All In

Does SXSW Music (the Festival) Still Matter?

Tory Lanez at SXSW 2016
Tory Lanez at SXSW 2016 Photo by Marco Torres
click to enlarge Yo Gotti at SXSW 2016 - PHOTO BY MARCO TORRES
Yo Gotti at SXSW 2016
Photo by Marco Torres
As we prepare to roll into March, many of us will be turning our ears and attention to RodeoHouston. However, if boots and bulls aren't quite your speed, you're probably looking forward to the other big musical happening in Texas in March: South by Southwest. With hundreds of acts heading to Austin, there's a little something for everyone on the menu if you're willing to wait in a line or 20. And yet, as fun as SXSW has been historically, it doesn't quite feel like it has the buzz that it used to. Or, perhaps more correctly, SXSW Music doesn't have the buzz that it used to. These days it seems that way more energy and excitement is directed toward the interactive portion of the event, which shouldn't be a surprise in our app-infused culture.

Still, plenty of money is funneled into Austin every year to throw a seemingly endless number of parties filled with music, the people who love it and the people who love to be seen pretending to love it. That people will pack the clubs of Austin to see music is guaranteed, but does SXSW have the cultural value that it once did? Does SXSW still launch careers? This is something we've been pondering.


click to enlarge Time to get in line again... - PHOTO BY MARCO TORRES
Time to get in line again...
Photo by Marco Torres
At its best, SXSW is a lot like a male nipple, as good a place as any to drizzle hot candle-wax. At its worst, SXSW is a lot like a male nipple, around which is clamped a wire running to a car battery in the hands of sadists belonging to whichever black ops agency oversees such things in pursuit of information and, ultimately, freedom. Full disclosure: My own band was booked to play this year. We were on the website, in the promotional mix, and we would have taken our lashes happily, as we have so many times before, until we discovered that they had also booked FBI Director James Comey to perform.

To our way of thinking, the use and abuse of state power kind of ruins a party vibe. Luckily, no one else seems bummed about this. Perhaps it’s because artists sail under different constellations. Some of these constellations suspiciously resemble Doritos bags; others, Monster Energy cans; still others like the logos of various payday-lending enterprises, the imperial insignia of famous beer and fast-food concerns, as well as lesser-known savings and loan cheats. Despite all this stardom, there are still artists who sit it out, if only because of the parking and load-in hassles.

But to answer this completely fairly, one must consider the artists, the staff and the volunteers who have committed their time and their bodies, their gear, and their body weight in wristbands and lanyards to the festival, in search of access, swag and, occasionally, a good time. For them, at least until they have Austin in their rearview mirror, SXSW must still matter, because it’s not an artist-friendly environment in any way. For an artist, SXSW is a male nipple, severed and discarded amidst the crumpled-up handbills, the dropped and disregarded promo CDs, and the inescapable sticky, slimy residue befouling that long-running street of dreams deferred. TEX KERSCHEN


Does SXSW still matter? In a word: duh. Maybe the music festival won't break bands in that quaint, Lana Turner-style way people romanticize. That's archaic and not representative of how the music business functions in 2017. What it can and probably will do is give the artists who have been invited some tools they can use to their benefit. The networking opportunities alone make it a no-brainer for go-getters. An official showcase invite at SXSW is like an internship at Goldman Sachs — it may be brief but you can always use its prestige and lessons learned to cash in elsewhere. Also, there's this: SXSW turns a Texas city (and some nearby ones, if you include spillover shows) into a nonstop jukebox filled with unheard global hits that practically anyone can access. Seems like something that matters a lot if you love music. JESSE SENDEJAS JR.


click to enlarge A typical SXSW mob scene - PHOTO BY MARCO TORRES
A typical SXSW mob scene
Photo by Marco Torres
SXSW still matters, in that if a band is able to get a showcase at the event, it at least adds a little cachet to said band. However, we live in the age of the Internet, where bands tend to break online, far more than via a music festival. By the time a band breaks online, similar to how Vampire Weekend did several years ago, SXSW serves as more of a simple coronation for their arrival. Plus, as SXSW has gone from indie music showcase to full-on juggernaut, major acts (the Green Days, Kanye Wests and Metallicas of the world) have gotten in on the fun. This is certainly a good thing; any chance to catch any of these artists live is an experience. However, that also serves to overshadow the festival’s original intent…to break new bands. So, yes, SXSW certainly still matters, albeit for different reasons than were originally intended. CLINT HALE


SXSW used to represent the future. Or, at least that's what the — for lack of a better word — mythology was. Talented acts would arrive in Texas from around the world, play a bunch of gigs, and the people who saw them would scatter to the winds to talk them up. If you were lucky enough to live in Texas, this was likely your first chance to see some of these acts, and in small venues up close and personal, before their careers took the next big jump. Now it mostly just feels like Spring Break without the beach. There's nothing wrong with that, of course; if enough bands you dig are in Austin and you don't mind waiting in the occasional line, there's a lot of free music out there for you to experience. And yeah, maybe you'll come across a new band that you fall in love with, but that doesn't really feel like the point anymore.

There are likely a lot of reasons one could point out that caused this change, but the truth is everything cool eventually becomes co-opted. You can really only fly under the radar so long before things explode. In that way, SXSW is a great mirror for the city of Austin itself, which continues to grow while not being able to quite keep up with that growth. Once you started having Kanye and Justin and Eminem showing up for SXSW, it wasn't about the festival anymore; it was just brands flexing to the masses. And there's nothing wrong with that, but it is weird to think of SXSW as something of a side note. But, be honest: When was the last time an act really “won” at SXSW that wasn't already a darling of the Pitchfork/greater blog set? CORY GARCIA
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
The Houston Press is a nationally award-winning, 31-year-old publication ruled by endless curiosity, a certain amount of irreverence, the desire to get to the truth and to point out the absurd as well as the glorious.
Contact: Houston Press