Could the highest-profile booking at this year’s South by Southwest music festival also be an indication that the annual event is flailing?
Next week, Michelle Obama will deliver the keynote address at SXSW Music, set to run Tuesday to Sunday in Austin, Texas. There’s no doubt that the first lady was a serious get for the conference, especially compared with 2015’s keynote speaker, rapper Snoop Dogg, whose presentation took the form of a low-impact chat with his manager.
Obama, in contrast, is expected to discuss the Let Girls Learn initiative, which according to the White House seeks to “help adolescent girls around the globe attend and complete school.”
No argument here with the value of that endeavor — nor with the need to promote it. But how exactly does SXSW Music, with its unruly mix of concerts, parties and panel discussions, offer “the perfect platform to celebrate Women’s History Month,” as the festival trumpets on its website?
Obama’s shoehorned appearance is just the latest sign of an identity crisis for SXSW Music as the once-powerful confab is increasingly overshadowed by its counterparts devoted to film and technology. (Tellingly, President Obama will take part in a keynote conversation Friday at SXSW Interactive, which in recent years has been credited with helping to launch Twitter.)
The festival was founded in 1987 as a kind of trade show for regional talent, where developing bands from around Austin would perform in the hopes of landing a record deal or impressing a booking agent. Over the years, the Internet — and the ease with which it allows anyone to discover new music — chipped away at SXSW’s usefulness as an incubator.
So instead it began attracting established stars eager to hype new projects before a concentrated audience of tastemakers and gatekeepers. I recall one evening a few years back when Prince was playing a small club at the same time that Justin Timberlake was playing an even smaller one.
You can imagine how many struggling acts went unheard that night.
As the A-listers flocked to Austin, corporate brands like Citi and Apple followed. Concerts became opportunities to roll out new consumer products; in turn, rolling out new consumer products provided reason to put on ever-splashier concerts.
To this day, I don’t know what Samsung Milk Music is. But I know it was responsible for bankrolling a thrilling gig by Jay Z and Kanye West at the Austin Music Hall in 2014.
That year’s festival — which also included a highly publicized Lady Gaga show in which she was vomited on by another performer, courtesy of Doritos — is sure to be remembered as the climax of SXSW’s romance with sponsored content.
That was also the year when four people were killed after a drunk driver fleeing from police plowed into a crowd gathered on Austin’s busy Red River Street — a tragedy some took as proof that the festival had become dangerously unmanageable.
The effect was easy to see at SXSW 2015, which felt like a retrenchment in many ways, with fewer superstar acts and a lower corporate profile. But if last year’s festival seemed reoriented around emerging artists, its still-massive scale made it hard for many of the approximately 2,000 performers to gain any kind of traction.
Which led you to wonder about the point of the thing. In recent years, SXSW’s film and interactive portions have become crucial destinations for those industries, attracting heavyweights and upstarts alike with a real sense of occasion and possibility.
When the filmmakers behind “Furious 7” brought their movie to SXSW Film last year for a surprise screening — one that triggered tears from fans of the mega-franchise’s late star, Paul Walker — the mix of glitz and grime produced the kind of charge that used to be encountered regularly during the music festival.
Similarly, controversy this year over how SXSW Interactive should handle the tech-ethics battle known as Gamergate speaks to the festival’s importance as a forum for hashing out complicated ideas.
As we head into SXSW Music, sparks like those appear in short supply. Sure, promising young acts will perform over the festival’s six-day run, from the young Australian electro-pop singer Troye Sivan to Anderson .Paak, an L.A.-based singer and rapper with a kaleidoscopic vision of his hometown’s musical history.
And it’s clear that some brands still believe in SXSW, as I was reminded by one email from a PR person asking if I might have time to visit — deep breath here — the Jam in the Van GQ Artist House Hosted by Hormel Taco Meats.
But overall the anticipation for this year’s festival feels as low as I can ever remember it. Ditto the expectation that SXSW Music will, y’know, accomplish anything at a moment when its ambitions seem damagingly diffuse.
Does the festival want to elevate worthy new talent? Provide corporations with a captive audience? Celebrate Women’s History Month?
I suppose SXSW wants to do all three. We’ll see in a week and a half what stuck.