PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- There was once a time when the sprawling splendor of the South By Southwest Interactive, Film and Music conferences would have been the event of my year.
It's not anymore, and keeping people like me away from that festival and others like it is the best way for South By Southwest to survive and thrive.
TheStreet's Carlton Wilkinson and Debra Borchardt are both in Austin this week covering the festival, and I wish both of them the best. Carlton, my editor, made it clear that he was going on his own terms, investigating music and people he finds interesting and not trying to be all things to all people. Debra, meanwhile, is poking around the startups and tweeting out Vines and longer-form pieces on the ones that catch her eye.
Though I have little stomach for the latter approach -- getting pitched at and sold to all day is a depressing proposition unworthy of airfare -- even Carlton's strategy doesn't sound like it's without its pitfalls. On three hours sleep, Carlton went to listen to Neil Young's keynote address -- in which Young launched his Pono high-definition digital music service and the $399 PonoPlayer that went along with it.
I'm sorry, but that just sounds insufferable. You've waited hours for a legend of the music industry to drop some knowledge on par with Bruce Springsteen's and Dave Grohl's speeches of the past couple of years only to have him push yet another music player at you? To have a man whose work fans have now purchased on vinyl, eight-track, cassette, CD, DVD boxed set, digital file, Blu-ray boxed set and 180-gram-vinyl now shove yet another format into their faces? It's just too depressing.
All of it. SXSW is just a reminder of the complete and total victory of commerce over creativity. Last year, the SXSW Music and Film festivals drew 25,119 participants and 16,297 participants, respectively. Meanwhile, its interactive portion drew 30,691 participants on its own. Lump in the SXSW Edu conference (4,260 participants), trade show (571 exhibit spaces), gaming expo (147 spaces) and the countless folks on the streets of Austin guerrilla marketing their startup swag and the scales start to tilt heavily in favor of the salesmen.
But the musicians and filmmakers are selling something too, ya know! Yes, art. They're selling art, just as the flat-stock poster makers and music gear vendors are. That doesn't exactly make it a broadening, soul-lifting experience at all times. I used to cover the CMJ Music Marathon in New York and a far more minor Hoboken Independent Music Festival in New Jersey, and the shows had more than their share of music industry and A&R folks on the prowl; uninvited bands handing out samplers and merch; and venue bookers and managers cranking through sets and passing out festival-priced drinks. But, at their core, were the shows. It was the bands trying to sell themselves through their live performances and venues just trying to get people to come back.
The Tribeca Film Festival, which I also had the great pleasure of covering, was a similar scenario. There was a lot of salesmanship but there was also the films themselves standing on their own in small venues. Some of the best films I'd screened -- including a documentary on the New York Cosmos, the hip-hop documentary Rock The Bells and the low-budget horror homage Hatchet -- were seen at showings with only a handful of other attendees. That's the end product, and all the filmmakers want are enough eyeballs and word of mouth to get them to another platform: Indie theaters, movie channels, ESPN, etc.
Elements of this still exist at South By Southwest but are fading into the din. As noted by by colleague Rocco Pendola, who attended South By Southwest last year, this is likely the worst time to be in Austin as a music or film fan. There are long lines for everything worth eating or drinking and everybody around you is in pitch, sell or networking mode, which means almost nobody except the most drunken SXSW-goers are in their natural state.
That's not a festival, that's a bazaar. However, that's exactly why cantankerous old coots like myself and other naysayers should do the right thing and stay as far away from that event as possible. No, it isn't an ideal music showcase and companies like Apple (AAPL) and Chevrolet are only making it more difficult to squeeze emerging artists onto the stages, but hundreds of music writers and thousands of fans still make discoveries there anyway. No, SXSW isn't Sundance or Cannes, but great independent films like The Spectacular Now, Upstream Color, Short Term 12, Muscle Shoals and Before Midnight all took their first steps into the U.S. market there.
The panels and keynotes are still stacked and worth your while, the Interactive fest is as much a tech cornerstone as CES or E3 and it's still Austin. There are venues everywhere, shows every night and barbecue and Shiner all around. The whole thing brings about $200 million in business to Austin and boosts business at the venues 45% over the next most-popular month on the calendar.
It's perhaps a bit more business-casual than the festival title would imply, but there are a lot of folks who love mixing business and pleasure there and see a huge return on their investment. They don't need me or anyone else sulking and grousing about the commercialism behind what's now an inherently commercial exercise. That's like watching the Super Bowl and complaining the commercials and halftime show are ruining the game.
If you still want a music festival without the extra city's worth of people and vendors, the Austin City Limits festival comes around in October. In the meantime, let SXSW keep greasing the gears of commerce without a bunch of purists throwing a wrench into them.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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