The True Value Of Totally Free: SXSW 2013

Aside from the meta-irony of a blog called A New Band A Day going to SXSW and not blogging for the entire duration, what else have we gleaned from this year’s visit to a scorching hot Austin, Texas?

Last year, ANBAD emerged from SXSW dazed, confused and slightly scarred for life. And yet, it was all kind-of worth it to catch first glimpses of Mujuice, Mmoths, et al.

This year, SXSW was busier and more ludicrous than ever. There’s not much point me ‘tipping’ any bands that I saw, because there were so many that they all blended onto one large, reverb-laden, angular guitar dream-pop band.

There were also plenty of bands who are not so new – remember, no-one discovers new bands at SXSW any more, durrrr. For new music discovery, you’d do much better to pick a few random blogs and root around for new sounds, frankly; and unless you live in an overcrowded household, you won’t have to queue for the toilet/food/entrance to anything at any point, either.

NB: The best band I saw was The Specials, who preformed a brilliantly happy set that made even the most recalcitrant hipsters smile, and formed in, er 1977. I missed Charlotte Church’s new, ‘indie’ set, but did see the very composed, and buzz-tastic, Chvrches. A tabloid-and-buzz-blog-friendly collaboration, Charlotte Chvrches, awaits.

(As an interesting curio, Andrew WK performed a gig at VICEland sponsored by the post-coital genital wipes product for which he became a spokesperson just in time for SXSW.)

What has occurred to me this year at SXSW though, is another pressing issue directly related to the music industry (and many others) – the societal results of giving so much stuff away for free.

Music is a large, wonderful part of SXSW’s raison d’etre, but is not the whole point by a long stretch. It’s also a mecca for both those who want to get their mitts on as much gratis stuff as possible, and also for those corporations who decide that they simply have to throw out as much of their product, or made-in-China nick-knacks with their logo on, as possible.

If it sounds like this combination of latent entitlement and eagerness to feed that very same monster might combine to form the starting gun of a race all the way to the bottom, you’d probably be right. And to make it sound even more gross, these freebies are referred to, without irony, as Swag. (If you’re an enormous douche, you’ll pronounce it Schwag.)

It’s not that giving stuff away doesn’t work as a marketing tool – it can be incredibly successful – but on this scale, the mindset it fosters begins to be a problem.

SXSW allows for some interesting lifestyle experiments, should you wish to undertake them: as long as you have a place to sleep, you can comfortably eat, drink, clothe yourself and party for free for the duration, such is the freebie-density in Austin for that one week in March.

Of course, this sounds entirely tempting. Everyone loves free. And after a couple of hours at SXSW, you begin to expect it. Free is great! You know, except for the ultimate producers, who are taking the hit in their pocket.

It doesn’t matter how you trace the line – though giant tech corps (or whoever): eventually the bottom line is picked up by someone, and I’ll bet you that it isn’t the giant tech corps (or whoever) that lose out.

The culture of faux-free extends far outside of SXSW, of course – most music consumers expect free now, or at least as cheap as is (in)humanly possible. Who pays this ultimate price when this model is applied to music? Well, the musicians, usually.

They’re the ones who still exist in the real world: a real world where food (during the 51 weeks of the year they’re not wolfing down free soggy breakfast tacos at SXSW) and rent needs to be paid for.

And yet, they’re also the ones who find themselves having to cut corners at every turn. We want as much new music, food and as many shows for free as is apparently possible – and it’s OK, because the giant tech corps (or whoever) are paying for it, yay!

Except – urgh – they’re not. They’re writing the vast expense off as promo at an event that garners huge headlines every year. Which is fine, except the new bands – whose cachet is valued highly – often receive very little, even in terms of exposure.

As always, the question boils down to: does the end justify the means?

I’ll leave you to consider your own answer, but my abiding memory is that, after a few days of free USB drives, free hats, free sunglasses, free fro-yo, free t-shirts, free wristbands, weak but free beer, free spongy tacos, free decals of brand logos, etc, it occurred to me that a lot of things seemed to have lost any sense of value whatsoever.

3 thoughts on “The True Value Of Totally Free: SXSW 2013

  1. I think it’s a tough ask Joe. Everything these days is driven by technology, and the assumption goes that now media as a whole (so TV, movies and music) is so freely available that people don’t want to pay for it. The tech industry itself is now governing where people spend their money. People buy an iPod then fill it with free music. No wonder the tech companies are happy to send out freebies to help the bands, that stuff is on their devices.

    There is another interesting trend though. We know for example that newspapers are dying and that is partly because companies can’t BIG SELL their product through the medium. At the same time, online ads through the same channel (web newspaper sites) isn’t grown at a rate of knots that would indicate that it is going to surpass it. The fact is the way people consume media and respond to ads has totally changed, and simply replacing offline with online is not going to work seemingly.

    I think this has lead to the “give it away culture.” It’s more like “we don’t know how to market at you, so we’ll give shit away and hope something sticks.” I think Amanda Palmer might be in the right ballpark where she says that artists for too long have created this barrier they sit behind and ask for people to pay for their content. We know people steal music, so let them do it, but make it a choice rather than a crime. So “pay what you want” or pre-pay could become a huge deal in future artistic media. I don’t know if this will suit all media, films cost millions to put together for example, but the fact that people still go through to the Cinema shows that the experience and paying for it is something people will do, you just have to give them that opportunity. Asking people to support can help artists out and shouldn’t be ruled out completely.

    Either way, flat giving everything away is not sustainable, but surely no more sustainable than having the paltry contributions filtering through from the likes of Spotify etc. The music industry should really look at making online access more sustainable for artists if that is the way most people get hold of their tunes.

  2. Hey Steve! Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

    I think you have nailed the root of all this:

    “we don’t know how to market at you, so we’ll give shit away and hope something sticks.”

    I agree that consumption has changed – and you’re right about the tech industry riding high on the strength of the ‘free’ content that fills up their devices.

    It’s a tough call, like you say. I don’t have the answer (who does?!) – but I’m certain that this all-free-all-the-time approach is unsustainable, and damaging to those with the least in their pockets.

    I’m still interested to see how it all eventually pans out…

  3. This was an awesome blog, do not write what we think. Thank you, we so wanted to have a blog like this for music in Indonesia, especially for bands in our town. musical greeting :)

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