Behind The Streams: The Brandification of SXSW Is Complete
  • MONDAY, MARCH 17, 2014

  • Posted by: Baeble Staff

SXSW had a bad week. People died, GaGa got barfed on, and Tyler the Creator incited a riot, receiving a ticket to the clink instead of a ticket out of town. None of this is too surprising. These are the consequences of too much sun, tacos, drugs, alcohol, and sadly, automobiles coupled with massive gatherings of music fans. Of course we feel deep empathy and sadness for those who were injured and killed in front of the Mohawk last week. This said — festival season is only getting started and the annual youth culture death tax will inevitably pile up.

Through all the carnage there was a music festival last week. The annual spring break ritual for music geeks and industry-types has finally fully matured into the unhinged, sensationalist, tabloid-worthy Thunderdome of brands, bands, and mega-media we all knew it was heading for these last several years. To call it one festival at this point doesn't do it justice, as this monster is now operating as three different events packed into one. In the wake of such diversity, the conversation is less splintered than you think.

Historically speaking, the most integral part of the SXSW experience has been it's proximity to the future of music. Thousands of bands gold rush to central Texas, footing big bills to get up close and personal with elite, cultural media and the music industry. Discovery and musical moments of enlightenment were the big payoff for making the trip. This segment of the festival is still very much present, led by the likes of NPR, Fader and Hype Machine, to name a few. Their multi-day showcases curate a mix of what's next, what's trying to come back, and in some cases what never will (Seriously guys, Kelis? That Milkshake melted years ago). Each outlet has its own point of view, and whether you like such SX institutions they do a great job of curation and bringing both bands and music fans in to participate. Yes, some brands have infiltrated here, but it's an experiential aid of sorts, keeping shows free, drinks free-flowing, and providing everyone with a nice array of extra goodies.

Then there's the trade show. The reason why so many companies send their employees on paid-Spring Break to acquire new information, network, and return with strategic enlightenment is the biggest joke of the festival. The music industry, like every industry, loves its inward looking conferences and seminars, but when it comes down to it, do a bunch of New Yorkers really want to waste 80 degree weather in March sitting in a conference center, especially when these types of gatherings are available in major markets on a monthly basis? Nope. Still, there were a couple takeaways here. Neil Young's pitch of the Pono player to the audiophile elite, complete with endless rock royalty testimonials and deep pocketed Kickstarter cash. In the brave new world of streaming though, Pono will be DOA. There was also another keynote from GaGa herself, the perfect punctuation to her commercially supported choreographed spew fest for Doritos the night before. "Without sponsors, we won't have any more artists in Austin because record labels don't have any fucking money."



This serves at the perfect segue into the final piece of the SXSW puzzle; the major brands — be it iTunes or Doritos, or Gaga or Coldplay — who seemed to dominate the conversation this year. Multi-billion dollar corporations with marketing budgets in the hundreds of millions have taken the festival and run with it, culminating in Doritos' Lady Gaga vomit fest and Coldplay's masterful performance at the iTunes festival. Apple knows better than anyone else that the future of music consumption is streaming and the bottom is about to fall out of their iTunes money machine. They and Vevo created an amazing event and a tantalizing final product. The only catch? The only place to watch these performances is on the Vevo app on an Apple product or inside the iTunes store. Apple is using its muscle to make sure the majority of the audience that wants to see these performances (i.e. - people on personal computers) has to access it in their retail environment and Vevo is stepping out and locking its patron saint Youtube/Google out of the mix. Cue the conspiracy theories.

Monday is usually the day those emerging bands that won at SXSW tend to dominate the conversation. Yes, there have been nods to the likes of St. Vincent, London Grammar, Sam Smith, and Perfect Pussy floating around. But really, all the post-SX pontificating we're seeing is about SX's shift to a commercially powered music festival — a Coachella, Bonaroo, or Austin City Limits in slightly different clothing. 2014 marks the year the brandification of SXSW became complete. Doritos, iTunes, and Samsung (who brought Jay Z and Kanye to the festival) have completely co-opted the spirit of SXSW, turning it into a mass exploitation of a perfect target market. Outside of the few brave souls who keep the discovery element alive — NPR, Hype, FADER, Spotify, and the like — Austin is now owned by the brands and we only see the pendulum swinging further in their direction in the years come.

So where does that leave things? If SXSW will never be the same, will something take its place? Where will the little bands go to meet their destiny? NXNE, All Tomorrow's Parties, and Iceland's Airwaves all seem like decent candidates. Only time will really tell.

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