Austin, Film, Music, Pop Culture, Writing

Has SXSW Music Gotten Too Big For Its Britches?

SXSW crowd



Well, SXSW is over.

We all survived.

We had a busy week with our film, Loves Her Gun. I won’t bore you with the details, but if you’re interested in reading reviews, awards etc. that the film received, check out our Facebook page.

Participating in the film portion of the festival spoils you. It’s contained and organized, no unofficial events surround it and you casually run into peers and friends within the Austin film community and beyond. It is always a pleasure and a treat to experience this part of the festival.

I could tell the second that SXSW Film and Interactive had ended and Music began when we tried driving out of our neighborhood. Living on the eastside now means you co-exist with official and unofficial music events. No longer do you have to live a couple of blocks east of downtown to experience this; you can live as far as a few miles away to feel the effect. The story I’m about to tell you I already shared on my Facebook page, so I apologize if you’re already familiar, but I feel that it is an appropriate metaphor to what I and probably a few others have been feeling.

As we waited in standstill traffic on East Austin’s Chicon Street, we decided to take a detour down a side street; we needed to go west, but the only way to get there was to go east and zigzag back. A SUV behind us had a similar idea and blew past us and the traffic and down the side street we were about to take. Already skeptical of this car’s behavior, we trailed slowly behind it. We watched as it booked it down the road and then hit something we couldn’t decipher. Was it a garbage bag dancing in the wind? Was it a piece of tire? It took us a few seconds to register that it was a dog that had connected with the car and tumbled backwards. It tried to get up and then laid flat in the road. The owners came rushing out and both the woman who hit the dog and the occupants of our vehicle stopped to help.

I was paralyzed.

I couldn’t bring myself to get out of the car and face the impending reality. Thank goodness my boyfriend and our friend were able to stand by in case of need. If my services were needed I would have stepped up in an instant, but knowing that the dog was most likely not going to make it sent me into a panic attack (my way of dealing with death is not as fearless as others and I regret not getting out of the car, though I plan on leaving a note and flower for the owners of the dog). When I saw the owners shake the lifeless body to check if the dog was still alive and then heard them wailing, I had to look down. I was heartbroken, but most of all I was angry.

Though it technically wasn’t the woman’s fault who hit the dog (the dog wasn’t in an enclosed yard and it appears to have booked it into the street upon seeing another dog being walked), she was driving fast simply because she was impatient. We too were frustrated with the traffic, and though the dog could have run out in front of our car as well, I’m proud to say I drive like someone’s grandmother.

To me this summed up what SXSW Music has become. Careless, impatient behavior.

I saw the phrase “Remember, it’s not a race!” tweeted over and over again during the week.

Instead of wanting to catch the plethora of free live music that had taken over our neighborhood, I wanted to run as far away as possible. I wanted to sprint from the spring breakers who could care less about our city, the hipsters who feel entitled and the impatient local and out-of-town drivers who made the roads dangerous.

What I’m saying is nothing new and leaving the lips of more and more locals every year.

And each year it keeps getting worse.

I’m the most liberal person you could ever meet who typically doesn’t believe in regulation, but I’m starting to wish/pray/hope that the city regulates the unofficial events that circule the music portion. This wonderful festival is being eclipsed by the marketers catering to teenyboppers, the club kids and the money spenders. It hasn’t been about discovering new talent in a long time and it is alienating the locals who have helped support it through the years.

Maybe I’m sounding like an old-timer, but I’m scared. Scared of what the music festival and city is turning into.

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  • Reply dan solomon March 18, 2013 at 11:44 am

    You do sound like an old person! SXSW was never really about discovering new bands — not in any real way. I mean, plenty of people DO discover new bands, but the days when a band could pull up to Austin for a showcase at SXSW, get “discovered,” and end up launching an exciting new career are mythical. Maybe it happened a handful of times, but it was really always about playing shows to build career momentum and hobnob with people in positions of influence. Whiskeytown got signed at SXSW, yeah, but they did it after being on everybody’s radar for almost a year, you know?

    It’s true, and weird, that the festival is as much about seeing Prince and Justin Timberlake as it is about seeing someone new and not already extremely famous, but I’m not really sure what we lose with that. Most people weren’t at Prince and Justin Timberlake on Saturday night, you know?

