One Man's SXSW ... Times 4
Our intrepid correspondent wanders through all four Festivals – and lives to write about it
Describing SXSW, after the dust settles, is akin to the tale of the blind men and the elephant – your Festival and mine may be two (or more) very different things. Or it's an ebbing, flowing tide, as one part of the Conference and Festival morphs into the other. Or it's neither a sprint, nor a marathon, but a triathlon, preceded by a long, hard warm-up. First, there's SXSWedu, the infant sibling of the big three, the smallest and least fully formed. Then Film and Interactive muscle in together like conjoined twins. A few days in, they separate, and the tech kids head home while the film buffs get serious. And finally, there is Music, which still gets to swagger as the oldest kid on the block.
Somehow, I survived all four phases: a 13-day odyssey from the classroom to the mosh pit.
I was far from alone at any point. First off, I was one of around 5,000 registrants for SXSWedu – up from 2,005 at 2012's inaugural Fest. For Interactive, fold in all the gold and platinum passes that provide access to multiple branches of the Conference, and 30,621 people paid to attend the social media and tech component. That's up from 24,569 in 2012; meanwhile, both Music and Film have, at first glance, faltered a little. The movie side dropped in registrants from 16,490 in 2012 to 16,297 in 2013, while Music saw a bigger slide, from 18,988 last year to 18,286 this time. Or did they? How many of those 6,000 extra Interactive were filmmakers or label managers who decided to upgrade their badges? Even SXSWedu has started to blend in with the others a little more. This year, I saw signs of "double-badging" – the preliminaries crowd sticking around for the main event.
It's not surprising. In the two decades since Film and Interactive launched, the purpose of SXSW has been cross-pollination. There's no other conference at which artists, venture capitalists, social media mavens, and filmmakers are crammed into the same 10-block-by-10-block concentration. Most are facing exactly the same issues, or rather the same single issue: paying for creativity in the digital age.
The Artist as Storefront
At SXSWedu, the digital publishing revolution was painted as a golden opportunity. After all, public schools are microregulated, down to the options for textbooks, and so the trick for businesses is to follow the money. Closing keynote Bill Gates predicted a reshaped market, where cash previously ring-fenced for textbooks would be reallocated into the IT budget. Yet if Gates had tried to spread that same buoyant mood across the three phases of the main Conference, there would have been more battle-hardened eyes cast his way. There were four points of consensus. Firstly, that the major media corporations have been caught flat-footed by the digital era and are still playing catch-up. Two, their often scandalous business practices have never been more transparent or flagrant. Three, there are more tools than ever available to the creative class to control their own financial destiny. Four, they better do it soon: As corporations pull in their tendrils and the social safety net collapses, artists have rarely been in more peril.
Three of the most vaunted film documentaries dealt with the decrease in value of intellectual property. TPB AFK: The Pirate Bay Away From Keyboard chronicled the trial of the operators of The Pirate Bay, the world's biggest illegal movie download site. Similarly, Downloaded took a sympathetic look at Napster and the birth of digital music exchange – sometimes glossing over the fact that the whole project was an experiment in copyright theft that finally burned through half a billion dollars in venture capital and legal settlements. However, it's not just minor artists getting screwed. In Artifact, under the directorial nom de guerre Bartholomew Cubbins, 30 Seconds to Mars lead singer Jared Leto chronicles his band's legal battle with their label, EMI. They were, in the popular parlance, getting screwed. Somehow, even after selling two million records internationally, they still owed the label $1.4 million. Yet major bands continue to dance with the devil. At a post-screening Q&A, Leto laid out the simple facts: When a band reaches a certain size, unless they are prepared to become their own label, they have to sign with a major. His advice about when to finally sign that deal was simple: "At the last second possible."
But for smaller artists leery of labels, the tools of self-management are there, and SXSW has played a role in their popularity. In 2010, Square Inc. dumped piles of their plug-in credit card reader at every showcase and day party. The idea was to get the technology into the hands of as many touring bands as possible. End result: The smartphone app has revolutionized retail life for independent artists. Previously, they had to hike from gig to gig, praying that fans around the merchandise table were paying in cash, or else tour with and pay through the nose for a bulky credit card slider and hope they didn't lose the stacks of carbon copies. It's not just bands: On the floor at Flatstock, the annual art print and poster wing of SXSW, Squares were abundant.
Such technology gives artists a physical but portable storefront. The next step would be to create their own digital outlets, and that's where firms like Red Touch Media step in. Sure, it's easy enough to get your music onto iTunes, but there are downsides – not least that, with a 64% market share in U.S. digital downloads, Apple has become the ultimate major label. RTM's solution is a portable kiosk, so musicians can sell downloads of their music alongside the physical product – either as a download code or transferred to a USB memory stick. Better to catch the download-only customer at the gig, they argue, than be lost in the constant signal-to-noise battle of the iTunes catalog.
