The instant culture of South by Southwest

By Renata Limon

When I describe my hometown of Austin, Texas to Minnesotans, I usually toss in the word “oasis” as quickly as possible. By this I mean that Austin is an oasis of culture in what is otherwise a barren wasteland, with the exception of a few rural spots that are funny in an ironic way. So I was excited this Spring Break to finally be bringing friends home with me. And not for just any spring week in Austin, but for a week that is known for being saturated with music, art, good-looking people and similar phenomena that people are usually reluctant to imagine existing in Texas.

South by Southwest, a week-long international music and film festival, has taken place in Austin annually since 1987. While I’ve been in the city ever since the festival’s inception, this was the first time I actually paid for festival passes and planned on being downtown every night. By the end of the week, however, I was dreaming longingly of happy hour in a broken down Lockhart Pool Hall where the cowboy hats were covered not in satin but in dust and the belt buckles hadn’t been bought for thirty dollars at a kitschy thrift store. I left the festival feeling fairly disgusted, and I now see South by Southwest as evidence of an urban environment where individuals are encouraged to exist as if the world were a giant amusement park, department store and reality show all rolled into one.

Whereas Austin was once known for its unique local music scene, which produced such music legends as Janis Joplin, Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators and Daniel Johnston, it now seems to be best know internationally for SXSW. It seems we have traded an urban community that fosters unique local talent for the financial rewards of catering to the music industry. While it has always commodified music and art, SXSW at least used to serve as a way for new musical acts to find an audience. This kind of opportunity has almost entirely vanished and it is now supposedly extremely difficult for unknown acts to gain exposure at the festival. Instead, the chief aim of the festival is to capitalize off of a roving trans-metropolitan crowd of young people wealthy enough to fly out to Austin for a week and cough up anywhere from $200-500 for festival passes. (And that isn’t counting the cost of a week’s worth of over-priced cocktails.) The official South by Southwest website estimates that revenues at music venues, bars and restaraunts increase roughly 45 percent during SXSW week and 16,490 rooms a week are booked at local hotels. As a native, I have an interest in seeing the city of Austin make money, but am also worried that we are selling-out our unique local culture and investing in fleeting tourist attractions for the sake of financial gain. It’s like the city has dropped out of school, stopped painting and started bartending and dealing coke because it enjoys the immediate financial success and glamorous lifestyle. But are we really investing in things that will pay off in the future?

The SXSW website states that the goal of the festival is “to create an event that would act as a tool for creative people and the companies they work with to develop their careers, to bring together people from a wide area to meet and share ideas.” While I certainly accept that the festival serves as a context for music industry executives and others who make millions of dollars from the commodification of rock music to develop their careers and share ideas, I do not believe that the event functions as a tool for people who are creative in fields other than advertising. I do not believe that the drunk crowds wandering through downtown from show to show, stuffing their senses at this all-you-can-eat music and entertainment buffet are “sharing ideas” or doing anything remotely creative.

The sad thing is that these tourists feel no sense of connection to the local community they are entering. When I ran into my friends from high school, I found them on the outskirts of the city and hidden in secluded neighborhood spots, drinking coffee, playing chess and complaining about over-priced SXSW beer. It bothered me to think that all the trendy young people I saw crawling the streets of downtown every night and trashing the city had no idea who these people—the ones who actually lived there—were, and probably couldn’t care less.

When I did go out at night during South by Southwest, I felt completely alienated from myself, like when you sit through three movies in a row and then walk around feeling dazed and slightly disoriented. I can’t help but imagine that all the tourists left the city at the end of the week feeling not only hung-over, but empty. They had certainly consumed Austin, but probably never managed to penetrate the urban arena that had been set up for them like a giant playground to uncover the real, still very unique local culture underneath.

Standing around waiting to be dazzled and entertained is the most unrewarding kind of involvement in music and art and it is a type of involvement that encourages display rather than appreciation for process. This is not to deny that there are fun aspects of the festival. Or that I could even count myself as an exception to the festival-goers I’m criticizing. After all, I paid for passes, too. The friends who drove down with me loved every minute of it, especially the free beer and barbecue at day shows, and I wouldn’t say that their enjoyment wasn’t genuine and worthwhile. But I think it is important to remember that music and art can, and I would argue, should, be much more than this. I found the context of much of the music and art I saw at South by Southwest as empty, mechanical and boring as an assembly hall lecture, a context which produced expression and interaction that was simplistic, safe, easy-to- sell and lacking any real creative content.

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