I know there was a bit of a discussion on the sprawling hydra of festival-upon-festival that SXSW has become on one of the Flight Club articles and there's a bunch of Austinites here hunkering down for the impending hipsterpocalypse, so when I saw this today, it seemed worth a repost on here.
Full disclosure: I've been helping out the group that's been doing Nuclear Tacos the past couple years. SXSW is, for the most part, still a great thing for the city in my eyes. Shoot, I recommend that other film students at Baylor come down here and hang out if they can't get into any of the department trips to trade shows or festivals. It's the one place I went post-grad where people a) were actually excited to hear I was a film major and b) actually talking about what they were working on or knew of that might need a dadgummed production assistant! It's a music/film/interactive conference 1.5 hours from Waco; if you majored in the same kooky thing I did, looking to stick with that industry or make the jump to something related that needs your skills and you're not already en route, you should be. Yes, even now.
But like all good things, there are some...let's call them "growing pains." One of the major personalities associated with it was one of the biggest opponents of bringing F1 here, which left a yucky taste in a lot of local fans' mouths and smelled a tad hypocritical considering the resource-intensive behemoth SXSW has grown to be. The city council still foots the bill for a lot of SXSW's expenses for things like extra police coverage and waste pickup when it's long been established enough to be able to afford those items and we could really use the cash to improve parks, roads, public transit and other public services that really feel the strain during major events. Furthermore, I really don't think it's a conference that would pack up and leave Austin if we quit paying all or as large of a chunk of their bills, guys. Really.
Then there's the point that I find the most hurting: a conference that's usually been known for discovering new acts, new apps and all manner of cool things just below the radar is now almost known more for secret shows of major-label stars and rampant commercialism. Yes, all things that happen must be funded, but is SXSW losing its focus in the process? I care so little about [insert major label artist here] popping up in somewhere's ladies' room. I'd rather this be an opportunity for [insert great unknown band here] to finally get their big break—and for myself to find some new stuff to listen to in the process of them coming here.
So, about this guy and why his opinion might be relevant: Andy Langer tends to host many of those radio shows where I find new stuff to listen to. If there's an up-and-coming/local music/new acts show here, there's a good chance that he's the host. Like others who work with, volunteer for or otherwise have a relation to SXSW, I doubt he'd put something on the record criticizing the whole show without there being a major issue at play.
ANOTHER LONG READ - : When SXSW fails - 5 years from now, 15 years from now, whenever - whoever does the autopsy will likely conclude it was Death By Doritos. Sure, Doritos is not alone in helping transform SXSW from a music festival into a brand festival. But their largesse - the chutzpah they have to go not just big, but ridiculously way over the top, makes them the symbol of what's wrong with SXSW. Marketing is and always has been an inevitable component of SXSW- and not inherently bad for the festival, us as festivalgoers or our city. But maybe it's time we asked and expected more?
Last night, as you may have heard, a Fast Company story detailed Doritos plans for presenting Lady Gaga at Stubb's. The company that built a 64-foot vending machine stage powered by tweets has managed to up the ante: they'll distribute Gaga tickets by asking fans to make #boldmoves on #boldmissions. According to the report, fans will have engage in stunts and challenges to win tickets- "missions include jumping from a 30-foot high platform to grab a dangling #BoldStage ticket, busk on the street using instruments Doritos provides to earn $10 in 10 minutes or less, and go up against roller derby pros while wearing an inflatable sumo wrestler suit." You can also have Doritos give you a haircut. This make the downtown F1 "Fan Fest" look subtle. Hell, it makes the Doritos vending machine look subtle. This is shameful. Let me count the ways:
Shame #1: Frito-Lay. Building a vending machine stage, as obnoxious as it is, isn't criminal. Or wrong. Just tacky. Paying Gaga $2 million to stand out from the Apples of the world- and the hundreds of other companies in town to influence "influencers" - isn't wrong either. What's shameful is the wasted opportunity to turn this into something good. Instead of stunts, how about a charity component? You say that's difficult to pull off? Global Citizen, the folks that put on the huge Central Park shows every year, are doing just that on Monday at Emo's , kicking off a new series where in exchange for tickets to see the Fray, fans are asked to tweet, sign petitions, or watch a related video about the key issues of poverty. How about asking fans to collect money, pledge hours of community service etc? Instead, Doritos is asking fans to do dumb stunts.. Shameful.
