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SXSW, WTF?

The lowdown on Austin's music festival

As reported on many blogs across the Texas musical world, the list of bands accepted as official artists for this year's South by Southwest festival came out recently. It was critically panned by bloggers, hipsters and everyone in between, and I gotta say, I'm right there with 'em.

I've been attending South by Southwest for years. It often coincided with spring break, so in high school and college, a quick trip down Interstate 35 was all the itinerary I needed. In the beginning, SXSW was a smallish affair, very insider-y in the sense that only people who deeply cared about music cared about the festival. Its purpose was primarily geared toward shining a light on unsigned bands no one had ever heard of. It was an attempt to maybe get these bands a record deal, and not much more. For awhile it was pretty easy to get into any SXSW show; keynote speakers were Texas musicians; and there was no damned interactive festival.

But of course, things change. The evolution of SXSW into the goliath it is today might or might not have been inevitable, but once its momentum started, it was difficult to stop. Record companies started to get real excited, and they started to pay attention, sending their people down to Central Texas in ever-increasing numbers. After a few years, you couldn't find a hotel room downtown in the middle of March, when Austin became infested with badge-slinging, cell-phone-yammering, name-dropping label people who overtook the sidewalks like cockroaches.

Nowadays, you can't find a hotel room within a 50-mile radius of Austin during SXSW, and the cockroaches have multiplied like...uh, cockroaches, along with music journalists, international press, MTV camera crews and those interactive fest people. It's all laptops and BlackBerrys and Levi's jeans sponsoring free tequila parties where there aren't even any bands.

All of which is okay -- it's got its good and its bad. Levi's aside, almost every square foot of the town is devoted to a stage, and it's still pretty amazing to see music take over a city. The festival will never be the same as it was, but once we can accept that, maybe we can figure out a way to celebrate what it has become.

SXSW's own success has so inverted what its original purpose was that bands get left out, and that's where I get angry. The main problem is not how monstrous the festival has become, or how its insider-y nature now manifests in a celebrity/major record executive/giant music superstar nexus of hobnobbing. The main problem is that it is filled with bands we've already heard of, who already have fat record contracts, and the lesser-knowns and local groups who really deserve attention are given short shrift.

Fortunately, all the satellite showcases and nonsanctioned shows (the best of which was the now-defunct Fuck by Fuck You showcase) are primo spots for finding new, quality music.

To all those bands that didn't get a SXSW slot this year, hey, maybe next year. Maybe.

 
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