Music

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".

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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