Has SXSW Grown Out of Control?


The annual South By Southwest (SXSW) Music/Film/Interactive Conferences every March in Austin, Texas, where I live, always provides a good barometer of some important matters regarding modern entertainment and popular culture. The biggest lessons to be learned this year, though, were hardly intended or part of the planned curriculum of panels, speakers and presentations. And it involved the law of unintended consequences and the corrosive effects of too much booze, money and the acrid scent of celebrity allure.

Disclosure: I worked for SXSW in its early and far smaller years, 1989 to 1995, back when it was a seat-of-the-pants operation. And it was held in what was then still a backwater of a city, albeit one that was filled with cool and creative talent and thinkers who weren’t all the sort of depicted in Austinite Richard Linklater’s 1991 directorial debut Slacker – even if they appeared in it like one SXSW founder and director – which does depict a lot of truths about the city I moved to when I arrived here.

Now a quarter century later, Linklater showed what is his 17th feature film (by my count) at SXSW. Rather than a few thousand folks coming to town for the event, hundreds of thousands – of which only some 75,000 were official SXSW attendees – descend on a metro area already hit with growing pains from its population more than doubling and continuing to grow at an estimated pace somewhere between 90-150 people a day.

Music has gone from being an art and product in its own right to a lifestyle accessory that other consumer product peddlers wish to associate themselves with to enhance their brands and market appeal. The piles of dough these corporations are happy to throw around has helped SXSW maintain its status as the premier international music business event for the past decade. But the proliferation of parties with free music and some with free booze has all but taken up the better part of the central districts of the city where I live.

SXSW Music started on Spring Break week because the Austin clubs were dead when its resident students were gone and they could accommodate the influx and benefit from it. Now SXSW is a prime Spring Break destination, and it’s party-hearty time. Jimmy Kimmel even brought his new Jimmy Kimmel Live! show here.

The tragic consequences: three people dead and more than 20 hospitalized (all participants in SXSW) when a drunk driver in a speeding stolen car (also drawn to town by SXSW) mowed them down trying to get away from police. Hip-hop artist Tyler the Creator urged people outside of the outdoor venue where he was performing to bum rush the door, and the resulting fracas led to him to get arrested for inciting a riot. On the final Saturday night, Austin’s Sixth Street entertainment was fraught with fistfights and police in riot formation.

The aftermath: a once laid-back city already inconvenienced by crowds and transportation issues during it all and its music community a bit traumatized and music professionals that have regularly attended wondering if the once breezy event is now worth all the hassles. Sure, it generates over $200 million for the local economy, but at the cost of lives lost? And while the local music fans used to enjoy being a part of the party, more than ever they seem to want to avoid it all.

The problem that ultimately led to this crisis for the cutting edge conference is aspects of the popular culture that SXSW explores and celebrates in its musical and filmed aspects plus the transmission channel and subculture of the digital realm. Too many of today’s youth are driven to be up on and involved with the latest hip trends and celebrity culture, and the result is an onslaught on the event itself and my city that hosts it, which has made it less of a professional confab and more a free for all party. Drinking as a central aspect of the party adds to the volatile mix (and I happen to be a drinker, mind out). And alas, the hip-hop genre of gangsta rap and its allied “thug” subculture was a factor in virtually all of the incidents.

Current youth and its pop culture has never been more callow and consumerist than today, and in dire need of some depth, meaning and sensible values. SXSW was able to ride popular culture to astounding success. Now it’s an open question as to whether its raison d’etre will damage it beyond repair.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email orca@prismnet.com.

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2014


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