Good vs. Evil: The Inner Struggle of SXSW

“I waited in line for nearly two hours to meet Grumpy Cat. I had heard there were strict rules in place. One could get a picture taken with Grumpy Cat, but could not touch, hold, or play with Grumpy Cat. I got close, really close. But to my horror, they cut off the line when I was eight places away!!”

— SXSW Interactive attendee

“Hi Austin. F**k SXSW. There…I said it. Here, the music comes last. Five-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.”

— Zachary Cole Smith, DIIV, as posted to the band’s Tumblr page.

Justin Timberlake Will Headline the All-Star Conclusion of the Myspace Secret Shows, presented by Chevy: Multi-talented, Grammy and Emmy Award-winning artist Justin Timberlake just confirmed that he’ll be take the stage at the last Myspace Secret Show at SXSW on March 16 at the Coppertank Events Center. There are two ways to attend. The first is for fans on a first-come, first-served basis, but only to those who’ve connected to Myspace Secret Show artists, so get connected on the new Myspace now. The second is through a ticket drawing for SXSW Platinum and Music badge holders beginning now. No other credentials are eligible to enter these drawings.

— SXSW Press Release.

Since its inception in 1987, the South by Southwest Music Conference (SXSW) has attracted an eclectic collection of die hard music fans, new and emerging artists, and industry professionals to Austin, Texas. Artists willing to undertake a grueling gauntlet of showcases craved the opportunity to be discovered, hoping for a breakout performance that would generate glowing press, trigger a bidding war among record labels, and unlock opportunities with promoters. Industry veterans saw an opportunity to network, discuss the state of the industry, and test the mettle of unsigned bands. Fans were drawn by the romantic notion that a virtual unknown could strike lightning in a bottle.

Fast forward to the present and SXSW has become an economic juggernaut. The five affiliated conferences that make up SXSW (Music, Film, Interactive, Education, Environment) generated an estimated $190 million in economic activity for Austin in 2012, a 70% increase over 2010. But as SXSW has become an unqualified commercial success, has the Music Conference grown too big, in the process losing touch with much of its original vision? In part one of our closer look at the legacy of SXSW, we will examine the extent to which evolution of the SXSW music conference has mirrored changes in the music industry. In part two, we will focus on some of the major business issues discussed at SXSW, within the context of the current state of the industry.

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With the conclusion of another two weekends of the Coachella festival, an advance sellout of Lollapalooza, and the proliferation of an unprecedented number of outdoor music festivals, the music industry is hopeful that 2013 will represent a banner year for concert attendance. With digital sales of music only bringing in a fraction of the revenues from physical sales, and with customers largely listening to music through subscription services such as Spotify and Pandora, the industry has scrambled to identify other revenue sources to staunch the steady deterioration in sales revenue. Against this backdrop, the 2013 SXSW music conference featured a banner crop of headlining artists, led by first-time appearances by superstar veterans David Grohl, Green Day, and Depeche Mode, each the subject of a keynote session, augmented by orchestrated “surprise” appearances by the likes of Prince, Justin Timberlake, and the Smashing Pumpkins at special events staged by SXSW corporate sponsors. The top-heavy list of performers came on top of the more than 2,200 official performers appearing at official showcase events at over 100 venues, as well as several hundred other artists playing unofficial events. In this context, the presence of so many marquee artists and the round of speculation on who else might pop in triggers a scavenger hunt for celebrities that distracts attention from the emerging and breakout artists who could stand to benefit most from exposure at SXSW. In fact, there’s no more telling an indicator of SXSW’s transformation into a three-ring circus than a showcase slot for Cirque Du Soleil.

