South by Southwest: Road Map to Success or Directionless Mess?
The South by Southwest (SXSW) music conference-cum-spring break for artists is a many-headed beast nowadays, with both a film element and a sprawling tech/interactive segment tacked on to what has, in the past, been THE place to break out as a young artist seeking that next big boost around the hype cycle.
Austin now holds allure for a much wider demographic of fans than ever before, which has caused many to pause for thought and wonder what effect this has on its roots as an indie-musical taste maker.
On the one hand, the audiences are potentially bigger than ever, which should be great for musicians. But the conference has continued to attract bigger names, more sprawling branding, and taken some of the press coverage away from the final week, when the music is supposed to take center stage.
In 2012, what is SXSW and who is it for?
Years Gone By
The platform from which the likes of Arcade Fire and MGMT launched their successes is now more akin to a series of ladders, with thousands of musicians scrabbling over one another to reach a limited height. And though they may make it up and be more visible than the masses than before, there are fewer eyes and ears paying attention to give them that net a crucial boost up. These eyes and ears have been side tracked by an increasing number of established artists taking the spotlight (Jay-Z, Billy Corgan, and Bruce Springsteen all turned up in various guises this year). There is also a general lack of investment in new talent which currently plagues an industry still dipping its toes into new business models... and relying on the same old established names to milk their older fans of all remaining record spending.
None of which means that SXSW is a waste of time for artists and fans. On the contrary, the excitement generated by performances in such a hectic, compact environment is palpable even from a distance, the web now connecting all of us envious onlookers to the madness is some limited sense, from full NPR-streamed sets to ongoing Twitter buzz. But the capacity for SXSW to be the ultimate springboard to a career is now all but gone. As an artist, you can be there for the playing, partying, and potential to network, but if you're looking for the fast track, you've missed that train by several years.
Just reading through the post-conference dissections is enough to establish the limited chance of being plucked from obscurity in Austin. Of 2,000+ bands that played across 5 days, few have consistently been mentioned in the major music punditry reports.
The core challenge for musicians today lies not in garnering attention for attention's sake, but rather in finding a kind of attention that fits an overall career plan. By way of example, a band with songs well suited to placement in advertisements may well gain the best exposure at the interactive portion of SXSW, when more marketers and large organizations are pounding the Austin pavement. Artists trying to build a reliable regional following, however, will be better off investing the money into the gas tank and getting out on the road to more local crowds.
A Matter of Priorities
SXSW is undoubtedly a fun event for anyone connected to music, one that both fans and artists should probably attend at least once, for the experience. But its time as the mecca for musicians to fully break out appears to be over, washed away in a swirling tide of morphing busines models and the sheer scale of expansion.
While the conference as a whole appeals to a wider audience each year, paradoxically it offers artists less and less, as music becomes just another diversion in a sea of entertainment.
No consistent names emerged in the bevy of ground reports from SXSW this year. No act that hadn't been on the loose lips of music writers stormed the event to take us by surprise. No artist so dominated the Austin stages that they could wrench the headlines from Jay Z's intro, Bruce Springsteen's outro, or even Billy Corgan's whinging. Instead, we have a wide base of talented bands running over a few more columns in the usual haunts of Pitchfork, Spin, Brooklyn Vegan, and the like.
Worth thousands of miles travel, to play to a small room of industry folks and a handful of fans?
Unlikely, unless they have a very specific strategy of who they need to connect with and when/ how they'll do it.
Exceptions Prove the Rule
With all that said and in a foolish attempt to destroy my own hypothesis, I'd like to recommend you listen to Polica, one of the more special sounds that emerged from my trawling the various show reports. They have an unsettling sound; one that evokes numerous artists and decades, yet lingers too long on none.
Elsewhere, The Alabama Shakes continued the ascent that they began last summer and that gave CMJ attendees something to chew on last October. With an album due out this summer and a packed out show streamed live by NPR, they should have been the poster band for '2012 Breakout!' features. Yet you'll find more column inches devoted to the presence of a returning Fiona Apple, or that ubiquitous Springsteen keynote, than you will of these soulful, impassioned newcomers. Again, what once would have been a sheer dose of adrenaline into the heart of a young band's career, has become a half can of energy drink, supped tentatively and saved for later.
Everything else is subject to fragmented perspective. The winds in Austin are blowing ever larger tumbleweeds across a media desert, dry and dehydrated, with the oasis-like promises of pre-SXSW 'bands to watch' lists disappearing as the sheer enormity of digesting the many thousand performances dawns.