March 20, 2014

SXSW As Metaphor: More than a marketing opportunity

Austin's own Mysterious H performing at SXSW in 2010

A week ago I posted an essay on the absorption of the SXSW Music festival by commercial forces. Even as I was writing the piece, I was aware that, by focusing my comments on the schedule of official and sponsored events, I was ignoring the fact that those events hardly constituted everything that was going on at SXSW.

To the contrary, while the official and sponsored events may have been the festival’s most prominent attractions, they were not its most important ones.

What mattered most, I was sure, unfolded on the backstreets. That's where hundreds of little-known or unknown musicians played out-of-the-way bars and coffee houses, paying little or no attention to the branding crap that was being discussed and displayed in the high-profile venues.

Most of those musicians, no doubt, dream of becoming rich and famous. They imagine headlining, in future festivals, the sorts of stages where the likes of Lady Gaga, Jay Z and Coldplay held forth this year. At the same time I don’t doubt that many of them also sing (as Texas’s own Townes Van Zandt once put it) for the sake of the song.  
No limos, no roadies, no publicist
My assumptions in this regard were confirmed by Randall Roberts of the Los Angeles Times. Disgusted by Lady Gaga’s unctuous keynote address (in which she had the nerve to claim that “without these companies coming together to help us, we won't have any more artists in Austin"), Roberts headed off in search of “more darkened clubs and more dissonant vibes.” He found them.

“Go ahead and toast those who prevailed at SXSW by getting signed, licensed or folded into a future marketing plan,” Roberts wrote, “but the losers in this vicious cycle earned more respect.” 

New York Times music critic Jon Pareles made many of the same points, expressing dismay at the commercialism on the main stages (the headline on his piece read “Big Money Upends a Festival: South by Southwest Festival Starts to Feel Corporate”) before noting edgier things more worthy of attention in the clubs.

“Somewhere within the big, loud, heavily branded party that thronged the streets of downtown Austin” he wrote, “…there was still the core of what SXSW has done since 1987: provide exposure for striving musicians, many of them independent.”
Outer Minds performing at SXSW last week.
In my earlier essay I cited Jacques Ellul’s contention that rebellion in the technological society is readily co-opted by the forces of technique for their own purposes. Chief among those purposes, in addition to creating lucrative marketing opportunities, is the safety valve rebellion provides the frustrated masses, allowing them to harmlessly blow off steam without posing any real threat to the continued operation of the machine.

While I think there’s great truth in that argument, I also think it demonstrates one of the more striking examples of Ellul’s occasional tendency to overstate his case. Creative ambition doesn’t necessarily exclude genuine love for the music, or genuine conviction. Well expressed, those feelings can, in turn, provide those who hear them with genuine, meaningful inspiration.

Yes, nearly everything these days gets corporatized, but not everything. The machine is powerful, but not yet all powerful. A good song, or dance, or poem, or play, or painting, or story, can replenish a little of that reservoir of human spirit that technique so relentlessly sucks dry. That’s no small gift, and one we need to make sure isn't drowned out by the marketing people with the loud megaphones. 

©Doug Hill, 2014

Credits: Mysterious H and walking musician photos by Jay Janner, Austin American-Statesman.  Outer Minds photo by Josh Hanner, New York Times.


  1. So maybe the answer for future attendees is to ignore all the expensive paid gigs and just hit the off-site pop-up music, as we locals have done all along. Thoughtful piece.

  2. Thanks. I always had the impression Austin people went their own way. Part of the reason so much great music comes out of there, no doubt.