls across 5 days with more than 30,000 registrants. The music festival draws more than 28,000. Film, a robust 16,000. The star quotient of attendees has reached an unsurpassable zenith, with keynote speakers including Bruce Springsteen and last year, Michelle and Barack Obama. More than 150,000 folks who aren’t registered for anything just show up for the party. Various venues offer up a wide range of entertainment and brand-backed free food and drink.
The shadow festival that grew over the years has merged with the festival, been co-opted by it, overwhelmed it and become something else altogether. Downtown Austin is choked with tens of thousands of people at the festival’s peak, compounded by the convergence of St. Patrick’s Day and college spring break season. All rivers flow into the sea. SXSW is an ocean.
It’s still exciting, but also kinda depressing. And occasionally terrifying.
The 2014 festival saw a genuine tragedy occur on its final night when a drunk driver plowed down Red River, killing four. Less tragic, but troubling in other ways, were the growing cries that the festival had resolutely lost the plot, that its mission as a discovery platform had not just faded, but been obliterated. To wit, Lady Gaga played a Dorito’s-sponsored show at Stubb’s that week. It was hard to tell what ticked fans and pundits off more: that a major pop star with nothing new to promote or offer was taking up space?; or was it the crass tie-in with a salty junk food brand?; or that as part of her show, she had a professional vomiter spew chunks on her as she straddled a mechanized bull? Gaga became the face of a festival that had grown beyond its founding vision into an unrecognizable behemoth. Covered in multi-colored puke.
The good news in all this is that the music business clearly ain’t dead. I guess we should all be thankful about that, though it was never in doubt. Still, the tradeoff that the too-big-to-fail aspect of SXSW represents can be debated. Established artists backed by multinational corporate brands have every right to use SXSW as a platform for promoting their new releases and tours. But that can be seen as taking up all the oxygen in the room while undiscovered bands struggle to get to Austin, let alone get people to come to their paltry competing showcases. Add to this that many of the "new" artists in town playing multiple showcases and day parties are backed by major labels, publishers, booking agencies, and brands themselves.
So, just how are the genuinely independent artists supposed to break through all that noise in Austin as they try and launch their careers?
It’s never been an easy road for any musician trying to make it in an ever-more competitive landscape. SXSW festival bookers do a fantastic job of programming those artists in where they can, and good on them. There are plenty playing venues all over town. Will anyone see them?
If you find yourself wandering down Sixth Street this weekend, I hope you take a chance on some of that truly unheard music. You might strike gold.
If the band sucks, there’s always tacos.