There are a number of ways to view SXSW’s growth. The most cynical response, voiced by those ranging from veterans nostalgic for a simpler experience to current artists chafing under the brutalist constraints of a 15 minute showcase slot is to simply cry “sellout”. Such a response overlooks the reality that much of SXSW’s expansion has occurred to benefit the fan, not the industry insider, as SXSW organizers encourage artists, their people, and corporate partners to make more events accessible to the non-badge holding attendee. Even if the net effect of a weighted down experience has been to drive more people to pony up for a full conference badge, SXSW does not seem to be overly protective of its paying customers. If SXSW were simply out to generate a windfall, it would take steps to protect its turf, throwing a fence around its proceedings and cracking down on unofficial events. Instead, SXSW seems to be taking a “more is better” approach, even if this results in a less tidy experience for all concerned. And even a claim that SXSW is less special than it once was is likely to come across as a petulant nit, to an outsider who has never experienced the opportunity to catch a grab bag of international artists playing at venues almost always smaller, relative to their drawing power (and the inverse of the festival concept of pushing artists before larger crowds). On the contrary, SXSW is encouraging day-parties and events to operate in SXSW’s midst, undercutting the need for attendees to purchase a badge.

A more sanguine view is that SXSW has encouraged the growth and expansion of the conference by accommodating other events because it tacitly recognizes that broader access and availability of music in its many forms, as a pure play product, embedded in other art forms, in support of a major brand campaign, is in the industry’s best interests and represents the future direction of the industry. While one cannot be sure what lies ahead for the industry, by widening the tent to accommodate the range of actors, SXSW is giving these actors room to operate and see what value they bring to the table.

The expansion has not occurred seamlessly or without growing pains. Some are waiting for the point when SXSW jumps the shark. For others, this point happened so long ago that it is futile to keep asking. Fader Fort set up shop 12 years ago, and its community within a community concept continues to hum along, spurring many others who have come and gone with the times. Whatever reception these events received in the past, they enjoy the blessing of SXSW, which claims the event as part of the SXSW experience and revels in off-campus events like that of a proud foster parent. Perhaps critically, many locals, who would seemingly be best positioned to level “not in my backyard complaints” about the festival’s sprawl, seem at peace and supportive of the expansion, citing the fact that the expansion has occurred gradually, in sync with the city’s own boom in employment and urban development. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that SXSW has cemented Austin’s reputation as a destination for music fans and a magnet for other events, spurring both the ACL festival and a variety of smaller activities like Fun Fun Fun that like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and other goodness, require christening in triplicate. The conference has been nothing if not adaptable, bending to accommodate additional attendees, bands, and showcases in recent years by adding an additional day of showcases, embracing the day parties, and expanding showcase locations to including newer venues on the city’s periphery.

While SXSW has continued its expansion from industry confab into the world’s largest musically-themed spring break street party, the untimely death of SXSW creative director Brent Grulke presented an opportunity for the tight-knit Austin music community to pay tribute to an individual credited with spearheading SXSW growth and development, from a regional music conference drawing 700 attendees in its first year to the mass media phenomena that draws an international audience of nearly 20,000 attendees. As an all-star group of Austin musicians, led by Alejandro Escovedo and the True Believers, a band mentored by Grulke, honored his memory in the way musicians do best, the all-star jam. Along with the personal tributes, 2013 represented an opportunity to take stock of SXSW’s development, against its already considerable legacy.

SXSW’s Mission

One of the most contentious issues that Grulke and his peers dealt with over the course of SXSW’s expansion from an event attended by 700 people to the nearly 30,000 who attend all of the branded events was a definition of SXSW’s mission. Grulke felt strongly that in weighing the balance, the conference’s primary purpose was to serve the music industry as opposed to music fans, a controversial position in its day. The debate seems fairly quaint today. SXSW has become a decidedly fan friendly experience for multiple segments. Austinites enjoy the opportunity, over a condensed five-day period, to hobnob with celebrities, industry insiders, and a cohort of concertgoers that would seem to be a music geek’s dream. Imagine gathering together the five most passionate or knowledgeable fans from any show one has attended, or the John Cusack/Jack Black caricatures depicted in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. Now imagine that .01% from every show coming into Austin and being at every show during your five-day visit. Boundless joy or excruciating torture? All a matter of perspective. Though, not unlike attending a DIY show in Brooklyn, seeing an equipment or monitor issue, and instantly seeing a dozen or so people at any show who have vetted the liner notes and can either nod silently in sympathy or rally to help out a fellow artist in need.

