SXSW Music: What Is Wrong With Us?

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The SXSW Outdoor Stage at Lady Bird Lake.
The SXSW Outdoor Stage at Lady Bird Lake. Credit: Photo by Tye Truitt/courtesy SXSW

I've just returned from a couple of days at SXSW. I've been going to this annual event for nearly 20 years, and it's something that I always look forward to. I love music and have always believed that the SXSW Music Festival was something special when it came to giving emerging voices a place to be seen and heard.
 SXSW used to be the place to discover new voices in music. If you were an up-and-coming musician, this was the place you came to be discovered, signed or just heard. Artists drove all night in vans filled with bandmates, amps, drums, guitars and duffle bags. It was never glamorous, but it was the most exciting road trip of the year for hundreds and hundreds of hard-working, nonfamous musicians.

Boy, how things have changed over the years. SXSW, while still important, has become a big hypefest where big brands talk to themselves and compete to throw the coolest parties. It's filled with tech and media companies, all there to eat BBQ, have private parties and try to act cooler than they actually are. If I'm honest, I have to say that it makes me sick.
Now, I admit that I know I'm sounding like an old guy saying, "Well, I remember back in the day, SXSW used to be different and better."

But it's true. Today, it is absolutely different. And, it is absolutely not better.

As I walked the streets of Austin, I witnessed thousands of people walking with their heads down, texting/posting/Snapchatting. And when they weren't doing that, they were standing in lines to get into parties sponsored by brands like Twix, Twitter, McDonald's, Giorgio Armani (yes folks, we just jumped the shark) and/or a TV show from TNT. And if you're not on the list, you can't get in -- sorry.

Once they got into these VIP meccas, they spent every minute snapping photos and posting them. Not actually looking up, watching the band and enjoying the moment -- or the music. It really hit me hard this year as I looked around. And I have to say that we (all of us in marketing, media and advertising) can and need to do better.

We are a bunch of followers. If one tech brand rents a building and paints it blue, another one across the street paints their building red -- and both hire big artists to entertain them. At the end of the day, it's just a bunch of brands talking to themselves. 

What's happened to all of us? Why are we all so satisfied with copying each other, and offering absolutely nothing original? I'll tell you why, because we are acting entitled. We are acting cooler than we are. It's getting super boring. SXSW, in a nutshell: a bunch of brands, filling the streets, screaming for attention, but from whom?

All of the emerging artists are gone. They can no longer afford to come to Austin because corporate America has taken all of the hotel rooms, so these young artists can't afford to be there. As they disappear, more and more brand, media and advertising executives fill those rooms, rent the bars for their parties and continue to kill a great idea. And, as they talk to themselves, and put up the velvet ropes, fill out their VIP lists, set up their digital RSVP system, there are others who are also getting blocked out: the consumers.

It made me sick to see so many of us walking the streets wearing 13 different VIP wristbands. Seriously, do you really think you're a VIP because you got on a few party guest lists? Here's a "real" news flash — you're not. Yeah, yeah, I know that there were some really good panel discussions (and there were, I agree) but if you really look at it, there were also a number of worthless ones. A panel about the McDonald's history in music? Are you kidding me? McDonald's makes jingles, and some of them have been memorable, but to position themselves as having a legitimate history in music is not only ridiculous, it's also a perfect example of brands talking to themselves. Have you seen the new Big Mac rap spot? Well, sorry to Ronald and his fellow clowns, that spot is actually an insult to music. For them to present what they have done as a piece of "history" in music at SXSW serves as the poster child for how far off the tracks we've gotten.

So, look around. The emerging voices are all gone, and so are most of the consumers our brands hope to connect with, and sell things to. Yep, it's just us standing around, holding a Lone Star, trying to look cool, acting entitled.
 Yes folks, we can and we must do better. We've lost the plot. We've forgotten all about who pays for the lifestyles we are all so lucky to live: the consumer.
Hopefully, next year will bring a new focus on the consumer, and there will be fewer VIP lists and more access for normal music fans who come to Austin to listen to music, to discover new bands and to have fun with their friends.

But, I have serious doubts that anything will change. See you next year, standing in line at the Twitter/Monster Energy/Doritos/Mazda/McDonald's/Giorgio Armani House of New Music, featuring The Roots. We're all on the list, but get there early because just being on the list doesn't mean you're actually a VIP. I mean, you know, because what's more fun than a VIP party that's missing the most important of all VIPs -- our consumers?

I guess the good news is that we all enjoyed a little BBQ and cold beer while we stood around and talked to ourselves all week. We can do better, folks. Okay, that's all I have to say.

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