First time I rolled into Austin for South By Southwest Music Festival, it was like going to different world. Not only was I blown away by the number of great indie bands performing in just a couple block radius, but the city also had an amazing vibe. Musicians, artists, malcontents and loungeabouts all mingling together with the music fans that came to town for the 500 bands playing over three days.
One I couldn’t help but be charmed by Austin and the celebration of live music at SXSW. So I was surprised when I opened the Austin American-Statesmen and read an editorial about the festival’s nearing demise:
“Critics claim the conference’s growing pains are transforming what was a grass-roots gathering of struggling musicians into a corporate haven for suits, ties and profits. The proudly independent music scene that put the Third Coast on the map is being usurped, leaving homegrown talent out in the cold.”
The date was March 18, 1994.
There’s been 20-year history of calling SXSW over. But the past few years have been extremely rough on the festival. For the record, there were 4,258 registrants and 482 artists performing in 1994. In 2013, the city of Austin projected that almost 400,000 people crammed into Austin for the festival.
Over the years the industry has taken notice and has turned what was primarily a showcase for indie music into a major music event. While the festival still books plenty of cutting edge acts, it also has become a place for massive artists to perform, with huge stars like Lady Gaga, Kanye West and Metallica making appearances.
The Shadow SXSW
And events continue to creep beyond the scope of the official festival. Day parties started in mid-90s and most are free of charge and don’t require an official registration. The day party tradition, which packs up to 10 bands performing short sets in the hours before the official showcases start, are now so common that SXSW has become enormous. Only a small portion of those who come to Austin this week attend the festival itself.
Outside of all the top-level artists, brands have decided they want to get in on SXSW as well. It seems like every year another major brand throws down big money to have a presence at the festival. Many wonder if it’s a bit much. When Doritos built a stage that resembled a huge vending machine stuffed with oversized bags of Cool Ranch and Nacho flavor, it might have been one chip too far.
All this popularity is causing severe headaches for festival administration. The city itself cannot handle that many people in such a confined space. At least with the current commitment of services from the festival and the City of Austin.
Last year, tragedy struck. A suspected drunk driver drove down Red River, one of the main downtown streets closed to traffic and packed with club-goers. Two people lost their lives and many were injured. In some respects, SXSW is lucky something like this hadn’t happened in the past decade, as attendance has climbed every year.
In Line and Out of Line
Despite the options, most of these free parties are extremely over-subscribed. Many who come into town find themselves left out of the action. Lines at places like the Fader Fort can stretch for several city blocks. SXSW does its best by scheduling a free show at an auditorium not far from downtown, but there’s just not enough to entertain all who come into town.
The experience for those who attend the actual festival is becoming more tiresome. Getting around has become a nightmare. Sixth Street resembles a menacing mosh pit anytime after 7 pm at night. Dinner options are non-existent. Even grabbing a mediocre-at-best Sixth Street pizza slice is getting pricy.
This year, the city and SXSW had enough. Festival management has been unhappy with the amount of services the city provides. It needs more support and security to keep everyone safe. In fact, SXSW said it was considering bidding out the entire festival to let other cities compete. But the festival’s identity is so tied to Austin that it probably could never decamp the city.
The city cut back on event permits for the Shadow SXSW, limiting the number of opportunities to build a stage and fly in a platinum artist for a showcase. And some brands are sitting it out too. The Doritos stage is thankfully gone this year.
All good and well, but will it limit the number of people flocking into town? Perhaps slightly. But the festival’s reputation is now cemented in the music fan’s mind, and I’ll contend that the throngs of people are still going to show up. It’s up to SXSW to solve this problem. On top of the music fans, it’s also college spring break for lots of students, and the city has become a mecca for those looking for a party without ever going to show.
Lighting The Shadows
Instead of burying its head in the sand, SXSW could proactively plan for the mass of humanity that’ll show up without the benefit of a laminate. Just two miles from downtown is Zilker Park, the site of the annual Austin City Limits music festival. There’s no reason that SXSW couldn’t book a half dozen stages for big time artist to perform. The festival could make it free and safe with the appropriate budget for security.
Sure, it’s not perfect. March weather in Austin is extremely mercurial, so booking an outdoor festival will be a gamble. And there will still be overflow for the regular festival. Don’t expect 6th Street to get less congested anytime soon. But at least there would be a plan.
Perhaps it’s just my gaggle of friends in the business, but my experience is that more industry types are skipping this year’s festival than ever before. I’m even taking a break after 11 straight years of sojourning to Austin for tacos, brisket and Shiner Bock whirred together with amazing music discoveries.
Long ago I had come to terms with how SXSW has changed. A few years back, my favorite day party at the Yard Dog was overrun. I couldn’t even get close to the stage or beer. And this wasn’t on the main drag of Sixth Street. It’s in a tucked away courtyard in the South Congress District. Fuming, I took an attitude adjustment walk at dusk on Lake Travis and came to the realization that the festival was still great. I mean where else can you discover the bevvy of new bands I have over the past four days. It’s just different from the one I first experienced 20 years ago.
Just like the city itself, the festival has grown up. At its core, it’s still an amazing experience, one well worth the hassle. I’m hopeful that the festival administration and the city will partner to solve its problems together.
New Republic: SXSW Too Big To Fail