While SXSW has clearly become a windfall for the fan, it has become much less of a practical setting for the industry veterans. SXSW is still a valuable way to reflect on trends in the industry and for aspiring artists, learn from one’s peers. But due to its sheer scale, SXSW is much has less suited to any deep or meaningful contemplation or resolution of the global problems facing the music industry. Nor is it a necessary, or sufficient laboratory to audition raw talent. SXSW Interactive has evolved towards this type of navel gazing. But SXSW Music seems much more focused on panels that largely are self-help in nature, and in the “this is your life” career retrospective before appreciative audiences.

SXSW capacity to track the ‘new’ new thing

But even as SXSW embraces the mainstream and allows the industry and its corporate partners to self-consciously embrace commercial opportunities, the conference continues to support one of the beautiful forces at work in the new DIY environment: the proliferation of artists who continue to work at the bleeding edge, representing the next wave of innovation. As originally conceived, SXSW seemed suited to aiding in the discovery of new artists, given the ideal combination of a musically literate host city, the presence of many fellow artists, industry and media involvement, and international attention. The excitement of tracking the “new” new thing seems to be in SXSW’s DNA, perhaps because the conference came of age at a time when the major label system began to fracture.

SXSW was on hand to witness the fragmentation of the industry’s attempts to place listeners into a demographic box. As the major label system attempted to patent an “alternative” rock format, underground listeners sought out electronic music, popularizing genres that not only claimed a larger footprint at indie festivals such as Lollapalooza (to the chagrin of David Grohl, self proclaimed defender of the garage experience, who famously scolded a headline audience as a stream of fans migrated towards Perry’s stage during his set), but spawned a recent growth in EDM festivals. As hip-hop became more embedded in the mainstream, square-jawed contingents such as Jay Leno began throwing out Snoop Dogg references, Dr. Dre emerged as one of the music industry’s must successful tycoons, Jay-Z and Beyonce became the celebrity-power couple next door, and old school rappers settled into their day jobs solving crimes on network television. Meanwhile, an impatient fan-base sought the next thing. 2011 and 2012 saw a fascination with mix-tapes as the post-internet generation rewarded homegrown artists such as Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky, and Grimes.

Having grown up in a dynamic environment, where not only genres, but prevailing business models seem to fall in and out of favor, has perhaps worked in SXSW’s favor. SXSW seems engineered to adapt to whatever new challenges emerge to buffet the music industry. The SXSW’s fluidity is represented to in the nature of its programming, which simultaneously celebrates past, present and future. While a cutting edge listener base continues to attempt to stay a half step ahead of the industry, SXSW has benefited from an acute ability to be very much grounded in the industry, but also open to reinvention. After spending several years agonizing and hand-wringing, SXSW seems to be embracing the decentralized and confounding musical landscape by opening its doors to all comers. SXSW’s nimbleness is best demonstrated in comparing how it has responded to perceived challenges on its own home turf.

Several years ago, CMJ discovered, much to its chagrin, that much of its core constituency (college radio programmers and consumers of cutting edge music) were no longer dependent upon CMJ as the primary source of information, but turning to indie blogs and the artists themselves for information. To add insult to injury, Pitchfork famously hijacked CMJ by cherry-picking many of the same indie artists scheduled to appear at CMJ, and booking many of the same in-demand artists into a single showcase at Brooklyn Bowl. Attendees who had already invested over $400 for a CMJ badge were frustrated to learn that these same artists could be seen at the Pitchfork showcase for a mere $10. CMJ was understandably steamed at what is perceived as a shot across at the bow and publicly objected. Pitchfork pleaded no contest and has since maintained a lower profile.

For years, SXSW has seen a similar intrusion in Austin, the progressive annexation of land and set up of day party stages by publications, commercial entities, and third parties that draw upon the same critical mass of attendees, in much the way that non-paying corporate brands will squat on terrain adjacent to major events such as the Olympic Games and set up shop hoping to draft on the event without being a major sponsor. SXSW’s response? An order to cease and desist? Hardly. SXSW, to its credit, not only understands its own place in a newly decentralized environment, but celebrates it. SXSW embraces off-shoots like the Fader Fort and the Hype Hotel, the gathering of indie blogs, and day parties as Brooklyn Vegan as part of the show. SXSW seems to appreciate that the in-migration of publications, brand sponsors, and internet age blogs only increases SXSW’s mindshare in mass media. SXSW’s own adaptability has proven to be a plus in terms of becoming both more fan friendly and being more flexible in embracing the DIY environment. Just don’t expect SXSW, or the other major event tasked to uncovering the cutting edge (CMJ), to play an exclusive role in breaking new artists, given the breakneck speed at which new artists go viral. But the dueling forces debated upon by Grulke and his peers have been overtaken by a third master: corporate branding.

