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SXSW - A Bloated Stinking Corpse Do we really need a festival turducken?
by Amy Bugbee
Time and time again big business takes the joy out of art for the artist and the enthusiast, it becomes a product and a commodity, SXSW is a case in point. SXSW has been around a long time, 2012 makes year 26, and certainly back when it all began it was an amazing collection of bands from punk rock to singer-songwriters, and all points in between! It's first year it attracted over 700 attendees, and many great regional bands, today it is a music festival, a film festival and an interactive conference, which is now the largest segment of the 10 day barrage on the city of Austin, growing larger than the music festival that bore it.
Not that Austin is complaining, even as the "Live Music Capital of America" it is the largest event the city has, and last year alone it raised some $167 million in revenues for local restaurants, hotels, and other businesses. It is now visited by nearly 30,000 attendees, vendors, panelists and performers. It is a sacred cow for the city of Austin.
I have been lucky enough to see SXSW from a few different angles, of course I have never been an official attendee - I mean who has $1000 to spend on a badge? Not me, but apparently thousands of others do, yes. Most of the official festivities happen downtown at the convention center and along 6th street, where thousands of music and media industry types do what most people do at conventions, they "network", and then get wasted and act like fools.
About four years ago I got a gig breaking down the festival. I was on a year long road trip project called 'A Year At The Wheel' with my husband Shane, and we desperately needed some money. It was brutally hard work and I was stiff for about two days after, but it was an interesting look at the maylay, sort of anthropological, seeing the debris and vomit left behind by drunken white collar media types and PR gals - change seemed to be the constant on the floors of the clubs, lots of silver and copper change, and one place was covered with packages of pink guitar barrettes, (I grabbed a few packages for myself, and guess what? They did not actually work, they were so cheaply made, the barrettes would not come undone to even try to stick them in my hair!).
The much better view I received of SXSW did not come from SXSW at all, instead it came from a life long Texan, who as a deep lover of music and the arts and wanted to show us the true culture of the community. We spent days going to numerous free concerts all around the city - many at bars, one at an indoor skatepark, one at a punk party house where bands performed in a half-pipe skate ramp among other places. It was amazing, and I imagine what SXSW was originally like way back when!
I have one question, when an event boasts that it was the place Hanson was signed, and where James Blunt was discovered, just who is going to this this thing?
One long time Austin citizen reports that bands rarely ever get signed through SXSW anymore, there is just too much to see and do, and no name performers are overlooked in the chaos. Often times the better bands are performing at other events such as FXFW, MyYardxYourYard, and the NotAtSXSW festivities held all across America, as well as Fun Fun Fun Fest, now in it's 7th year and held in November. With so much overflow of young bands heading to Austin during this one week of the year, whether they are on the show or not, you would think they would welcome the extra non-SXSW events that spring up around town, on the contrary, SXSW is notorious for calling police on the outsider events and having them shut down.
SXSW has turned from a place to strike gold to a bloated and full of itself, industry party. The music, the films, the artistry have all become secondary to the sponsor's wishes and the decadence of corporate parties.
"Once you take something and make it so corporate, you lose a lot of what really should be precious about it. The things we went to see, the anti-SXSW things, I think those are better, because it is just kids putting on shows of what they like, they aren't trying to cash in on anything. Sure they want their band to be popular, but this is all about their music they are passionate about it, not about getting a big record contract." Says Erroneous O'Shaughnessy, one of Austin's KAOS DJs, and our tour guide for the non-SXSW events we attended.
When there are over 2000 performers in 5 days, how many people are going to be at each performance? A few years back, while we were at the punk party house, we saw a great young band, they played without a microphone, instead shouting the lyrics. We had a brief conversation after their set and they said they were so excited to play that party even without a mic, because they had played a SXSW showcase the day before, and the audience consisted of the club's bartender and wait staff! That is a big problem for unknown bands, how can they possibly compete when they have Norah Jones, Motorhead, or Willie Nelson on stage for free somewhere else at the same time?
Of course the good thing is this is not a pay-to-play gig like so many others. It's only $30 or $40 to apply, and if you are lucky enough to be selected, bands are paid cash OR given wristbands to attend the other events. Of course your expenses are your own, and to be considered you must be a member of sonicbids, which is $6.99 a month to maintain, plus you must have a nice Electronic Press Kit (EPK), it is required, and certainly there is a cost to that unless someone in the band is also a graphic designer or some such thing.