That's half the battle: convincing artists that it's OK not to live in penury – to be their own management. "I sustain my career by doing everything that artists have been told is vulgar and taboo and wrong," artist and former SXSW tote bag designer Molly Crabapple told a sleep-deprived audience at her Sunday morning Interactive panel. Unlike some other gallery artists, she drily noted, she doesn't have a Russian oligarch in her corner. So she has become commercially and Internet savvy, using crowdfunding tools like Kickstarter to keep her going as a full-time creator. She said, "I like the idea of artists as minicorporations."
Crowdfunding allows fans to buy into an artist's endeavor before it's finished – effectively turning the audience into microventure capitalists. Musician and SXSW speaker Amanda Palmer has become the lightning rod for the Kickstarter conundrum. After raising $1.2 million last year to fund an independently produced album, art book, and tour, she was castigated for crowdsourcing her backing musicians and paying some of them in beer and tickets (there's been less chatter about how Palmer leveraged her crowdfunding expertise to secure recording time for unknown pianist Tristan Allen). But, as many crowdfunders argued over the week, the value is less in the amount of money raised than in how many fans and supporters reach into their pockets. That's the community for which artists search, and Palmer proved their value when she decided to stage one of her famous impromptu ninja gigs. In about five hours, just through phone calls and Twitter and friends of friends, she'd booked a venue, four bands, a documentary crew, and, most importantly, an audience of about 400 people. Palmer told the packed Scottish Rite Theater, "SXSW creates this umbrella of permission to go up to people and talk to them."
Embrace the Chaos
The Festival is also a moment when the odds of bumping into someone you know increase exponentially, and that's how Chicago band Marina City got on the Palmer variety bill. Long story short: Their lead drummer, Eric Somers-Urrea, is the son of author Luis Urrea, whom Palmer's husband, Neil Gaiman, once owed $20. The band drove down from Illinois, only to find that the showcases arranged by an out-of-town booker had been canceled months ago. What Gaiman called this "magic giant ninja gig" was their only chance to perform and to tell an audience about how they had been cheated. "That's not how we do it in Austin," proclaimed one audience member as she frantically texted friends, searching for someone, anyone, who might have been able to get them another gig.
But how do we do it in Austin? SX remains the city's ultimate gut-check moment. It is one of those rare times of year when the former sleepy college town has to admit that, yes, it is a major city, a tech hub, and a creative center. One of the real test-to-destruction points is how long it takes to get in and out. On an average-to-busy day in 2012, around 13,000 people flew out of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. On March 18, 2013, the first morning of post-SX hangover, 6,228 passengers had passed through security by 8am. City Aviation Department Public Information Officer Jim Halbrook said, "That's about 1,200 more than we normally see in the morning." By 5pm that evening, 16,247 passengers had flown out, "and we still had departures going out for four more hours after that," Halbrook said. He credited the addition of a fourth security checkpoint for making that efficiency possible. "We had that huge number of people out, but there was never a wait of more than 36 minutes."
But not everything about Austin is cheery and welcoming. There's a sneaking local persistence in confusing the Festival with a larger, booze-fueled cousin to Eeyore's Birthday Party. That's a tension: After all, the day parties, both official and unofficial, are a huge part of the appeal of the Festival for the badgeless. It's not always to the benefit of Austin's reputation. One of the Chronicle's correspondents castigated a demographic at the annual Austin Music Awards as "AARP-eligible drunks talking way too loudly and looking to hook up." I suspect I may have shared the Cap Metro Red Line with some of them. But for every space hog screaming down the carriage, there were a dozen music fans just hanging out or indulging in sudden EBM flash mobs at the Frost Bank Tower. Austinites also turn a pretty profit from the big show: According to a recent Time infographic, Austinites during SXSW are amongst the worst gougers when it comes to renting out their spare rooms – worse than Park City, Utah, during Sundance, or San Diego during Comic-Con.
And then, of course, there's the constant background hum that SXSW is just one big sellout. The mantra from the anti-crowd is the same as always, that it has become "too corporate." That, somehow, Prince playing at La Zona Rosa negates the couple of thousand unsigned and unknown bands playing any flat space. Excuse my chortle. Prince may be the definitive artist straddling the line between big commerce and creative self-control; remember when he started writing "Slave" on his cheek in rebellion against his label, or when he distributed his album 20Ten for free with a bunch of European newspapers? At the time, those seemed like bizarre stunts, but the end result was that Prince had the commercial freedom to be liberated creatively. Did it matter to the capacity crowd that the event was sponsored by Samsung? Everyone I spoke to was simply raving about the three-hour, six-encore set.
But SXSW provides easy pickings for critics. Less than a week after Palmer's magic giant ninja gig, Wired ran a slab of click-bait titled "The Art of Asking Why We Hate Amanda Palmer." The New York Times published what was nominally a review of Justin Timberlake at the Copper Tank – instead using the event's sponsorship by Chevrolet and MySpace as ammunition in a tirade about how SXSW has "strayed from its anti-corporate, indie rock roots." That's a weird stance to take, considering that the original 1987 SXSW was conceived as a local equivalent to the CMJ Music Marathon – a way to connect unsigned acts with major labels.
Are the people who are complaining that the Conference has lost its soul right? Only if the people who say they had their best Festival ever are right as well.