The Blame Game: Has SXSW Gotten Too Corporate, or is Austin Just Spoiled?


By Morgan Davis

You may have noticed an intriguing trend after SXSW ended this year. Instead of the usual cavalcade of “[insert buzz band here] are the new [insert previous buzz band here]” hype pieces, SXSW 2014’s press after party has been dominated by hyperbolic, impotent rants against that eternal foe of cred: branding. For the music fans who chose to stay home and participate from the blogosphere sidelines, it may seem as though this year’s SXSW was some kind of Idiocracy-like nightmare, a hideous magnification of more subtle branding that defined years past. But the truth is that the culprit isn’t an increase in brand presence but an unfortunate conglomeration of tragic events that forced the press to rethink the party heavy narratives that usually make up SXSW coverage. When the biggest news story that comes out of an event is a mass tragedy that took several lives, you’re going to feel a lot less comfortable bragging about all the free liquor and tacos you consumed on Sailor Jerry’s dime.

That’s a completely understandable perspective but what makes it problematic is that it comes from a place of cynical entitlement rather than any real morality. I wouldn’t consider myself a supporter of SXSW – my issues with the way the organization dodges paying for a workforce as well as the bullying tactics they’ve used against press outlets who aren’t 100% in favor of the event are on record – but there’s a lot of misinformation and confusion going on with all these anti-branding, SXSW-ain’t-what-it-used-to-be think pieces (which I’m sure are loving the traffic) and that’s at least as problematic as the corporate infiltration seemingly every writer is now bemoaning.

Any real criticism of SXSW’s perceived branding overload must first begin with a clarification of what is official SXSW commercialization and what is commercialization piggybacking on SXSW through unofficial events. It isn’t a coincidence that most of the most egregious brand offenders at SXSW are not actually part of SXSW: FADER Fort is unofficial; the Sailor Jerry’s party that lets you get free Sailor Jerry’s themed tattoos is unofficial; the Dorito’s event where Lady Gaga proved how #bold she was by getting puked on in front of an audience was unofficial [After publishing this piece, it was brought to our attention that the Dorito’s events were official and we apologize for the mistake]. In a problematic piece for the New York Observer, Austin based indie pundit Neal Pollack casually concedes this point while still stating he has a small amount of faith that SXSW will “roll back the branded concert crap,” a contradiction that should raise a major red flag for any Austinite who has paid even the slightest attention to city politics this year, since SXSW worked with the city to create limited permitting for events taking place during SXSW. The SXSW event licensing was not only a historic piece of city legislation meant as a way to try to at least control these kinds of idiotic branded events, it was a huge, controversial news story that a lot of Austinites vocally opposed…on Facebook, at least.

There are a lot of valid points that can be made about real problems with SXSW– like the fact that it uses potentially illegal, unpaid labor to maximize its profits, or the common sentiment that SXSW as an organization hasn’t done as much as it could to encourage the city to fix its devastating public transit issues– but the branding debate effectively places SXSW in a no-win situation. If the organization works too hard to shut down heavily branded events, such as the Doritos #bold stage, then it’s perceived as a fascist entity that doesn’t let you have fun. But if SXSW doesn’t respond to the pundit brigade that has decided on behalf of the public that the event has jumped the shark, then it loses credibility and winds up perceived as an ineffectual corporate outlet. There is of course the very real fear amongst venues that being unofficial paints a huge bullseye on your space, and SXSW’s history of revoking credentials for outlets that sidestep SXSW policies like Revolver did in 2001 hasn’t helped the organization’s image.

Yet even with that in mind, it seems abundantly clear that the Mohawk crash is more to blame for the ill feelings than a sudden corporate awareness. There have been mass violence issues in SXSW’s past, but they’ve been of the DFA 1979 riot variety, incidents that could have gone a lot worse and ultimately wound up as punch lines, a sort of badge of honor for the event that proved its “anything could happen” bonafides. This year’s crash was so inexplicable and unexpected that it disrupted the entire event, leaving everyone on edge and desperate for something to pin the blame on. Everything from the barricades on Red River to Austin’s hip-hop community wound up incriminated, but rather than selfishly admit that a horrible tragedy got in the way of free booze-inspired fun, fans and press have felt more comfortable proclaiming SXSW is over and branding is the cause. The dialogue that results happens to also be incredibly representative of the large battle waged within Austin itself, as natives and veteran transplants childishly chide newcomers and hopeful immigrants while enjoying all the benefits of being one of the few boom cities in a struggling United States.

There’s no sense in denying that SXSW and Austin on the whole have grown, and that both entities are at a major point in their evolution where they’ll have to work around legitimate problems, but there’s similarly no denying the real economic impacts that come from that growth (which amounted to nearly $220 million for the city last year). You’d be hard pressed to find any festival or convention that doesn’t rely on corporate branding in order to survive, and it’s important to remember that SXSW isn’t even a festival. SXSW is a singular entity, a massive convergence of ideas and industries that has long since evolved past the point of being a small music industry gathering, if that romantic ideal of the event ever truly existed in the first place. Just as Austin’s hippest citizens vocalize their fear of yuppification despite being guilty of displacing previous communities themselves, there’s a hypocritical edge to this year’s slate of SXSW hate. How many brand shaming think pieces did you read on sites dominated by take over ads and intrusive videos? How many of these writers told you that no matter what your personal experience was, SXSW was better when they were younger, before you entered the picture?

SXSW in many ways defines Austin and like the city itself, it’s a complicated event with its fair share of flaws and foibles, but there is value to being coveted as a platform and as a populace. If anything comes out of the brand shaming it should be an awareness that we are a commodity, and we need to make decisions based on our value. Wagging our fingers at the corporate events we wait hours in line to get into as we shovel the free samples and open bar treasures down our throats only sends a message that we are easily bought, that as long as there is swag to be had we’ll come in droves no matter how much we whine on our blogs. There is no other event like SXSW, and no other city has attained the kind of cache Austin has while remaining true to its basic identity as a place where ideas come to life. But as fans, we have the power to make SXSW what we want it to be, and if we truly disagree with things like the Doritos events, then we need to stop going to them.

I went to plenty of incredible, non-corporate-branded showcases during SXSW and the bulk of them were nowhere near filled to capacity. Many of them even featured headlines that were on packed, corporate showcases at earlier or later points of SXSW and the only discernible difference was a lack of free drinks, food and swag. It wasn’t just the fan community that wasn’t out supporting these shows either – all of which took place at decidedly independent local venues like Holy Mountain, Cheer Up Charlie’s and Beerland – it was this same holier-than-thou press contingent that failed to come out. Just as someone who doesn’t vote doesn’t have much right to complain about politics, fans and press who argue that SXSW is too corporate should consider their own actions before speaking. Over at the Chronicle, Kevin Curtin provided a fair, well-constructed piece exploring both sides of the “SXSW is over” debate and ended it by stating he “was turned on to more amazing, lesser-known acts this year than ever before at SXSW,” concluding that his experience was different from many of the standard reports because he chose not to spend so much time in line “waiting for Gaga.” Maybe that’s the kind of restraint more of us should show.