    Like you, I have a lot of opinions about the festival, and what it’s become. But I think that the handwringing about it is also a game of telephone that people are playing. My first SXSW was in 2001; I was just a little dude trying to help his friends’ bands get famous, and I quickly learned that it doesn’t work that way at all. It still doesn’t — there’s just more money involved now, and there are a lot of people questioning what that money means.

    I mean, I am sorry about the dog and everything, but SXSW has never been what people want to believe it was. I agree with you that it’s a giant party that sometimes feels like it’s out of hand, but when you consider how many people were here, how much money was being spent, how many once-in-a-lifetime opportunities were being offered, etc, it’s actually amazing that it wasn’t more of a mess. Nobody died; the arrest reports were not sensational; nothing blew up or collapsed. Traffic was bad, people were annoying and rushed around a lot, and a dog that was running loose got hit by a speeding car. I’d have to mark that as a relative win.

    (That said, I have my own hand-wringing to do, but it’s about totally different things.)

    Anyway — congratulations again, sincerely, on the success of Loves Her Gun. I’m so psyched for you guys.

    • Reply hipstercrite March 18, 2013 at 11:52 am

      Thanks, Dan! I guess I’ve been hanging out with too many old-timer musicians who have been doing SXSW since the beginning. And yes, some of these sentiments are telephoned from them. I get the impression that at one time it was about discovering new talent though…?

      • Reply dan solomon March 18, 2013 at 12:09 pm

        Maybe in the early 70’s, when Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings would play the Starbucks stage at the Armadillo World Headquarters during SXSW, and toss full sheets of acid out into the crowd stamped with the Doritos Locos tacos logo on the face?

        I mean, yeah, it was about discovery at one point, because nobody famous wanted to come to Austin to play it. But that was a long-ass time ago, when SXSW didn’t mean all that much. (And even then, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Joe Ely probably got the most attention.) For at least the past fifteen years — most of the life of the festival — SXSW has been a place to build career momentum, not a place to launch a career. The fact that the music industry works so vastly differently today than it did in years past means that the path to momentum is very different.

        But, like, Kendrick Lamar’s SXSW 2012/2013 is really almost exactly the same as Whiskeytown’s SXSW 1996/1997, you know? The idea that you could just stroll into a bar and see a band suddenly getting famous before your eyes is a lot of nostalgia for a time that never really existed — or that existed so briefly that it’s absurd to think that it’s the definition of how the festival is supposed to be.

        Everybody has their own idea of what SXSW is, or was. (Giant fucking namedropper alert) I was talking with Pusha T last week about his experiences at SXSW, and he told me that he was the first rap artist to EVER play the festival, back in 2005. Which is totally absurd — MC Overlord probably played in year one, and regardless, he (and a hundred other rappers) had certainly played a dozen times before Pusha T ever set foot in Austin. But people love the idea that they have some ownership over the festival, and really want to believe that the experience of what SXSW was like the year that they discovered it was the definitive day of the festival.

        It’s an evolving thing. It’s not static, was never meant to be static, and can’t be static to be worthwhile.

        And, I mean, here is the other thing: All of this is temporary. There will be a year when SXSW is much smaller than in the previous year, and the year after that it will be smaller still. Big bands will stop coming. People will stop basing their vacations around it. It will eventually become a thing that used to be cool. This actually is the heyday of the festival, because nothing stays cool forever — I hope that it has a number of years left, not least because I make a shitload of money covering it and would like to continue being able to do that — but there will be a time when nobody gives a shit about SXSW anymore. That’s how it happens for everything. While it’s here, I’m happy to watch as it grows into whatever it grows into next.

    • Reply Kirsten March 23, 2013 at 9:19 pm

      I’m not as in the know about all the goings on and frustrations of SXSW since a I live in San Marcos but being an avid music lover and a broke college kid it offers so much to me. What most new comers don’t realize about southby is how easy it is to take the bus or even walk! For me, half the fun is just walking around seeing the beautiful city and people watching. I can totally understand the frustration of austinites at the craziness surrounding the festival but you gotta admit it’s pretty amazing that Austin can pull off something of that size. Also I just now stumbled across this article coincidently on FB after reading your review of Austin thrift shops this morning good stuff!

