SXSW is an amazing event. It is an event where bands that normally sell out 1,000-seat venues can play an intimate show for a couple hundred people and where bands that normally play to empty bars can perform for national press, industry people and get on the same bill as their musical idols. It’s a dizzying, maddening week of music, parties and celebration of the industry, but it also has a darker side.
In what I can only describe as exploitation of musicians and fans, SXSW has a sinister part in its structure that borderline ruins this amazing place. For example, the hierarchy of badges, wristbands and RSVP’s to events seems to break down at every turn.
How it theoretically should work is badges (for industry people and press) get priority, then wristbands (for locals, others) and then RSVPs. How it ends up working most nights at venues is badges get in (with a long wait), wristbands won’t get in unless maybe you’re at the front of the line and RSVP means nothing. At the Warner Sound party I attended one night, they had a Facebook page to RSVP for the public and some of the people in the wristband line had been waiting for hours. I got in no problem, but shortly after me, it was one-in-one-out badges only. At another venue where Iggy and the Stooges were playing, the venue decided to wait until doors opened to tell the hundreds in the wristband line that it would be “badges only” that night. From personal experience, I found out that even the artist wristband gets you no priority. The musicians who just want to see their fellow musicians at a festival created for them have to wait at the back of the wristband line with the locals and fans who are disregarded in favor of press, industry labels and the wealthy. So much for fostering a community that celebrates artists.
Another darkside is the pressure and, in some cases, the exploitation of musicians. Turn your head in any direction on 6th Street and a band is playing. That’s great for the fans, but with so much going on all the time, I would estimate 60 to 70 percent of these artists get lost in the noise. No one remembers them in the following weeks. Not to mention the bands who are still playing to empty bars and sleeping in their vans or the bands like Marina City, who got swindled out of money by a shady booker and arrived from Chicago to find their gigs had been cancelled. There’s also an incredible amount of pressure, with most bands playing at least two or three shows. Foxygen had a meltdown on stage and Frightened Rabbit seemed honestly disappointed at having to play a 25 minute set to uninterested people at the overly posh Warner Sound party. The reality of this place ends up being a lot more grim than the potentially career-changing opportunity musicians may view it as.
I guess this is what happens when a conference originally formed by an alt-weekly to celebrate indie-music turns into the biggest industry stunt of the year. One where your brand matters more than the band. One where Myspace is throwing secret shows and Justin Timberlake is rumored to be at some party, and no one cares about the great unsigned band from Germany or New York or even Austin playing at the bar across the street because this other venue with a two-hour wait has free cotton candy and The Flaming Lips.
Amazing things can and still do happen at SXSW. But when you see that chaos and commercialism and the disregard for musicians that make it all happen, you can’t help but ask, “What’s the point?”
Contact CU Independent Editor-In-Chief Isa Jones at Alexandra.firstname.lastname@example.org.