SXSW 2014: It’s Not the Same Old Texas Music Festival

Mikael Wood
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

The biggest act scheduled to perform this week at the annual South by Southwest music festival is also one of the biggest acts in the world.

On Thursday, Lady Gaga will take to the outdoor stage behind Stubb’s for a concert sponsored by Doritos, which is temporarily renaming the barbecue joint #BoldStage (after its line of flavored tortilla chips) and requiring would-be showgoers to complete one of several so-called bold missions to get inside.

Yet Lady Gaga won’t be the only A-list artist — nor Doritos the only blue-chip brand — at SXSW, running through Sunday in Austin, Texas.

Schoolboy Q, the L.A. rapper whose album currently sits atop the Billboard 200, is to perform several times, as is Damon Albarn, whose band Blur headlined Coachella last year.

And two of the most successful groups in rock — Coldplay and Imagine Dragons — were on a bill Tuesday assembled by Apple’s iTunes, the most powerful music retailer on Earth.

In sharp contrast, SXSW started in 1987 as a way to showcase new talent for members of the music industry. Acts came to find a record deal or a manager or a booking agent.

Today, though, the festival — which now includes separate portions dedicated to film and technology — “straddles the line between being an industry event and being a consumer event,” said James Minor, the festival’s general manager.

And for musicians, it offers the chance to develop increasingly valuable relationships with brands, which last year seemed to loom as large in Austin as labels once did.

Prince played for Samsung and Justin Timberlake for MySpace. Doritos even got Public Enemy to perform inside a 62-foot-tall mock-up of a vending machine.

Bigger names — both artists and sponsors — attract more people. In 2013, more than 25,000 people registered to attend the music portion of SXSW. Yet an estimated 325,000 swarmed Austin over the course of the week-long festival.

The escalating corporate presence has turned off some.

In his keynote address March 7 during the festival’s interactive segment, author Austin Kleon asked whether SXSW had gotten too big, a question sure to reverberate through the end of the week.

And some brands, wary perhaps of an eroding cool factor, are notably missing this year, such as Citi, which in 2013 presented a much-discussed concert by Dave Grohl’s Sound City Players at Stubb’s.

Still, for many, bigger means only better.

Gary Kemp, whose band Spandau Ballet is to screen a documentary and play its first American show in decades at SXSW, said the festival offers too many opportunities to turn down.

“We’ve got our record company from L.A. in town, our English record company in town, film distributors we’re trying to sell the movie to in town,” he said. “You can kill all those birds with one stone? It’s a no-brainer.”

Though major labels have largely ceased viewing the festival as a place to ferret out undiscovered talent — that’s done more efficiently on the Internet now — SXSW still presents a “unique” chance to put up-and-coming acts in front of the “gatekeepers and tastemakers” who gather there, said Greg Thompson, executive vice president of Capitol Music Group.

“We take our new artists and introduce them to the world,” he said. “It’s kind of a showcase of the future — but the future of acts that are already sort of in the game.”

To his point, among the Capitol acts set to perform at SXSW this year are English singer Sam Smith, who last month won the U.K.’s equivalent of a Grammy Award, and Mary Lambert, who co-wrote Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ hit “Same Love.”

Charles Chavez isn’t there to showcase an up-and-comer, but — like Lady Gaga, whose last album was widely perceived as a flop — to finesse the image of a superstar.

The chief executive of the talent management firm Latium Entertainment has his client Pitbull in Austin as part of the iTunes Festival. The five-night fest-within-a-fest will also feature Coldplay and Keith Urban, among others, in gigs to be streamed online and later made available for replay in the iTunes Music Store.

“People might say, ‘Man, I’m so tired of Pitbull,’” Chavez said, referring to the Cuban-American rapper’s presence on Top 40 radio and in advertising for Bud Light and Dr Pepper. “But once they see him perform, with the energy he brings, they’ll say, ‘Now I get it.’”

Amy Doyle, an executive at MTV responsible for overseeing the network’s annual Woodie Awards at SXSW, is similarly mindful of the festival’s growing regular-folks faction. In 2011, MTV moved the college-themed awards show to Austin from New York to capitalize on the talent already in town for other commitments.

But the event itself, she added, is designed “for fans,” not members of the industry. “That’s the prism through which we create the Woodies.”

Yet some brands at SXSW seem eager to reach insiders.

This year, Airbnb, the online vacation-rental service, is partnering with Capitol for what the company’s Amy Curtis-McIntyre called a “pop-up installation”: sample dwellings of the kind Airbnb users might rent, decorated in this case by artists such as Snoop Dogg and Capital Cities.

Being at SXSW, Curtis-McIntyre said, exposes Airbnb to the “media-savvy influencer crowd” that brands covet. And the artists cement a bond with a company that may call again — an appealing prospect at a moment when licensing a song for use in a commercial often provides a bigger payday than selling CDs.

“Who knows where this could lead next?” Curtis-McIntyre said. “Does Snoop design a collection of doghouses for us?”

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