The Commercialization of Music: The Industry’s Saving Grace?

The new reality of the industry, that musicians weren’t getting paid for selling their music and consumers have largely resisted a variety of approaches to monetize revenue flows (a quasi-scientific term for turning the listener upside down and shaking the change from their pockets), has necessitated a new set of practices seeing the light of day as conventional wisdom. First, giving your music away pays off in the long run, as the die hard fans will buy and buy and buy. They may even fund your next project and pay you to come play their kitchen. Second, “selling out” is not a bad thing. It’s not even a thing. Objecting to sell outs is for squares. See Moby, the Twilight series, Grey’s Anatomy, and Dancing with the Stars for reference. SXSW seems to welcome reinvention, even if the by-product of welcoming the latest stage in “creative destruction” may be to undercut its own distinctiveness. What happens if the next stage in musical evolution is not continued differentiation and pursuit of the cutting edge, but convergence, co-opting, and assimilation?

SXSW understands the music industry’s embrace of commercial partners. In an environment where consumers are less willing to pay purely for music, the industry has adapted by understanding that the path to cost recovery involves embedding music in other products and then deriving a share of those sales through licensing or syndication. Paradoxically, what has allowed the SXSW to quickly pivot and adapt to changes buffeting the music industry has been SXSW’s own emphasis on expanding to encompass the other related disciplines of film and interactive, along with its own proactive emphasis on exploring opportunities for convergence across these disciplines. The selling of music through ad placement, licensing to TV pilots and film scores, or video entertainment is hardly an intrusive concept for a conference that has been tracking developments across the music, film, and interactive industries.

By Embracing Commercialization, Does SXSW Undercut Its Own Indie Roots?

Yet, as gracefully as SXSW has accommodated expansion, there can be too much of a good thing. For years, veteran festival goers and local Austinites would sound the alarm about this being the year that the festival got too big. The vast extent of cameo appearances has reached a point that celebrity artists dispense with the pretense of spontaneous surprise appearances, simply planning from the get-go to use SXSW week as a platform for unleashing a new project, almost always through funding by a corporate branding partner. SXSW represents the paradox of a music industry that cries foul and continues to flounder with finding a sustainable revenue stream while continuing to push a “more is better” approach to overloading festival and conference bills with more artists than one can realistically expect to consume in a single sitting.

The perils of expansion, as perceived by many long-time attendees, is that despite the allure of Austin’s rich musical history and the added treat of a shared musical experience within a community of artists, fans, and music insiders that share a common bond in music appreciation, SXSW ceases to be a unique event for uncovering independent and emerging artists. The fear is that SXSW will become just another major event on the entertainment calendar, attracting an ever expanding group of festival-goers, and with it, an expanding network of entertainment and corporate conglomerates seeking to utilize the event as a branding opportunity.

The pros and cons of SXSW’s expansion can be mapped out as follows:

Pros:

What was once a boon for fans has become an embarrassment of riches, especially the casual fans. In much the same way that buffet-style options at summer music festivals have drawn a new segment of music fan and an impressive value for the thrifty, the sheer quantity of artists at SXSW over a condensed time period is confounding. Just when the conference’s footprint has grown to seemingly unsustainable levels, it expands further.

SXSW continues to stress largely showcase driven performances, presenting attendees with an unprecedented opportunity to see major artists on a smaller stage, even if the compression of showcases into a tight calendar means a shorter set. Given the abundance of artists, opportunities to see artists at small clubs and venues that would hardly seem possible. Last year, Jack White played a succession of small sets while Bruce Springsteen and the E street played a rare small theater at ACL Live. This year, Prince, Justin Timberlake, and Depeche Mode played small venues.