  • Reply Jesse March 18, 2013 at 11:52 am

    I love SXSW, but it seems like each year there are more events done with less care… and more events that locals and non-industry people can get into. I don’t expect to see Prince or Justin Timberlake for free, but not being able to get in to see Austra or Charli XCX is ridiculous. As I always say about ACL, if we are to endure the Dorrito-fication of downtown, Austinites should receive discounted tix.

  • Reply Will Semons March 18, 2013 at 12:09 pm

    I completely agree.
    This is an awful instance of what SXSW has become.
    I was lucky enough to see lots of great, free shows this week, mostly during the day. I opted to not get a badge/wristband, since the day time offers it all for less.
    Plus, the secret show chasing, celeb stalking, overly saturated sponsored events have lines that completely defeat the point of what SXSW is about.
    I was able to get into Fader Fort, with the help of a friend, but was turned off once I was inside. The line was almost a mile long to get in at 1pm on Sat. And the chance for free Jameson drinks/Budweiser and to barely see whoever was playing wasn’t worth it.
    I saw some of the best acts of the week in a small crowd, sometimes free beer/food, sometimes a nice venue and I didn’t have to wait in a line.
    It’s about exploration and discovery, not hoping to get in a line you’ve been in for 3 hours, in hopes they are still giving away free crap and maybe that tweet you read was accurate as to whom the secret headliner is suppose to be.
    I had a blast. Can’t wait for next year. Ready for a break from it. But I really hope the city starts to revamp the event. It’s turning into a shit show spectacle and less of a cultural event.

  • Reply adrian March 18, 2013 at 12:21 pm

    I don’t think I could agree more with Dan. He basically said everything I wanted to say…you do sound old! First off, congrats on your success with LHG…one of the many films i didn’t get to see because the film and interactive portion is so huge now. And, with events like Viceland, there’s still plenty of unofficial madness going on now, too. More than any year prior. I’ve been doing SXSW for 12 years now, and the film portion had grown into my favorite part. This year was a complete nightmare though. Bad sound, crowded theaters, late screenings, and TWO HOUR LINES. Seriously, with a platinum badge, I waited an hour and a half to see Spring Breakers, from a shitty nosebleed seat. I basically only saw one of the films I wanted to see for the same reason. Safe to say, the loss of Alamo Drafthouse South really hurt this year. Conversely, with all the extra parties going on during the music portion, I was able to see every band I wanted to see, twice. Sure, I waited in some annoying lines, but never anything close to what I endured during the film portion. I didn’t want to see Prince. I never try to go to the big name acts. And Charlie XCX played like twenty times, so if you missed her, you must have be doing something wrong… She played Fader for free. Anyway, I’m not complaining, too much. I just don’t think going to the film portion spoils you at all…unless you have a hugely successful film in it!! 😉

  • Reply David Watts March 18, 2013 at 1:20 pm

    It seems as though SXSW is a reflection of how Austin has grown as a whole. My first SXSW was in 1991. Most venues you could just walk in and out of, even the biggest shows.

    By ’95 you had to learn how to navigate the ebbs and flows of the crowds for the bigger name acts. But also by that same year, the nights when downtown used to be a ghost town during the rest of the year were gone too.

    As SXSW continued to grow, so did the satellite events which turned the whole center of the city into a concert venue.
    For years, Film and Interactive were just afterthoughts and the total number of registrants, panelists, showcasing artists, etc. was maybe 10,000 or so, but more recently Interactive has effectively swallowed the rest of SXSW (going from the smallest of the three conferences five years or so ago to triple the number of registrants in three years – 30,000 this year with more walk-up/last minute registrations than ever before), so what used to be quiet days (Friday – Tuesday) are now busier in many ways than the Music fest days.

    SXSW is held during UT’s spring break because that’s when the bars used to need business, but now it’s a spring break destination even if the majority of visitors don’t do any official SXSW events (last year there were an estimated 300,000 visitors – total actual, official SXSW attendees making up maybe 1/4 of that).

