Good vs. Evil: The Inner Struggle of SXSW

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".

"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.

* * *

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.

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