JIM CARROLL ON THE RECORD
Is South By Southwest in danger of becoming a victim of its own success?
We’re back, as the song goes, deep in the heart of Texas. If it’s March, the music industry’s magpie eyes turn again towards Austin and the annual South By Southwest (SXSW) jamboree.
You’ve 2,000 bands and all the baggage they bring including entourages, crews, labels, managers, agents and fans spread all over the city. There’s music happening in what appears to be every nook and cranny from early morning until late night. It’s the big one.
Those of us who’ve been coming here for years are a little taken aback by the attention that SXSW now gets. I can remember a time not so long ago when it took a bit of persuasion to get an editor to run a piece on the festival.
All that has changed, and a lot of this new-found attention is down to widespread coverage of the interactive side of the event. Your mam and dad are probably thinking about popping over to South By next year following last weekend’s visit to the city by Taoiseach Enda Kenny (right).
However, the majority of the 300,000 visitors in town this week are here for the music part of SXSW. Many are here because SXSW is where big acts such as Kanye West, Jay Z, Prince and others come to play.
Such blockbuster acts are here to be handsomely paid to play special shows for big consumer brands. The punters are here to try to get a taste of that experience, and the brands get to crow about what they’ve done.
Others are here because SXSW takes place during the spring break for many US universities and colleges. It’s a heck of a lot cheaper to come here than travel to Cancún or Mazatlán, especially when you have a welter of daytime parties with free drink, food and live music happening during SXSW. The weather is also usually decent.
Then, there are those who are here because they work in the industry and this is where the bandwagon is parked for the week. There may not be many deals done – and the standard of the event’s panels and talks is poor compared with the interactive offerings – but it’s where people come to hang and take stock nonetheless.
What’s on the informal chinwag agenda for a lot of attendees this year is SXSW’s future. Last year’s festival was marred by a car crash that resulted in fatalities and injuries, and it’s clear that the management and policing of this year’s event is heavily informed by the need to prevent a repeat of such tragedies.
While the city has clamped down on the number of unofficial daytime events occuring during SXSW, the festival is still drawing the same number of visitors as before. All of these folks are thus trying get into a smaller number of parties and showcases, a situation that can only lead to more gridlock around the city’s downtown area.
By any reckoning, SXSW has been a huge success for Austin since it launched in 1987. It draws in revenue, increases profile and helps to augment the city’s tourism industry. All those new hotels opening downtown are probably doing so with one eye on the SXSW financial bounce every March.
But in order for SXSW to continue and thrive, changes may need to be made and this must involve all interested parties. It’s never going to revert to the downhome festival of old, but few will welcome it becoming just another heavily-branded music festival either.
There’s music happening in what appears to be every nook and cranny from early morning until late night. It’s the big one