Tuesday, March 12, 2013

You Know What I Don't Like? SXSW.

So, it's that time of year again. The time of year when I gripe and grumble about how much I don't like South By Southwest. For those that don't know, I am a casual musician. While I'd love to make at least a partial living off music, I have absolutely zero ambition to play any arena tours or judge anyone's singing ability on TV. In case you're thinking this is a case of sour grapes because they've never selected any band I've been in to play their awful festival, let me make it clear that I've never submitted to their awful festival, and I have no plans to in the future. I'm also not the type of cynical prick who simply hates anything popular. I mean, well, I am a cynical prick, but I'm not that type of cynical prick.
I'm not saying the festival is 100% pure evil, and I'm not demanding anyone with a conscience boycott it or occupy it or any dumb shit like that. I'm just saying I really, really don't like it. Also, I know nothing of the film/interactive/comedy/gaming aspects of it. I assume that stuff is just as much of an exploitative corporate behemoth as the music end, but who knows, maybe all that's great.
It's only fair to point out that even if this whole thing was just as awesome as everyone says it was back in the late 80's, I still probably wouldn't like it. Standing out in the sun all day with thousands of other members of the general public (who I, as a rule, try to avoid whenever possible), drinking shitty beer and listening to so many bands in a week that they all blur together and I don't even remember which ones were great and which ones sucked with a vigorous fury does not sound like a good time to me. Clearly, there's an awful goddamn lot of people who disagree, and let's be honest, they're probably not the assholes here, but it is what it is.
So, you ask, what then elevates this from something you'd just as soon not engage in to something you feel the need to piss and moan about every year?
SXSW makes giant piles of cash off of the independent artist community I love and doesn't offer much in return. Now, I'm no communist. The people who thought up this idea and put a lot of work into it every year certainly deserve to make some money off of it, and of course it costs a lot to put this thing together, but this has gotten a little out of hand.
For starters, every band that wants to be considered for the festival pays $30-40 to apply. The purpose of this is to discourage the bands who have absolutely no chance of getting in from clogging up the works by submitting for the hell of it, and to pay whatever poor bastard has to sift through all of them. Still, thousands upon thousands of bands submit every year, and those $40 do add up to a lot of money.
There's also merch. All your SXSW t-shirts and coozies and mouse pads and ball caps and duffel bags and whatever else you can silk screen a logo onto.
Then there are the corporate sponsorships. SXSW is sponsored by companies like Chevy, Monster Energy Drinks, Pepsi, Doritos, American Airlines, Miller Lite, etc. I don't know how much money they pour into it, but I wouldn't be surprised if Scrooge McDuck could swim around in it.
Actually, none of that would be all that bad if they didn't then gouge the ever loving fuck out of you for the price of admission. The absolute least you could pay for a badge for just the music portion of the festival was $625. That's if you planned waaaay ahead and bought it in early September. Today, a music badge will cost you $795, and an all access platinum badge will cost a completely insane $1595.
I can't find figures on how much of a profit SXSW makes (to be honest, I didn't really look all that hard.) According to Wikipedia, though, "SXSW is the highest revenue-producing event for the Austin economy, with an estimated economic impact of $167 million in 2011."
Of course, that money being injected into our economy is good for Austin as a whole, and particularly the music venues who do a huge amount of business during the week in question. They're not seeing any of that $1600 badge money, though. I suspect Most of that $167 million has to do with people coming in from out of town and spending their money at bars, restaurants, and hotels, and they'd probably make even more money if more people came to town because the badges were actually affordable.
The 2500 or so independent bands who this festival would be absolutely nothing without? They mostly play for free. They have the option to get $250 (really $210, if you consider the $40 you spent to submit) or get wristbands that get them into the official events for free. Being music fans themselves, I suspect a strong majority of them take the wristbands, and I suspect the organizers count on this, as it costs them nothing at all. If you're an Austin based band, $250 isn't bad for one gig. If you're from out of state, or better yet, another country, you're probably taking a loss, maybe a really big one, to help make these people lots and lots of money. Fuck that.
But what about the enormous exposure opportunity? You can't put a price on that, right? Yeah, here's the thing.... In the last 10 years, how many bands who were complete unknowns do you think got signed to a major label because of a SXSW performance? The answer (and even this is probably debatable) is 3. They were Hanson, John Mayer, and James Blunt. Think your quirky, original band is going to get spotted by some record executive? Good luck with that.
Really, if you're just 3-5 guys in a van booking gigs yourselves, you're better off booking a bunch of unofficial shows during the week, especially since scoring an official showcase means agreeing not to play any other night time shows all week. Even then, though, you may play to 100 people or 5 at any given gig, and those people just saw 40 bands yesterday, and they're going to see 200 more in the next few days, probably while pounding beers the whole time. If you don't light yourself on fire on stage, odds are that they won't remember you, even if they really liked you at the time. I did mention I'm a cynical prick, right?
Anyway, look, if you think it's the most fun you have all year, go for it. It's a good thing for Austin overall, and there's plenty of stuff to do that doesn't require a $1600 badge. I just find the idea of a festival that depends entirely on independent artists to make a huge profit, but then doesn't pay most of those artists anything at all unsavory at best. Plus, I prefer my beloved Red River district sans giant throngs of L.A. douchebags, but that's just me.

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