Saying Goodbye to SXSW

Last year I attend­ed my first South by South­west Music Fes­ti­val. It was a big deal! It was on the com­pa­ny dime! I lead a team of four peo­ple on a musi­cal jour­ney that took us from Rachael Ray to 2 Live Crew. We met a ton of inter­est­ing artists and talked to as many as we could on cam­era for comcast.net. I was real­ly proud of what we accom­plished in our first time out. Before we left for Austin, I ful­ly expect­ed that SXSW would be an annu­al event on my edi­to­r­i­al cal­en­dar.

What a dif­fer­ence a year makes.

Well, not quite a year. More like four days, if that. What I learned, along with just about every­one try­ing to cov­er SXSW, was that it’s near­ly impos­si­ble to shoot video and turn it around fast enough to mat­ter. Then you begin to real­ize how much work goes into cre­at­ing some­thing you can share with your peers with­out embar­rass­ing your­self too much, and the real­i­ty hits you: it’s just not worth it.

It’s sad. I want­ed to attend this year’s fes­ti­val just to see how far off it was from last year. I want­ed to tell the sto­ry that it sim­ply did­n’t live up to expec­ta­tions, that the indus­try’s last best hope was final­ly run­ning out of gas, and that fans would need to look else­where to dis­cov­er new and inter­est­ing artists. No one else did.

After con­sid­er­able head­scratch­ing, I wrote my own syn­op­sis based on what I’d read on blogs and music web­sites and then com­par­ing that cov­er­age to that of pre­vi­ous years. In my view, the major labels have tak­en the reins in the hopes of wrench­ing every last pen­ny out of the only peo­ple on earth who are ded­i­cat­ed enough to attend a four-day-long music fes­ti­val. I don’t think it’s a cul­ture war between the cool and the uncool, but rather an indi­ca­tion that the majors will co-opt their farm team, even if it means mort­gag­ing the future.

Why should any band par­tic­i­pate in SXSW when the bulk of the cov­er­age will be ded­i­cat­ed to artists who are already house­hold names? And remem­ber when blog­gers were believed to stand out­side of the hype as bas­tions of good taste? Those days are over, if they ever exist­ed.

My friend Mark point­ed this out to me and I just laughed. He quot­ed my friend and col­league Jes­si­ca Suarez, some­one who knows what bands are break­ing now, but wants to under­stand why tastemak­ers from the count­less out­lets that attend SXSW don’t con­cen­trate on dig­ging for gold dur­ing their time in Austin.

It’s a com­mon lament worth repeat­ing. We’re exhaust­ing our cul­tur­al resources faster than new ones can devel­op, and that’s a prob­lem. The AP’s Jake Coyle caught up with Griz­zly Bear’s Ed Droste:

It can be real­ly detri­men­tal to explode too quick­ly,” said Droste. “For me, per­son­al­ly, the music that I like the most is the stuff that takes a lit­tle time to grow with and has a bit of longevi­ty. There are albums that I’ve jumped on and been like ‘Yeah!’ and then three months lat­er, I’ve been like, ‘Nah.’ It’s sort of the nature of the beast.”

As I’ve writ­ten in the past, it’s high time music crit­ics stepped up and dis­rupt­ed the hype cycle. I know it sounds corny, but if you want to prove how impor­tant edi­to­r­i­al is to the music indus­try, it’s at events like these. You might say that you’re doing your part by high­light­ing less­er known bands like Wavves or the Dirty Pro­jec­tors, but you’re miss­ing the point.

When every so-called cul­tur­al crit­ic is com­ing to the same con­clu­sions, it gives rise to notions of the music crit­ic cabal that we’ve been fight­ing all these years. Does it mean tak­ing unpop­u­lar stances on pop­u­lar albums some­times? Absolute­ly, but what do you real­ly have to lose? If noth­ing else, you come away with a unique view­point, which has the ring of cul­tur­al cur­ren­cy to me, to say noth­ing of retain­ing the last ves­tiges of your dig­ni­ty.

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