In today's world, with the power of social media, the ease of itunes, the print of demand capabilities of companies like lulu.com, and fundraising tools like Kickstarter, that allow artists to raise their own funding for projects, why exactly does a band even need a record label today? They are fast becoming as obsolete as block ice delivery men. Bands no longer need to grovel at the feet of these record labels barons in order to get a penny an album, with a little tenacity, they can do it all themselves.
For too long great bands who are signed with decent record sales have still had to work straight jobs in order to make ends meet, putting too many talented artists and performers out of commission due to money issues and work responsibilities - meanwhile record company execs are able to pay thousands for badges for even lowly employees, their convention booth, and parties - Yet, the bands on their label can't afford a bus ticket down there. SXSW promotes and perpetuates this servitude.
Until now, this may just sound like sour grapes, but let's look at the bigger picture, SXSW takes away from the everyday performances in every club in Austin during the rest of the year, subjecting the city to the "Tourist Town" trap. People come to Austin for a short period each year - All at the same time, and shit all over the city. Then, they leave not thinking about how great a place it is the rest of the year. Anyone who lives or has lived in a town whose economy is based on tourism knows how dangerous this can be. Low paying, temporary jobs become the norm, superficially inflated home prices and taxes force many regular citizens out of there homes, and before one realizes it, all the things and people that made a community special are gone. Granted, a large city has a better chance to thwart this than a small town, but it has the same effect.
Fewer people then visit Austin during the rest of the year, fewer bands are coming there to play in non-SXSW months, and in the end, the extra revenues created by SXSW evens out because the rest of the year lacks revenue from tourism. It becomes feast or famine to the community - during the busy season it is impossible to keep up, and during the rest of the year it is hard survive. People cannot survive working a couple weeks a year. This has created a sea of angry and resentful Austin musicians, artists, and business owners who then want nothing to so with SXSW, but still have to deal with it.
While SXSW expands and grows, and tries to become all things to all people, it becomes a schizophrenic sea of mud - See the film, look at these venders, Flatstock over here, panelists over there, "Style X" fashion show to the right, interactive meet up to the left. Look, look, look! Consume, consume, consume! Until it just becomes a roar of noise that no one can decipher. Where is the merit in that? Do we really need a festival turducken? (For those not in the know, this is a chicken stuffed in a duck, stuffed in a turkey.) Let's face it, it is NOT a "festival" anymore, it is a trade show, much like the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, it offers showcases mostly for record labels to show off bands they are already pumping money into, and a sea of panel discussions, which by their very nature are absurd, and SXSW's 2012 selections are no exception - 'Priming audiences for a truly social Olympic Games', 'Data is sexier than sex… And I'll prove it', 'Are great employees overrated?' - These are REAL panels for 2012, seriously, I am not making this up. And big news this year, the bag they are giving out at the trade show - for all the printed material and other trash attendees will be handed, is designed by the same person who created the "fail whale" on twitter!
How fitting is that really, the creator of the "fail whale"? The event was just reminding me of a story I heard once about a dead and bloated beached whale being blown to bits with dynamite to "save" money on the clean up. Instead, it blew whale bits in a chunky spray over about a quarter mile. That may just be the best analogy of SXSW yet!
If by chance you do find yourself in need of escape from the bloated whale of SXSW, among the many really cool events happening in Austin at the same time, this writer will be at the Ruta Maya Coffeehouse participating in WTF Fest. WTF will feature a diverse group of counterculture artists, thinkers and prophets, coming together for the first time ever. John Sinclair, the 1960s revolutionary and poet will be slamming with Mike Williams of Eyehategod and Dave Densmore a Fisher poet - much like the cowboy poets of Texas, just wetter. Hip hop will be provided by Broken and Input, Hardcore crossover band Birth A.D. will perform. Comedian Rick Shapiro will tell dark and cynical jokes, artist Ugly Shyla will offer some morbid performance art, and Shane and Amy Bugbee will screen clips from their upcoming documentary based on their 'A Year At The Wheel' project. WTF is a donation only festival being funded via Kickstarter. See you there!