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Saving SXSW From Its Own Success

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SXSW-2015-Music
South By Southwest
has grown by tremendous leaps and bounds, but now more than
ever, the festival’s growing pains are being
exposed.
Is it possible to save SXSW from it’s own
success?

Guest Post by Jon Maples on JonMaples.com

First time I rolled into Austin for South By Southwest Music Festival,
it was like going to different world
. Not only was I
blown away by the number of great indie bands performing in
just a couple block radius, but the city also had an amazing
vibe. Musicians, artists, malcontents and loungeabouts all
mingling together with the music fans that came to town for the
500 bands playing over three days.

One I couldn’t help but be charmed by Austin and the
celebration of live music at SXSW. So I was surprised when I
opened the Austin American-Statesmen and
read an editorial about the festival’s nearing demise:

“Critics claim the conference’s growing pains are transforming
what was a grass-roots gathering of struggling musicians into a
corporate haven for suits, ties and profits. The proudly
independent music scene that put the Third Coast on the map is
being usurped, leaving homegrown talent out in the cold.”

The date was March 18, 1994.

There’s been 20-year history of calling SXSW over. But the past
few years have been extremely rough on the festival. For the
record, there were 4,258 registrants and 482 artists performing
in 1994. In 2013, the city of Austin projected that almost
400,000 people crammed into Austin for the festival.

Over the years the industry has taken notice and
has turned what was primarily a showcase for indie music into a
major music event.
While the festival still books
plenty of cutting edge acts, it also has become a place for
massive artists to perform, with huge stars like Lady Gaga,
Kanye West and Metallica making appearances. 

The Shadow SXSW

And events continue to creep beyond the scope of the official
festival. Day parties started in mid-90s and most are free of
charge and don’t require an official registration. The day
party tradition, which packs up to 10 bands performing short
sets in the hours before the official showcases start, are now
so common that SXSW has become enormous. Only a small portion
of those who come to Austin this week attend the festival
itself. 


Op8GGxSt_400x400
Outside of all the top-level
artists, brands have decided they want to get in on
SXSW as well.
It seems like every year another major
brand throws down big money to have a presence at the festival.
Many wonder if it’s a bit much. When Doritos
built a stage
 that resembled a huge vending machine
stuffed with oversized bags of Cool Ranch and Nacho flavor, it
might have been one chip too far. 

All this popularity is causing severe headaches for festival
administration. The city itself cannot handle that many people
in such a confined space. At least with the current commitment
of services from the festival and the City of Austin. 

Last year, tragedy struck. A suspected drunk driver drove down
Red River, one of the main downtown streets closed to traffic
and packed with club-goers. Two people lost their lives and
many were injured. In some respects, SXSW is lucky something
like this hadn’t happened in the past decade, as attendance has
climbed every year. 

In Line and Out of Line

Despite the options, most of these free parties are extremely
over-subscribed. Many who come into town find themselves left
out of the action. Lines at places like the Fader Fort can
stretch for several city blocks. SXSW does its best by
scheduling a free show at an auditorium not far from downtown,
but there’s just not enough to entertain all who come into
town.

The experience for those who attend the actual festival is
becoming more tiresome. Getting around has become a nightmare.
Sixth Street resembles a menacing mosh pit anytime after 7 pm
at night. Dinner options are non-existent. Even grabbing a
mediocre-at-best Sixth Street pizza slice is
getting pricy.

This year, the city and SXSW had enough. Festival management
has been unhappy with the amount of services the city provides.
It needs more support and security to keep everyone safe. In
fact, SXSW said it was considering bidding out the entire
festival to let other cities compete. But the festival’s
identity is so tied to Austin that it probably could never
decamp the city.

The city cut back on event permits for the Shadow SXSW,
limiting the number of opportunities to build a stage and fly
in a platinum artist for a showcase. And some brands are
sitting it out too. The Doritos stage is thankfully gone this
year.

All good and well, but will it limit the number of people
flocking into town? Perhaps slightly. But the festival’s
reputation is now cemented in the music fan’s mind, and I’ll
contend that the throngs of people are still going to show up.
It’s up to SXSW to solve this problem. On top of the music
fans, it’s also college spring break for lots of students, and
the city has become a mecca for those looking for a party
without ever going to show.

Lighting The Shadows

Instead of burying its head in the sand, SXSW could proactively
plan for the mass of humanity that’ll show up without the
benefit of a laminate. Just two miles from downtown is Zilker
Park, the site of the annual Austin City Limits music festival.
There’s no reason that SXSW couldn’t book a half dozen stages
for big time artist to perform. The festival could make it free
and safe with the appropriate budget for security.

Sure, it’s not perfect. March weather in Austin is extremely
mercurial, so booking an outdoor festival will be a gamble. And
there will still be overflow for the regular festival. Don’t
expect 6th Street to get less congested anytime soon. But at
least there would be a plan.

Perhaps it’s just my gaggle of friends in the business, but my
experience is that more industry types are skipping this
year’s festival than ever before. I’m even taking a break after
11 straight years of sojourning to Austin for tacos, brisket
and Shiner Bock whirred together with amazing music
discoveries.

Long ago I had come to terms with how SXSW has changed. A few
years back, my favorite day party at the Yard Dog was overrun.
I couldn’t even get close to the stage or beer. And this wasn’t
on the main drag of Sixth Street. It’s in a tucked away
courtyard in the South Congress District. Fuming, I took an
attitude adjustment walk at dusk on Lake Travis and came to the
realization that the festival was still great. I mean where
else can you discover the bevvy of new bands I have over the
past four days. It’s just different from the one I first
experienced 20 years ago. 

Just like the city itself, the festival has grown up. At its
core, it’s still an amazing experience, one well worth the
hassle. I’m hopeful that the festival administration and
the city will partner to solve its problems together. 

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