Shame #2: Lady Gaga. Everyone has a price. Now we know hers. For $2 million she's willing to let a chip company ask her fans to get stupid haircuts in exchange for tickets. Whatever she stands for - whatever causes she's taken on - I can't help but think she's cheapened with this. She's letting a different brand sully her brand. Also, I never thought I'd use the phrase "kudos to Perez Hilton," but he's turned his party this year into a paid event. Hard tickets. Not a free RSVP deal. And guess what? 100 percent of ticket sales will go to VH1's Save the Music Foundation which supports music education in public schools. That's how you do it.
Shame #3: The money sponsors like Doritos brings to town, to our economy is not peanuts. Doritos is staged and staffed by hardworking Austin-based people. This is good for our city. SXSW is good for our city. Period. But...wouldn't it be better if they gave a little more? Doritos isn't alone in failing to turn the marketing bonanza that is SXSW into something that could better benefit non-profits and causes. There's 500+ parties this year on RSVPster. That's 500 parties that are largely avoiding giving back in some way beyond offering free music and booze. What if just 100 of those parties asked for canned goods at the door. What if clicking your way in wasn't enough? Would that hurt the parties? No. And I suspect there's a way to make your brand even more visible by incorporating a non-profit partner in that large non-profits have lists of supporters they'd gladly share access to if they thought it was going to lead to donations. And then there's the media attention: Spotify is one of the smart ones- they're working with local music organizations Girls Rock Camp, Anthropos Arts, and ReRoute Music to offer free workshops for kids at the Spotify House. Read that last sentence - see how easy it is right now to stand out from the pack and get a little attention/mention just by doing a little charitable legwork?
Sidenote of Shame: Penzoil is a SXSW Interactive sponsor this year. Yes, a company that runs an Eco Festival didn't turn down oil company money. SXSWEco's official slogan is "Where Urgency Meets Opportunity". Sometimes the jokes write themselves.
You don't need to spend a lot of time on social media to see that increasingly, the conventional wisdom inside the city is that SXSW is not just overgrown, but it's a cash grab at their expense. Doritos just magnified that. Make no mistake, SXSW is trapped in a weird tragedy: technology killed the golden egg in that nobody pays for anything anymore. The music biz ain't what it was. The labels don't have the deep pockets anymore to bring top-tier talent to town on their dime. Thus the only way to survive (i.e. showcase the Lady Gagas of the world and get the press attention that comes with it) is to pick the deep pockets corporations - sponsors who've concluded marketing to fewer, better people more directly is more effective than mass marketing. And who attracts more influencers than SXSW?
In conclusion, My friend Jeff Klein, a musician playing SXSW and a keen social observer, posted this last night and I think it concludes my post perhaps better than I could: "It's happening. The festival next to the festival inside the festival across the street from the festival. I hope they make it so the only way you get in is if you were selected for the Apple Itunes festival that day. That way it can complete the big brand Human Centipede it began. Maybe if it was an artist I liked, it wouldn't rub me wrong. Maybe if was a product i supported it wouldn't feel like we are all working in the Red Light District. I get it. I even take part in it and lots of times condone it. Entertainment and Sponsorship can work well together. But there's a subtlety and grace that's missing in this."
In other words: ouch.
It's still a good thing to have this here, but the comment on the lack of "subtlety and grace" hit the nail on the head. I'd rather keep a smaller, more focused festival around than lose it all to irrelevance.