SXSW Isn’t Dead. But The Old Music Industry It Supported Is.
A “remixed” repost from 2011 that remembers how things were previewing why they are.
350 days into COVID-19 quarantine, and everything I used to love has died. From many of my friends and restaurants to most of my metaphysical relationship to human potential, it’s gone. As I sit and look back at the world in which I once lived, the moments that should have served as a harbinger of our newfound, inescapable cataclysmic daily dread shine boldly in my mind like a beacon in the night. What we could’ve, should’ve, and would’ve done if we knew what was to emerge surges forth attached with profound anger, then meditative acquiescence, and last, lessons learned.
Diving back into my writings from times past, I happened upon a piece that summed up how I felt about one such harbinger: the “bang-bang” moment the South by Southwest Conference (SXSW)’s musical portion and the music industry itself — as initially conceptualized — jumped the shark. I’ve attended Austin, Texas’ celebration of film and music in 2009 and 2017. However, in 2011, I was looking at the event, in preview, from afar. What emerged in my analysis ultimately, a decade later, came to be.
In 2021 SXSW is a virtual event. In the Austin Statesman, the 2020 event’s cancellation was called “a financial gut punch” for the city of Austin and Travis County, TX. One year later, the loss of the festivities’ estimated nearly half-billion dollars of impact — after a brutal and unprecedented winter storm has swept through the state of Texas — are likely to be felt even deeper.
Related, a September 2020 Tech Crunch article is entitled “Recorded music revenue is up on streaming growth, as physical sales plummet.” When the article below was written in 2011, recorded music revenue had nearly halved itself since the turn of the 21st century. However, on the back of wholly digitally-interactive streaming, plus live concert revenue rumored in 2018 to hit $31 billion by 2022, music had “saved” itself. Of course, with revenues being that great and the idea of trickle-down economics is faulty at best, I wondered about the sociocultural and financial effectiveness of a music industry where only the mainstream was profitable.
Well, I need wonder no more. SXSW isn’t dead. But the old music industry it supported is.
This piece was originally written on March 15, 2011, and was edited for clarity on February 24, 2021
“Great” indie music once referred to sounds held light regard in mainstream circles but held in slavish devotion by awestruck pockets of a much smaller underground. However, that definition has changed. No better example exists to highlight this than the shark-jumping disasterpiece that is the 2011 musical portion of the South by Southwest Conference.
The days of SXSW being a week-long indie invasion of a bustling quirky college town are over. This year’s series of smaller events is headlined by a larger one wherein Kanye West’s GOOD Music imprint, and Eminem’s Shady Records will be present en masse.
Kanye West once noted that “the record industry doesn’t care about true indie music.” However, as a major label record-industry signed artist, he attends what was born as an “indie music conference,” representing G.O.O.D. Music, a label started not independently but as an arm of Sony Music, in 2004. Something’s horribly awry with SXSW, and maybe it extrapolates to the music industry at-large, too. A crack has turned into a flood, and possibly like post-Katrina New Orleans, something’s getting damaged, and nobody’s going to stop it.
A quarter-century after SXSW’s debut, nearly 20,000 credentialed performers and media, plus an estimated 80,000 total guests, invade Austin’s vicinity for one week in March. The only thing that is remotely independent about the conference is the free thought offered to the attending throng by being in a democratic country.
I attended SXSW in 2009 as a journalist. I noted the corporate influence but chalked it up as a necessity for an independently run conference to be financially successful, even with 15,000 participants paying upwards of $750 for certifications. Also, I realized that it’s a no-brainer for any marketing and branding wiz to realize the potential of engaging with a populace of ready and willing consumers wandering in a 20 block radius in a relatively small urban downtown location.
My most major issue came when word leaked during my 2009 attendance that Kanye West was expected to appear at the Fader Fort to end the proceedings on the conference’s Wednesday night. The announcement of Kanye’s appearance occurred one week after he released 808s and Heartbreaks album single “Amazing,” two months after winning his eleventh and twelfth Grammy awards, and 18 months following the release of his triple-platinum selling album Graduation.
The hubbub around Kanye’s rumored performance was the moment that informed me that SXSW’s musical portion had evolved into a corporate buzz-builder that occasionally had high-minded independent aims. People engaging in discussions on street corners about the performances of impressive top indie artists like Little Boots, Solange Knowles, and Janelle Monae excitedly switched to exclaiming, “ooh, the biggest selling and most influential artist in music is coming, and I’m going to be in the front row.” A conference bred over 20 years ago on providing spotlight and an opportunity for growth, development, and fan base retention for independent acts quickly spiraled into a monsoon of people who cared mainly about Yeezy, but comparatively very little about much else.
This isn’t SXSW’s fault, though. It’s the fault of the impending disaster that the music industry has become. When mainstream music industry marketing budgets collided with nerdy kids with graphic design smarts who grew up loving J. Dilla, Bjork, The Replacements, Weezer, and Pavement (or any combinations therein) and created blogs that directly mirrored those teenage/adult musical influences, someone’s horn-rimmed glasses are getting crushed under a metaphorical industrial-style steel-toed boot.
The music industry has shown up dollar-rich but an idea short to saving its revenues in the face of an impending recession. Major marketing’s embrace of SXSW could be considered storming the gates of the domain of hipsters, nerds, geeks, or, as previously noted, it’s sound business sense. However, the artists and art that get caught in the undertow are of greatest concern. The thriving music industry is one where both mainstream and independent aims are equally sustainable. If what happened in 2009 carries into 2011, independent music, initially, is in trouble. In a longer-term conversation to be had, what happens if an over-marketed population is sold goods that have an ever depreciating return on investment because of recession and the digital age?
What about earnest bands of earnest kids who don’t care about technology but want to make solid music? What about rappers who don’t care about Youtube hits or wearing frameless horn-rimmed glasses and sniffing coke while cranking out a lukewarm sixteen bars over Phoenix or Afrojack’s latest blog-friendly jam? What about the A&R rep who knows nothing about viral marketing but probably signed Santigold because he heard a voice and saw an image that could reach the heartstrings of a universe?
Even deeper, what becomes of a music industry that becomes a micromanaged pencil pusher atmosphere? What happens when we care more about people clicking the word “Like” than people wanting to invest their souls in music? Is a musical act that is good enough to follow on Twitter also good enough to change your life? What happens when the game's name is getting hipsters in skinny jeans to sell their friends on the idea that two million Facebook likes and a ton of free mixtape downloads are equal to the impact of a live performance?
SXSW jumping the shark is the harbinger of the music industry as a whole jumping the shark, too. What’s next? I don’t know. Many metastasizing cancers are destroying the music industry, and the future doesn’t appear to have the cure.