Hot off the press and on the flight back to LA, Tammy reflects on her last visit to SXSW in the early 00’s and how the focus has shifted:
It’s been over 10 years since I have been to South By Southwest. Back then, I was different, the industry was different, and the festival was much different.
Things back then were a lot less crowded, mellower. The film and interactive festivals had just begun, and were sparsely attended. SXSW was mainly a place where indie rock bands would play, looking to get signed by A&R folks from the labels. The audiences were A&R, Agents, Managers, and a smattering of fans. Most importantly, with little else going on, music was the focus. Rock music.
Now with music discovery happening more online than live anyway, and with less A&R people at the labels and smaller budgets, record labels are focusing less on signing new talent at festivals, and spending their money instead on showcases for their already signed bands, sometimes their giant stars, the ones who will make them the money in CD sales and mechanicals. This year, Green Day, LL Cool J and Snoop are playing to massive audiences. At their shows you see giant screens, full production, and sponsors galore. MTV is even hosting an awards show, complete with lights, interviews, TV cameras.
Reflecting a greater diversity in the market, the SXSW lineup is also more diverse now. Instead of rock only, you can now see hip hop, soul, dance. The greater diversity also means that the shows and the streets are a hundred times more crowded. SXSW used to be confined to about 20 bars on 6th Street. Now there are areas of town like Rainey St, that used to be sketchy, but is now arguably the most fun frontier because it is less known. The crowds at SXSW lately seem to consist mainly of college kids on spring break, and instead of the A&R focus, you have the PR and Marketing people at the labels, the tech companies, the assistants, the fans. But I feel that the real stars and the real focus at SXSW is now the brands, the extraneous sponsors, and the booths everywhere.
10 years ago I don’t recall seeing any brand booths, or freebies being given out, except, notably, a Camel cigarettes booth giving out free smokes to anyone walking by. Yes, SXSW was that down and dirty, that rock and roll. Now, the commerciality is hard to escape: there are booths on every free sidewalk space and sponsors at every party. People are vying for massages given by American Airlines, t-shirts, sunglasses, energy drinks, and even Samsung and Logitech gadgets, Mophie charging devices. Even I fell into the momentary seduction of free swag. I was distracted, competing with the masses to get myself some of the booty. Then I remembered that I had been on my way to see a band.
Another big difference is the social media (because obviously 10 years ago we didn’t really use our cell phones for much other than talking and arranging a meeting place). Now, everyone is using twitter and facebook, and other programs on their cell phones and ipads to tell everyone where they are, and what they are doing every minute of every day. Instead of sitting at a curbside table drinking a beer and watching the spectacle, you see a lot of people sitting alone, on the sidewalks, in the hotel lobbies, with their heads down, probably letting the world know that they are in one of the country’s biggest parties, and ironically, missing much of it.
SXSW is crazier now. Much bigger, much more packed, much more diverse and much more distracting! But even through the insanity, I managed to see a few quality bands. I discovered a couple of new, burgeoning artists. And despite the focus for me this time being much more on business, meetings and work, I tried to give myself a moment to enjoy myself and just listen to the music.