In a few days, tech folks, music biz folks, and especially music-tech folks start their annual pilgrimage to Austin for yet another SXSW. And right off the bat, I’ll acknowledge that going to a cool city with nice weather to party for a few days is a dumb thing to complain about. I’ve talked to plenty of normal people who would be absolutely jazzed to see a ton of bands, drink free beer, and eat barbeque for a week and do it as part of their job. But for those of us in the biz, with a number of festivals under our belts, SXSW feels like the death march of fun. So many bands! And long lines! And racing all over the city before collapsing in an overpriced AirBNB, only to do it again the next day. And for what, exactly?
SXSW has gotten too big, and even worse, it’s too big to fail. It bring millions of dollars to the city of Austin every year. More and bigger brands throw money at the festival, and turning money down is hard, especially when you employ a big team of people to make sure things run well. The SXSW brand has gotten so diluted that rather than being a place to discover new music and maybe get some business done, it’s about seeing Lady Gaga in a vending machine, or queueing in line for Kanye’s annual “secret” show, or spending half your day texting to try to schedule a meeting before your phone dies.
The festival has fallen into the classic “bigger is better” trap, outlined by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson in their book “Re/Work.” Here’s an example: Harvard could, with their massive endowment and vast landholdings, easily double the size of its incoming freshman class next year. Hell, they could triple or quadruple it, and make even more money. But they don’t, because one of the things that makes Harvard Harvard is just how damn hard it is to get accepted. They could make a bigger profit, but they choose to protect the integrity of the brand.
SXSW didn’t protect the integrity of its brand, simple as that. And now, rather than being a place that feels vital for the best minds in the tech industry and the most vibrant new artists, it’s a massive free for all that feels kinda-fun (see aforementioned bands and beer) at best and obligatory at worst. For startups that don’t have massive budgets, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get lost in the shuffle. Part of the problem is that SXSW doesn’t give companies any guidance — short of hosting a table in the convention center, there really aren’t official places to go to connect with people who can help you. It just becomes a circle of people pitching each other while screaming over the music in a crowded room. And again, it’s fun — but really, does your budget allow for a party week?
Music, on the other hand, has shifted away from being a business event and has become just another spring break destination. SXSW can’t do much about this, but I get street-harassed more during my annual week in Austin than I do the other eleven months of the year I live in Brooklyn, and I once got groped watching a show at Stubbs. I’m honestly shocked there isn’t more crime at SXSW, given the massive numbers of drunk people crammed into a relatively small space, and I guess kudos to the Austin PD for that.
For the bands, SXSW seems like a bum deal. You wind up playing a ton of shows, half of which might not even be at proper venues, with no time to soundcheck and short sets. You’re also up against dozens of other shows, a few of which are usually headlined by superstars. Bands this year might actually have it a little easier given the lack of banner headliners (aforementioned Kanye gig aside), but there are still too many damn shows. Most people wind up going to see bands they already know and like, or just sticking with stuff that’s likely to be decent — it’s easier to just sit at the Fader Fort all day and know that most of what you see will be good and buzz-worthy than to go out and take risks.
And then there are the brands, which seem more and more clueless and inappropriate every year. Converse? Makes sense. Beer sponsors? On brand. McDonalds? Really? We’ve hit a point where every CMO just wants to check the “millennials” box on a list and SXSW is the perfect place to do it. Just stick some buzz bands in front of a food truck (kids like those, right?) and your brand will be redeemed in the eyes of the twenty-somethings.
The only way for SXSW to save itself at this point is for it to shrink radically, which won’t happen — it brings in too much money, and for better or worse, still draws huge crowds every year. No other festival even comes close, although plenty are trying. But at least if it shrunk, and pivoted a bit, it might have a point again.
Why are people even going to SXSW anymore? No one “discovers” bands there — that’s what we have the internet for. No one gets deals done there because no one ever makes it to their meetings. Tech startups all chat with one another, but they can do that in the Bay Area and New York all the time anyway. Again, bands and beer equals fun, sure, but then it’s just like Coachella or ACL or Bonnaroo, just more spread out.
It won’t happen next year, or even ten years from now, but eventually SXSW will implode and have to start anew. It’s a shame it got to the point where it’s at now, but if nothing else, it might provide a valuable lesson to other music and tech upstarts — focus on growing smarter, not faster.
On another note: see you all in Austin! Shiner Bocks and ribs are on me!