When the South by Southwest festival began its life in 1987, 177 bands appeared on 15 stages over several days in downtown Austin, Texas. This year, there were more than 100 stages, and some 2,300 acts performed.
The festival wrapped up on Sunday after five days of nonstop music, and one major tragedy – three people were killed by a drunk driver who ran his car into a crowd.
Back in 1987 – and for at least 20 years thereafter – the idea behind SXSW was for a struggling band to gain some attention from folks who might be able to help them. The festival was an industry showcase event, and there was a chance that doing well at SXSW could lead to some major synergies – record deals, new relationships with powerful booking agents, and the like. The word-of-mouth factor was a big deal, too, and could lead to support in various pockets of influence across the country.
This year, the most covered stories emerging from SXSW involve mega-famous, mega-rich pop superstars, the majority of whom performed at the behest of corporate sponsors.
The heart of SXSW still beats in Austin, but that beat is now obscured by the skull-rattling thump of corporate-sponsored pop and hip-hop, most of it performed not in Austin clubs, but on massive outdoor stages with full production spectacles, erected in parking lots. The most buzzed-about of these was a Doritos-sponsored Lady Gaga show, held outside of renowned Austin nightclub Stubbs. For the show, Gaga arrived on a barbecue spit, and later, encouraged performance artist Millie Brown to stick her fingers down her throat and vomit on her.
If this wasn’t gag-inducing enough, attendees – and anyone who felt like watching online, which is how I took in the bits of this year’s festival I saw – also were treated to Lady Gaga’s keynote address, during which she insisted that “Without sponsorships … we won’t have any more artists in Austin.” This was both absurd – the majority of the acts performing at SXSW were doing so without corporate sponsorships, and were more than likely sleeping on someone’s floor or in the van they drove across the country in for the privilege of playing the festival – and a testament to just how far SXSW has fallen over the years.
Writing in the New York Times, critic Jon Pareles pulled no punches. “The best thing Lady Gaga could have done for struggling bands would be not to steal the spotlight from them,” Pareles wrote, before going on to decry a state of affairs where attendees could hop from corporate pop gig to corporate pop gig and blow off the unknowns and up-and-comers completely.
Pareles put all of this in a broader context: “It was, in a way, the income-inequality debate carried into the realm of attention: The tiny fraction of a percentage of performers who have made it big were grabbing even more exposure away from the struggling majority.”
And yet, if one was determined to do so, one could easily have taken in dozens of non-corporate club shows of the sort that were once the very basis of the festival. Western New York concert promoter Donny Kutzbach has been going to SXSW for many years, and when I asked him what stood out this year, he never mentioned Lady Gaga.
Rather, Kutzbach celebrated “a lot of great stuff that’s (coming out of) Nashville right now,” including “Natural Child, who do a country-infused, ambling Southern rock that’s really infectious … sort of like the Allman Brothers and Waylon Jennings with a punk ethos.” Kutzbach also saw the Arkells and the Hold Steady several times during the festival – most of the bands that come to SXSW take the opportunity to play several concerts while they’re in Austin.
Like Kutzbach, Pareles wrote that he believes that the essence of SXSW still remains, even if finding it takes more determination and focus than it did in the past.
“Somewhere within the big, loud, heavily branded party that thronged the streets of downtown Austin from Tuesday through Saturday … there was still the core of what SXSW has done since 1987,” he wrote. “Provide exposure for striving musicians, many of them independent.”
So it’s still about the music, it seems. But only if you want it to be.