As a music journalist from the North Country, I'd be a fool to pass up the opportunity to head down Austin, Texas, each March for the South by Southwest Music Conference. It provides those of us on the ice-whipped prairie a respite from our endless winter season, not to mention a chance to binge on the best burgeoning artists before they make their way around the country on tour. It's become something of a requisite for many of the musicians, writers, photographers and fans from my hometown.
Just last year, I remember standing in the backyard of some bar on East Sixth Street with a big, stupid grin on my face, reveling in the fact that I had stumbled across Minneapolis expats Free Energy debuting a bunch of unreleased songs at a free show while day-drunk partiers shimmied around at the foot of the stage. And not only were the new songs a jolt of adrenaline on that hot sunny day, but I got to watch it all go down while standing outside in a T-shirt. It was glorious.
And yet each time I return to SXSW, those glimmering moments that remind me why I traveled all that way in the first place get fewer and farther between. The promise of that quintessential SXSW moment dangles in front of my nose like a carrot as I dash from concert to concert, but as time passes more hurdles seem to have sprouted up to further complicate the obstacle race that is downtown Austin.
Shortly after that Free Energy set last year, I gave up on waiting in the line of an over-capacity Dickies-sponsored day party, sidestepped a trailer of Star Wars-branded energy drinks and raced to wait in another line to get into the party at the Fader Fort (presented by Converse!). On the way there, I came across something so obtrusive that I had no choice but to stop dead in my dog-tired tracks. In the middle of a wide open parking lot was a stage, and on that stage was a band, and I don't remember a single distinguishing thing about that band because towering up above their amps, microphones and guitars was a three-story-high fake vending machine stocked with human-sized bags of Doritos.
Is this it? I thought to myself. Is this "The Man" I've heard so much about?
This month would mark my sixth consecutive trip to Austin for the sprawling industry feeding frenzy that is SXSW. It would be the sixth time I'd shell out hundreds of dollars to trek the 1,800 miles from my home in Minneapolis down to Austin, the sixth time I'd pile into an overpriced hotel room with five or six of my music-loving pals, and the sixth time I'd spend 20 hours a day racing up and down Sixth Street and blogging every sight and sound into my laptop while hunched over, sleep-deprived and slap-happy.
Emphasis on would, because this year I'm not going. I'm not going to do it. And it's not just because the thought of going through all those motions again makes me want to take a week-long nap. It's because, even in my relatively short time attending the 27-year-old festival, I can't help but feel that it has strayed far away from its original premise as a grassroots gathering place for new, undiscovered talent and increasingly feels like a big ol' Times Square billboard-sized commercial.
This is not a new observation. The commercialization of music is certainly not a novel concept, and neither is the commercialization of SXSW hell, even the underground offshoots and anti-festivals that spring up in Austin each March have gotten their share of backlash. But the rampant expansion I've witnessed over the last handful of years feels too glaring and incongruous to ignore. As the music industry continues to place more and more power in the hands of independent artists, SXSW seems to be driving in the opposite direction; the festival feels like the industry's last-gasp attempt to prove that cash can, in fact, still be king.
The first time I attended SXSW, I didn't have a single credential to my name. It was a last-minute decision and I ended up roaming the streets of downtown Austin without a clue or care in the world. And you know what? I stumbled upon a lot of great music that year. Bon Iver was breaking nationally that spring and I saw him play twice. I stood next to Jonah Hill while falling in love with a band from my hometown, Kid Dakota, who I had somehow never seen live. I saw She & Him play one of their first shows ever, Billy Bragg sing to a standing-room-only outdoor patio and Efterklang enchant a dimly lit bar, each set feeling like a happy accident that I couldn't have planned out if I tried.
The next year, I got a badge and that sense of possibility mounted. It was 2009, and it felt like I was uncovering one favorite new act after another. Heartless Bastards. Janelle Monae. The Black Diamond Heavies. Kaiser Cartel. These were artists who not only stuck with me late into each night of the festival as I unpacked the day's activities on my blog, but whose imprints on my consciousness endured well after I returned home, as I anxiously awaited their new records and made a point to see them when they came through my own city. It was that year that I really felt like I had pinpointed what SXSW was all about: Catching brand-new acts just as they emerged into the world, sampling them buffet-style to determine which ones lived up to their hype and pulling out my notes time and again in the months afterward as I made decisions on what to cover in the publication for which I worked. The festival was already monstrously huge, but it also felt accessible and the overall experience was just as rewarding as it was exhausting.
Each year since then has felt more difficult. A few hard numbers from my personal experience at SXSW illustrate that point: As attendance continues to rise, so does the cost, and I've had to get more creative about subsidizing what is now over a $1,000 trip from Minnesota while the media companies who want coverage continue to scale back their budgets. And though I was paying more money out of pocket each year, I found myself attending fewer and fewer shows. The first two years, I saw over 70 acts per festival. Last year, I spent so much time waiting in lines outside high-demand shows and waiting for cab rides to my more affordable hotel out by the airport that I only saw about 30. After returning home defeated, I couldn't help but entertain a nagging thought at the back of my mind: Could I have seen more up-and-coming bands for way less money if I had just stayed home?
And each year, more and more celebrity-sized acts and corporate conglomerates seem to crash the party. Remember when Kanye West stole all the SXSW headlines in 2011 by setting up camp at a massive abandoned power plant and throwing a star-studded, Vevo-sponsored blowout? It hollowed out downtown Austin and led to paltry attendance at the actual festival's closing night activities. On the plus side, I was able to waltz up to the front row to see one of SXSW's biggest bookings of that year, Yoko Ono; on the downside, hardly anyone wrote about the iconic performer's disarming set, or much of anything else the festival was presenting that evening. That stunt was on a scale that only a pop star like Kanye could pull off, but it signified a sea change that some attendees had seen coming for years. The extracurricular parties that happen during SXSW had outgrown and overshadowed the festival itself. And in this era of pageview-chasing journalism, which events do you think the media are going to cover: The fledgling band playing a tiny club on Sixth Street, or the celeb throwing the once-in-a-lifetime rager?
I worry about those fledgling bands. I worry about all the bands from the Twin Cities that I interview, especially those who've told me they grapple with whether or not all those miles on the van and dollars out of the coffer were even worth it. For every act that has told me SXSW provided them with a chance encounter with an agent or promoter that positively changed their trajectory, there are dozens who tally up the pros and cons and find themselves in the red. The economy hasn't been kind to the budgets of DIY artists, and after a few years of exponential growth I know for certain that the Twin Cities contingent attending the increasingly expensive festival will be smaller this year.
Selfishly, I'm excited to spend the week of SXSW club-hopping around the Cities instead, and am content to catch many of the same acts I might have seen at SXSW when they steer their tours through the Midwest. I do wonder what these shifts means for the future of the festival, but I'm not naive enough to extrapolate my personal experiences onto that grand a scale clearly, there are still plenty of reasons to attend, and the whole ordeal seems especially appealing for artists who have already gained a bit of traction in the industry and can use it as their springboard. Speaking as a journalist and fan, however, the experience has become more of a headache than heady experience. I can't help but feel a sense of calm rushing over me as I think about skipping it.
Of course I'll miss out on those only-at-SXSW moments, like artists of Bruce Springsteen's stature delivering keynote addresses, or influential bands like The Strokes reuniting to play last-minute free shows. But you know what? I didn't get to see any of that stuff when I was attending SXSW, anyway I was outside, waiting in line.
Andrea Swensson is a music reporter at Minnesota Public Radio's 89.3 The Current, and previously covered SXSW while working as music editor of Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages.