The Cool Ranchification of SXSW 2012
When Observer web editor Nick Rallo and I shuffled down to South by Southwest last week, we both noticed the same thing: the somewhat icky marketing that seems to have inundated the Austin music festival, to the point where even the fans themselves were part of the brand. Here's an excerpt of a conversation we had about it.
Audra: So two big marketing campaigns at SXSW this year were Doritos and Mountain Dew. Do you miss the days when the fest was about the music and not monitoring your blood-sugar levels?
Nick: Yeah, I'm finding this strange. Austin's known for being one of the most rebellious, anti-corporate cities in the country (or Texas, at least), and there are indie bands playing under the shadow of a 2001 monolith-sized Doritos vending machine. So what in the holy hell is the identity of SXSW? Is it a corporate-sponsored, Cool Ranchified band fest? Or is SXSW a showcase of the great independent, undiscovered bands from around the country? It feels like a grotesque combination of both. A massive consumerist orgy dedicated to cramming brands into our face holes. Also, Pitchfork's top 100. But, hell, do I love the orgy.
In a show on Friday afternoon, Father John Misty (aka Josh Tillman, formerly of Fleet Foxes) asked folks to retweet a photo mocking the ambitious ridiculousness behind brand management at SXSW. So yeah, some of the acts are about managing a brand and some are about getting their music out there. Either way, I feel like the festival needs to be focused. What would you do different about SXSW next year, in light of a Doritosy 2012?
Audra: I don't know. I mean, SXSW has already made everything a billboard, from homeless citizens to its own showcasing stars. You've got Tillman railing against one corporate sponsor, and then Lil Wayne fully embracing his new sponsor, Mountain Dew. At his showcase on Thursday, he skateboarded onstage and did a little monologue about how being a rock star is like skateboarding: You know, sometimes you fall, but you always get back up. Then he took a big swig of Mountain Dew and I wondered if he was actually filming a commercial, and the audience was just extras (that was actually true). I guess that's become the SXSW experience? We're willing to be oversaturated so we can be part of the experience.
My "Five WTF Examples of Marketing" blog pointed out how Sixth Street has basically become a scene from Idiocracy, a refrain I heard more than once last week: Fleshlights, weight-loss alternatives that involve freezing your fat cells, energy drinks, bigger Doritos. I don't think SXSW is ever going to return from that abyss, mainly because it's making them more money than you can shake a Fleshlight at, but maybe next year focus on products that might actually benefit music fans? Beyond that, what did you think of the actual music part? Are there too many bands?
Nick: As far as music goes, I've seen some pretty stunning acts, which makes me an asshole for complaining. Alabama Shakes made my knees buttery. So did Sharon Van Etten. Anything played in a church sanctuary is good, I found out. But it's an assault. There's everything. Every year this festival seems to increase in mass, and at some point I feel like we're all going to go supernova, and our faces will melt like the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark. I mean, the point, originally, was to find that new band — right? For that young, buzzing band to get some face time with the fans? So, why do we have that happening at the same time as Lil Wayne's Pepsi-Snapple-Fritos show? My point: Why does SXSW have to be for everyone?
Audra: I wrote an April Fool's story last year for the Austin Chronicle about how next year the festival was going to be moving to a recently constructed dome in Bastrop, which would have nine levels and alleviate the congestion of downtown. The "It's gotten too big" argument was being tossed around a lot last year, and many agreed SXSW had reached its tipping point. The story came out a day before April 1, and a lot of people were pissed and believed it was true, because it has gotten so all-encompassing. I'd love to see figures on what bands actually go on to get signed from this. Maybe 10 out of 2,000 bands? And is getting signed to a label even the dream anymore? Most mid-level bands — and that's who the fest really caters to, for the most part — aren't going to make a living just being on a label. They still have to tour for the better part of a year. I guess SXSW technically does help some bands, but there are way too many for the fest to be effective in whatever its mission is in 2012.
Nick: I hope my band The Thick Doritos gets signed next year.
Audra: No, Nick! That's just what they want you to say! But Mr. Tillman was right during his set on Saturday: SXSW is the singing Olympics. It's a competition, but it also puts you within arm's reach of those acts competing. As Springsteen said in his keynote speech, "We're living in a post-authentic world," but does that mean you don't have to try as hard to stand out anymore? I mean, can you, when you're playing inside a four-story Doritos vending machine?
Nick: I feel like there's a line that's crossed. Behind a monolith of advertising, or at least an Invisible Hand, the artistry of the music loses focus. [Cue Radiohead song.] I understand The Boss' rationalization, but at some point SXSW just starts to look like Blade Runner. So where's the line? Do we just accept it and continue to drink our Brisk Tea and eat Taco Bell while, behind the scenes, every aspect of our experience is branded? I think SXSW needs a line. Or, at least, to maintain a balance so that the music is always the focus. There's gotta be a way to do that. There must be, or I'm going to Mars.
Audra: Next year: SXSW on Mars. I'm sure they can get Richard Branson to donate a few of his space limos.
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