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.