A bigger, wider audience represents a greater opportunity for exposure for the young, and young-at-heart artists eager to run the gauntlet of showcases. A broader footprint might mean that workloads of six to eight shows, once the thing of urban legend, are the new norm, with the more enterprising artists maxing out at a dozen, or three a day.

Cons:

The overabundance of activity can be overbearing and may ultimately diminish the opportunity for artists to be discovered, as they compete to be heard among a cacophony of different artists. While scaling up the number of artists and venues in direct proportion to the number of fans should work in theory, the practical result, aside from the added gridlock, is a diminished experience for all. Fans become less discriminating, given an abundance of choices. Too many choices and the consumer may simply shut down, electing to dismiss the lesser known for the known. Or simply spend the time seeking to gain entry into parties.

The overall qualitative experience, even for the well-prepared, well-rested, seasoned concertgoer is bound to be diminished when artists are stretched so thin. Fans are not likely to experience a representative experience from bands forced into 25 minute sets, with limited sound checks, playing twice a day and 6-8 times over the festival.

The point of diminishing marginal returns from seeing too many artists can soon give way to negative impact. Hearing the eighth band is not just too much, but one starts to detest the band by this point. Conversely, a band playing its eighth set in three days may also reach a breaking point. Fans giving the band their one and only shot may be catching the band in the least favorable light, and the combination of poor acoustics, an unruly crowd, and a middling performance can be enough to cement first and final impressions of the artist.

Naturally, the gulf between the current edition of the conference and its original vision is widest when viewed at either endpoint of a 27-year cycle. The original conference had the markings of a community street festival, as attendees had free reign after purchasing a $10 wrist band to participate in the top of a progressive club hop that one can still find, alive and well, in regional music festivals such as Denton 35, Portland’s MusicFest Northwest, POP Montreal, and the Northside Festival in Brooklyn. These smaller festivals share a critical characteristic of SXSW, not only featuring artists in small venues, but emphasizing local music clubs, hangouts, and pop-up music venues that allow attendees to experience the local culture. In years past, a visit to SXSW was never truly complete unless one took in local traditions such as the Continental Club or Antone’s.

Now SXSW is known as much for its parties and its freebies, a product of a mass media culture. In many respects, SXSW is simply a victim of its own success: a critical mass of attendees begetting more stuff, in turn attracting more people and so forth. Just as SXSW seems to reach a serious tipping point, as was the case two years ago,when incidents such a camera boom collapse at an OMD show at Stubb’s and unruly fence dodgers causing the city of Austin to mandate strict capacity and safety restrictions, the event spreads.

The current edition features the cacophony of evenings such as on Thursday when the mtvU Woodies award show, David Grohl’s Sound City gathering, and the LL Cool J-hosted Doritos sound machine all ran simultaneously, competing for mind share and blasting away at full bore. While one will not begrudge Mister Timberlake from holding court with a series of Myspace secret shows smack dab in the middle of town, pulling out the stops in giving his fans what they want, and offering up an attractive lineup of cutting edge talent to a mix of VIPs and new Myspace members, the shows have a bit of P.T. Barnum to them. Ditto for Yahoo’s party for Depeche Mode, with half the slots reserved for Yahoo corporate VIPs, such that only 200 slots were made available to SXSW attendees (how many of the 28,000 or so badge-holders applied for a shot is a mystery, though a subset of applications would make odds of getting into the show tantamount to that of earning admittance to Yale law school). Of all the corporate branding appearances, Samsung seemed to get it right, offering Samsung device holders first dibs at signing up for a Prince show lottery, while posting a variety of Easter egg treats that Samsung device holders could cash in by scanning their device on the applicable QC code.

