SXSW: The Good The Bad and The Ugly Fest

Photos: Nona Howard

What once began as a regional music festival that invited people to sample a local artistic community has become a spring break bowel movement and a corporate invasion that leaves the city blanketed in a cindering Dresden of bad faith branding.

SXSW 2013

City: Austin, TX
Date: 2013-03-17

I get no joy out of hating what SXSW has become. What once began as a regional music festival that invited people to sample a local artistic community has become a spring break bowel movement and a corporate invasion that leaves the city blanketed in a cindering Dresden of bad faith branding. Many of the locals leave town or shutter in, and when you stroll the streets, the devouring sprawl fills you with a sense of the impersonal. There is no intentionality here; this is an amusement park designed by The Terminator’s Skynet. SXSW is now a conference brand, a combination of “party school” and “power lunch”, where huge corporate entities descend into the city to use the media concentration to maximize their exposure. It’s money with artistic garnish.

SXSW has been a boon to our economy to the tune of $200 million a year. The profit argument gets deployed like unmanned drones any time anyone questions the SXSW corporation's profits, its use of volunteer staff or how much the city subsidizes it. It’s the guilt-laden rejoinder that almost sounds like a repurposed Kennedy classic: ask not what SXSW does for you, ask what more you can do for SXSW. And in the beginning, maybe the music festival did have great value and even love for the artists. It certainly catered to a classic version of that old stardom fable. Up-and-comers would scrape together the money for the cross country journey and the festival would provide that “moment” where some whiskied suit, with a pocket full of Faustian bargains, saw the next big thing.

If that argument used to be an insider’s punch line, 2013 made it public satire. Most of the media bandwidth and bad festival coverage focused on the huge pasha pop stars like Prince and Justin Timberlake, whose publicists rolled out kibble to media outlets, most of whom have more copy dogs than writers, who do more secondary publicity than they do coverage. I don’t care how much SXSW’s music festival makes for the city. I’m still broke, as are, I suspect, every other person who began the festival that way. The problem with the festival isn’t just that it’s rapacious, it’s that it’s ugly, not cool, and has absolutely no aesthetic or artistic virtue anymore. Don’t believe me? Listen to DIIV front-man Zachary Cole Smith who posted this on Tumblr:

Here, the music comes last. 5-minute set-up, no sound check, 15-minute set. The “music” element is all a front, it’s the first thing to be compromised. Corporate money everywhere but in the hands of the artists, at what is really just a glorified corporate networking party. Drunk corporate goons and other industry vampires and cocaine. Everyone is drunk, being cool. “Official” bureaucracy and all their mindless rules. Branding, branding, branding. It’s bullshit… sorry.

The entire multi-media tarantula gouges your senses if you have any kind of soul, if you actually value the creative work of artists. Cheese chips erect stadiums and the media recline in sponsored lounges watching bands that practically sweat the ink already expended in their name. Meanwhile, unknowns labor in bad venues with bad sound for a handful of the indifferent and wasted. If it’s simply about shaking down tourists with a low quality simulation of pleasure, then we should go all in - start a pickpocket charter school, The Fagin Academy, to make sure we don’t miss a dime of shakedown from our guests. We can use those homeless people our police chief has suggested be shipped to an outer city encampment because apparently they interfere with the new Austin money on its way to Design Within Reach. Let’s just rufi everyone, put a couple of party photos on their Flickr account, and send them home naked, making sure our precious revenue stream remains unpolluted by moral sentience. Let’s bleed every last penny from the sucker parade if that’s our only remaining civic duty.

Don’t get me wrong, I saw great bands, most of them at unsanctioned events for the unwashed. Let me anticipate the easy reply. People always press critics for positive solutions because it’s apparently not enough to shine a light on all the angles of something’s deep and unfailing suckage. Here’s mine. Destroy it. Take it apart. Refuse to play it officially and build your own event. Tourist dollars do not need to be filtered through unaccountable shadow money. When, out of curiosity, I asked SXSW’s Elizabeth Derzco how much profit the corporation makes, she said to me in an e-mail: “As a privately held company we do not make our financial statements public.” There is no justifiable social contract with a partner who doesn’t feel the need to come clean about the green. They shouldn’t be ashamed about the money they’ve made, unless, of course, for some reason, with unpaid staff, venues, and artists, there’s a reason they should be ashamed about the money they’ve made.

We need new festivals modeled on great events like Chaos in Tejas, which is still curated and lovingly designed with both the artists and fans in mind. This used to be a party that Austin threw for the country to showcase regional talent and then, even better, the talent of the world. Now it’s something hideous that locals endure, with our eyes closed, because we’re told that someone somewhere is getting rich. Nobody wants to rain on someone making it rain. My opinion doesn’t matter, the sands have already shifted. Dozens of bands I wrote to, asking if they were coming, replied that they had already done the math; it isn’t worth it. SXSW’s dissolution will happen without anyone lifting a finger; their greed will be their undoing.

With the snack food skyscrapers and the boy band royalty, they’re diluting their own brand by making the whole event a monstrous money sewer. Bands that endured this year with dust in their pockets will tell their friends, and people who love music will simply go to something better organized with a higher caliber of good times. It will take forever for something this overgrown to see the signs of its own undoing, to right its trajectory before it becomes the Branson, Missouri, of pop culture: unhip, old, shitty, and lame.

I did manage to smile once on that last day as I waded through partied people more vacant than zombies. At least zombies still hunger; they’re not pleasure bulimics generating social media about experiences they don’t actually show up for. My only mission that day was to make it to MC Sweet Tea, a lovely local loon, an emcee just as genuinely beautiful as this city I love and live in. She played in a gay dive bar at something that, according to the hand-markered posterboard, was called Ugly Fest. It was free, living unofficially under SXSW’s long, Mordor shadow. And it was cooler by miles than anything their millions and minions will ever put on. Please visit us, please support people making art, and please kill this beast because we’re too cracked out on revenue to have the dignity to do it ourselves.

MC Sweet Tea

MC Sweet Tea

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