The image above is an example of the best of the worst. That's a statue of the movie version of the "Lord of the Rings" character Gollum, making a photo-op appearance at a media company's exhibit booth inside the Austin Convention Center. I happen to love the Lord of the Rings movies and what director Peter Jackson has done with the J.R.R. Tolkein story and love the whimsy of stumbling onto a lifesized statue of the twisted and thoroughly pitiful character of Gollum.

But there's no getting around that Gollum is a bigtime celebrity now -- not the weird private demon of my childhood, but a Hollywood movie star. And as a celebrity, he was there to push product.

That's what the vision of SXSW has become, in a nutshell: picking select tokens of mass appeal that can act as magical gatekeepers for sellers of the fantasy of hipness. Every exhibitor wants to be Fairy Godmother to your Cinderella, Morpheus to your Neo and yes, Gollum to your Frodo. Every singer wants to be your Mick Jagger, every band, your Beatles.

There's no room for real individuality in that climate. There's only store-bought individuality; pretend individuality. That's different from the SXSW of even a few years ago, when individuality reigned.

Still, I enjoyed myself. I ate a lot of tacos, drank a few local beers. I met a lot of great, friendly people, saw a few legends, a few extremely talented acts and many mediocre ones, enjoyed more than few delightful surprises. I steered clear of Lady Gaga and the iTunes Festival and tried to find unknown acts that would pique my interest. I shared in equal measure in the festival's blessings and sins, its joys and tragedies.

And I came away exhausted, satisfied, but knowing that I had seen a "South-By" bigger only in size -- in spirit, a pale shadow of its former glory.

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