SXSW’s embrace of the street party dynamics, by facilitating the music industry’s cultivation of an emerging market segment, works to the extent that the industry is careful not to cheapen its own brand. The music industry seems to be banking on the hope that large music festivals draw a different demographic, a customer segment that values community and the experiential benefits of being part of a larger scene, whether it be Coachella, Bonnaroo, the Fader Fort, or a Sunday afternoon street festival in Chicago’s Lincoln park featuring nothing but ’70s and ’80s cover bands. The risk the industry takes is that it’s not cheapening its brand or lowering expectations, and that festivalgoers will return as paying customers to catch individual bands that they saw in the summer when they return for a club date in the fall. SXSW seems to be willing to embrace the street parties, recognizing that its established base of music aficionados, fellow artists, and industry insiders continue to place value on the core showcases. SXSW should be able to manage the task of serving both types of customers, the hard core fan and the casual concertgoers, as long as it continues to recognize that the club-based showcases are the primary vehicle and doesn’t, over time, attempt to covert everyone into full-time festivalgoers.

SXSW’s Place in the New Musical Economy

Granted, the decreased reliance on SXSW as a means of discovery does not lessen the significance of a showcase opportunity for expanding an artist’s reach to new fans, potential business and licensing partners, and talent bookers. Artists need to be on their game, or at least on their best behavior. In the blur of showcases that an attendee takes in over a compressed 96-hour period, it’s much easier to recall the artists who flame out. It’s just that in an environment where artists and their people are out hustling 24/7/365, the stakes of having to “ace the showcase” are greatly reduced. For established acts, while SXSW presents a great springboard for a spring tour or to roll out a new album, artists can turn to festival opportunities and proliferation of late night talk shows.

While CMJ lacks the king-making role it once did to anoint the next big thing, this is more a reflection of how the music industry has evolved than on the festival itself, which seems much more squarely directed at focusing on its original core constituency: college radio programmers. While CMJ continues to excel in tracking emerging artists, the role of college and independent radio is greatly diminished by the DIY artist-driven culture and the preponderance of blogs, while the programmers themselves tend to rely on a variety of sources, including the very blogs that have diminished college radio’s role. SXSW still lays claim to providing a forum for emerging artists, but also has a much broader mandate, historically serving as a vehicle for comeback artists and hagiographic tributes to industry figures, as well as a platform for international artists.

The size and scope of SXSW also limits the ability of the conference to serve as convening body for the high-minded discussion of industry issues. This year’s SXSW conference seemed to have much more of a tactical bent, as much a product of the limited utility of beating these issues to death as well as a slight uptick in the industry’s prospects, which have forestalled the need for further fixations of a doom and gloom scenario. More meaningful industry chatter tends to take place at New Music Seminar in New York in summer, which limits number of actual showcases with the focus on substantive discussion and high level participation by industry executives.

While veteran SXSW attendees and a number of locals will grouse about what SXSW and the festival culture has wrought, the industry continues to attend dutifully, even as SXSW no longer plays a primary role in deal-making or convening industry thinkers on the state of the industry. The New Music Seminar, the antecedent to CMJ, plays the primary role in bringing together industry captains and pioneers. And a surprising number of locals encountered during the week seem at peace with the entertainment bazaar and pop culture spectacle that SXSW has become, appreciating the entertainment largess thrown their way and understanding their role as ambassadors to Austin’s music culture, even if driven-to-distraction out-of-towners experience less and less of the local music scene.

While there may be a reservoir of industry or artist angst at what SXSW has become, it’s something that SXSW has embraced. SXSW has remained relevant in part by understanding the shifting crowd-pleasing dynamics of the music industry, where music fans come to expect more things cheaply (if not free), and the tradeoff for a near-free experience lies in monetization of these relationships. And if the price of a sliver of a chance at a free opportunity to see Justin Timberlake at Myspace Secret Show sponsored by Chevy is to hand over personal information, like filling out the contest form at the dry cleaners, so be it. SXSW seems to at worst tolerate, and even silently encourage these sideshow events. In the grand scheme, SXSW stands to benefit from the largess driven by the presence of an ever-widening range of corporate brand partners.

Lessons Learned

So what do we have for entertainment? With SXSW and Coachella in the books and a concert season of more and more extravagant festivals, what can we expect? SXSW has expanded to an unmanageable scale, sure. But the size and scope and fast paced nature of the conference in many respects is simply a reflection of the music industry: fast-paced, viral, and densely populated. In the next part, we will examine some of the business issues against the backdrop of the current state of the music industry.

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