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.