South by Southwest + Turning Hard Due North

South by Southwest + Turning Hard Due North

By Eugene S. Robinson

Still life of musical instrument cases, SXSW March 2013, Austin TX


Because someone’s got to save the music business from the business of music.

By Eugene S. Robinson

Total disclosure right up front: I’ve played March’s South by Southwest musical festival in Austin, Texas, about eight times to date. With my band, Oxbow, which has been described by Vice magazine as “the greatest art rock band in the world” (Ed. note: #notsohumblebrag). We played shows with Jesu, Boris and a passel of other great bands. Shows that on occasion devolved into riots. The whole nine. So I come to this not as a civilian but as a participant presented with a dilemma courtesy of SXSW: Does it make more sense to go or not to go?

Now the festival and events surrounding the festival are a veritable agora of anxious cool…

And after a lengthy application process and an acceptance, actually going involves hauling a bunch of gear by van across the great expanse of Texas to the quasi-counter-cultural core of the city of Austin. Long a resting stop for those left and right of center — I first met, hung and couchsurfed with The Butthole Surfers here in 1982, and earlier than that watched Tom Waits on 1976’s Austin City Limits (a public TV show that featured not only Waits but dozens and dozens more spanning the gamut of cool) — the city stumbled onto SXSW almost by accident.


The author, pre-mustache, with the ex-Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore.

Source SXSW

New York’s New Music Seminar, started in 1980 by the CEO of Tommy Boy records as a way to showcase his bands, was looking to expand both the concept and the business. They approached Roland Swenson at The Austin Chronicle, an alternative weekly in the tradition of the Village Voice, to relaunch the seminar. It didn’t pan out for NMS in Austin, but it did give birth to an idea that Swenson and a few other staffers kicked off. The year was 1986. At the event’s conclusion, a grand total of 700 attendees were on the books.

In 2012, 147,000 people signed up for all four days of the event, with close to 300,000 catching some portion of the festival. It was estimated that SXSW was bringing in $190.3 million. 

Yeah: Things done changed.

Now the festival and events surrounding the festival are a veritable agora of anxious cool: Record labels (or what’s left of them) breaking new artists, indies pushing established ones and hoping for the same buzz, distributors, publishers, filmmakers and, since 1999, SXSW Interactive focusing on emerging technologies. And with all of this heat came a certain kind of spotlight: celebrity panelists, celebrity performers, celebrity celebrities. From Zuckerberg to Pete Townsend. Conan O’Brien to Kanye West. 

Photographed from high above the room where there are many booths and many people walking around

SXSW Interactive 2011.

Source Eric Schlegel/Corbis

Yeah, it sucked, this mainstreaming of what had felt like the coolest kind of coffee klatch. For the die-hard-core musicians who showed up to play a single showcase for $150 (no earning more by playing more), no hotel room and no meals included, year after year, it began to feel like something Groucho Marx once said about not wanting to be a member of a club that would have us as members. The town, laden with hipsters, hippies, hip-hop kids, heavy metal, alternative types and every admixture in between, was afire with cash-fueled dreams. 

You have to own up to the fact that this kind of cash and this kind of fuel have been noticeably absent in anything music-related for a significant bit of time now.

Don’t roll your eyes. This isn’t like claiming your favorite band sounded better back when you were the only one listening to them, and it’s not about saying that the mere presence of celebrities always makes the cool quotient plummet. But what does happen? The very same obscure, know-nobody bands whose brethren built SXSW into what it is today become less and less likely to get a place on stage. 

And this is not at all limited to SXSW. Coachella, a more pure-performance based festival, pulled in $47.3 million in 2012 and sold out last year’s tickets in 20 minutes. College Music Journal (CMJ), North by Northwest (NXNW), Noise Pop, All Tomorrow’s Parties (ATP) and the list, and the lucre, goes on. The growth is impressive, but as more prestige acts jump into the fray, can the festivals keep nurturing new talents and, just as important, keep attracting new audiences?

”Unlike computer companies whose only real mission in life is to sell even more computers,” says Mark Thompson, a co-operator of the now-defunct Hydrahead Records and the very not-defunct Vacation Vinyl in Los Angeles. ”Music exists in a complicated eco-system and for even a few things to go right, a lot more than a few things have to go right. Festivals are making lots of cash, but what they do with it is what’s going to be interesting.”

Man pulling a dolly filled with bags and thousands of bags seen on the floor

SXSW volunteer Nick Trevino distributes some of the 4,000 music

And so we return to our dilemma. As part of the rapidly changing, increasingly cash-strapped music industry, you have to own up to the fact that this kind of cash and this kind of fuel have been noticeably absent in anything music related for a significant bit of time now. Digital sales are down, vinyl is popular among and amidst the hipper crowd but CD sales are down. What’s up? Indie bands and streaming. Which is to say that live shows with thousands of people, and thousands of people buying merch at merch tables — what festivals like SXSW offer — are maybe the only thing keeping music alive these days.

And, yeah, that’s great.

So despite the chagrin that the OGs might feel when faced with Silicon Valley sharpies clogging up the streets of Austin with chatter about apps and incentivizing the creation of said apps, and regardless of how many Hollywood studios are slathering the town with their guerrilla street teams shilling mainstream movies, the truth remains: This may be our best chance yet to make music without going broke doing it.