    And advertisers know that, so SXSW is no longer about bands, it’s about brands. I guess that’s why drunken idiots stand in line for hours and hours without hope of ever getting into some Perez Hilton event or whatever (the more “exclusive” – the bigger the crowd), because they want to glam onto what they think is important, and the shillers of products are right there ready to promote themselves. Meanwhile, there were plenty of other shows that I just walked in and out of.

    But to me that reflects a wider trend in our culture (people want something for nothing and feel entitled to it) and also is evidence of how our city has become something larger and more unwieldy than the medium sized state capitol that it used to be.

    But how do you put the cork back in the bottle, especially when it brings in something like $200 million in direct and indirect revenue to the city. Again, a lot of people think the same thing about Austin in general. Nobody asked us if we wanted to be the fastest growing city in the country, did they?

    Sorry for the ramble. I have worked on-and-off for SXSW for years (paid and volunteer) and know that the organizers struggle with these very issues, and contrary to popular belief, while they enjoy the success and prestige, they care about a lot more than money

  • Reply jenn March 18, 2013 at 3:56 pm

    I’ve been saying almost the same thing. It can’t just be that I’m getting old that I think the music portion of the festival has just gotten plain crazy. I had a friend describe the scene being like Mardi Gras.

    I did the music portion for many years, and mostly by myself. I switched over to film three years ago, and I couldn’t be happier. It’s just so much more civilized. The whole free party scene with the music festival has just gotten totally out of control. After sifting through the mayhem on Friday night, I vowed to not go back on Saturday unless I was with friends. I just didn’t feel safe. Those people wandering downtown aren’t looking for good bands to see. They’re just looking for free booze.

  • Reply Christine @ FLY FISH CHICK March 18, 2013 at 4:00 pm

    big is one thing. it’s lost its character. I agree the interior of the film festival is protected and, frankly, fascinating but the music fandango and the pop celebrities and paparazzi bloggers…I really cannot believe it’s Austin Texas. That said, CONGRATULATIONS on the success of your film!! makes it worth it right there

  • Reply James March 19, 2013 at 12:37 am

    “Scared of what…and city is turning into.” … those are the most telling words of the whole piece.

    The monster has already been born, just wait for the tentacles to grow.

    Sad to watch our “town” turn into other people’s city

  • Reply Corrin March 19, 2013 at 7:05 am

    I went the first year I lived in Austin and it was so overwhelming for me that I haven’t been back. I didn’t enjoy myself and didn’t like the behaviors that I saw. I now stay as far south as I can for most of March.

  • Reply grace b March 19, 2013 at 12:13 pm

    I was a volunteer this year for my first SXSW with the music portion. If I had known what would go down I NEVER would have signed up. I was first interested in the film so I managed to see two films via the rush ticket line. Maybe not the most convenient way but I was really psyched about it. My volunteering experience however was just sucky. After attending 3 mandatory meetings both of my volunteer shifts (8 hours each) was me standing around. The venue was over-saturated with volunteers the first night and the second (I blew off the 2 of my 3 shifts after writing an email to the coordinators-they and my guilt convinced me to go back) was just me and two other people. Plus afterwards I had to wait for rides at 2:30 AM on Congress and I was hit on/approached by some real creepers. I have never felt uncomfortable downtown alone before and that was a really jarring experience.

    Next year, I’d like to get a film wristband and try to see more films but honestly, I don’t need the excuse of a festival to see awesome musicians in Austin. Example number 1: Strange Brew, two blocks from my house.

  • Reply Mario March 23, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    This year was my first full SxSW experience and it too was not without complaints. First let me say I had a blast, the people and the music was great. I’ll be back next year, but a bit wiser.

    I live down the road in San Antinio, I can take the 75 mile trip like its nothing , doing. It 6 times during Sxsw. One reason was the absurd hotel/motel and even Vacation sharing prices. I know about supply and demand, but $1000 a nite where every other day same place can be had for $150 of less a night! That’s ROBERY. but that’s business.

    And the transportation in and around Austin was bad. Hopefully next year more ride shares will be working. And don’t get me started on parking. $20-30 and some were only for 5 hours.

    But besides this all I had a great time, just wish I could have gotten into more shows, I actually stood outside some just to hear the music, that’s what’s it’s all about after all, the music!

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