Festival Of Broken Dreams? SXSW Ain’t What It Used To Be

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When the biggest news of the South By Southwest Music, Film and Interactive Festival, (SXSW) held annually in Austin, Texas is an onstage collaboration between Lady Gaga and a vomit performance artist, (Gaga as canvas) you have to wonder if the music and media conference is collapsing under its own weight. And if you’re old enough to remember when the conference was young…er hem…way back in the daywhen it was just music and you could hear Lucinda Williams play an intimate set of songs in a tiny venue, so close you could hand her a beer, you end up wondering if SXSW’s growth is necessarily a good thing; but you know the answer.

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There has been much discussion of Gaga’s Thursday night showcase at Stubb’s BBQ – not only that “vomit artist” Millie Brown vomited green paint on the singer, but also that the concert was sponsored by Doritos. The debate over whether Gaga had sold out to the corporate “man”, loomed large and was addressed Friday morning during Gaga’s one hour keynote interview with John Norris. Her remarks were peppered with the words “art pop”, (subliminal messaging?) and were followed by what could only be described as part millennial Timothy Leary-ism, part Sheryl Sandberg, “Don’t Sell Out…Sell In”. Explaining that without the corporations, there would be no artists at SXSW, since the record companies “don’t have any fucking money”, she was undoubtedly referring to the big name, mainstream acts who have descended upon the conference, not the fledgling acts who travel to the conference in vans, sleep on floors and subsist on a diet of Doritos and cheap BBQ, all in the pursuit of a dream – albeit a much more elusive one than ever before.

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My indie Americana band Jehova Waitresses, first showcased at the festival in 1991, showcasing and attending in subsequent years, (1992 – 95), and appearing on a SXSW affiliated public access cable TV show. (Remember those?) We traveled straight through, from Ohio to Austin in a beat up Dodge Ram van, stayed in a Motel 6, and spent the week at industry panels, picking up freebies and label compilation discs on the expo floor, shilling our own discs, shaking hands, by day, and by night, working the strip of clubs and venues checking out up & coming bands, from every region, as well as bigger name acts, which at the time, included the likes of Marshall Crenshaw, Lucinda Williams, and Cracker.  You could still rub elbows at the convention center with acts like Poi Dog Pondering and share a bill with Pete Droge and Grant Lee Buffalo at a place called Hole In the Wall, while Johnny Depp and Gibby Haines played pool in the back room and REM’s Mike Mills sat at the bar. There was not yet a film or media presence, and it was an opportunity for musicians and bands to gain music biz insight from industry insiders, get their music heard, network, hear music from all over, eat copious amounts of BBQ and basically partake of an enormous communal party, while escaping the cold March weather for sunnier Texas pastures.

The festival, which made its debut in 1987 with 700 registrants, is today, the largest music conference in the world, with a total number of registrants reaching the 12,000 mark. The organizers of New York’s New Music Seminar proposed a fusion of their conference with that of The Austin Chroniclenaming it SXSW - a nod to the Hitchcock film North By Northwest. In 1994, film and media was added to the agenda and the conference was renamed “SXSW Film and Multimedia Conference”. In 1995, the film and multimedia offshoots were split into separate entities, and finally in 1999 the multimedia portion of the conference was being touted as “Interactive”.

SXSW boasts a number of success stories; John Mayer’s showcase led to his first record deal, James Blunt was discovered by rocker Linda Perry of Four Non Blondes fame, Mashable and Foursquare were launched and Lena Dunham’s indie feature film debut Tiny Furniture was awarded Best Narrative Feature.

But arguably, the conference has become so large and mainstream – for instance, 1992′s keynote speaker was Michelle Shocked – that its original purpose of providing a much needed opportunity for regional indie bands to get in front of A&R label execs has all but been eclipsed by big media events like Gaga’s performance. Even in its earliest inception, it was, as my husband, Jehova Waitresses’ lead guitarist Kevin Roy, so aptly put it, “… like being a hooker hanging out in a hotel lobby with 500 other hookers waiting for one customer at the bar to finish his drink.”

Another friend who showcased this year weighed in on Facebook:

The odds have never been the greatest, but at a point when SXSW has grown to become so focused on the spectacle of promoting existing big name pop acts, has the indie artist ship sailed and chartered a course toward the same path as the music industry in general, which is to sail off into the sunset? At a time when the major labels have merged to only a few, and when the number of artists actually making any appreciable amount of money from the recording industry, when live arena shows remain the most lucrative form of income for the majority of artists, has the opportunity for as yet unknown artists all but vanished?

In short, has SXSW sold out?

The answer is a resounding “yes” on all counts. Friends who are showcasing at SXSW this year say that the competition is stiffer than ever, with a record number of bands vying for attention – from both industry types and audiences who eschew flyers and shows from smaller regional acts for a spot under the big media circus tents. What used to be a music festival whose mission statement was to bring new music to audiences and new audiences to music, the emphasis has shifted toward promotion of existing acts and media projects while the rest is left to the periphery.

As a proponent of the outsider and the quirky, Gaga maintains an “anti label, pro brand” stance, telling the crowd that she would retire if the industry atmosphere were ever such that she could not “be herself”, adding that she would happily return to the New York City club scene to perform her art for herself, somehow neglecting to note that it is now a dwindling scene in an industry where a larger number of acts are plucked from obscurity before they’ve ever had a chance to hone their act in a small live setting.

Maybe the focus of the conference itself from music to multimedia is a metaphor for the changing climate of music itself. Perhaps today’s unknown acts must rely on media like Youtube, ala Macklemore and Bieber to generate enough buzz to gain the attention of industry types, in an already over saturated market.

Whatever “Sell In” means to Gaga, gaining entrance, whether commercially or otherwise, has never been a more esoteric enterprise.

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Has SXSW sold its soul to the corporate Devil?

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About the author

Linda is a left handed, left brained, left thinking, humorist, writer, musician and mom whose husband swears she is the female Larry David. She'll criticize your parallel parking to prove it. She's a cable news junkie with a mad girl crush on Rachel Maddow. She blogs at elleroy was here, is a contributing editor at Aiming Low, writes song parodies for Funny Not Slutty and leads Indie Americana band Jehova Waitresses.