Thoughts on SXSW 2012 & the State of Music Discovery

Maura Johnston wrote a really great piece about music “discovery” at SXSW and was able to quickly sum up a long conversation I’ve been having with friends and colleagues on and off for years.

It’s been a few years since it felt at all like bands coming down for SXSW had any chance of sticking with anyone. You either get an official showcase and pray your lineup is supportive/location accessible, or you drive your ass down here and try to get on as many bills as possible. Bands with some kind of following (or a good label/booking agency) have a leg up. Bands assuming SX will be the place where they get those things have a long hard road ahead.

25 years ago, this wasn’t the case. The then puppy-sized fest was a manageable size and had a lot less noise. And of course, back then, there was such a thing as a record deal that bands could hope for after all the hard work. In the last ten years, this has changed dramatically, but Maura’s right: the last two years or so have witnessed what looks to be the complete burial of those kinds of things. Even five years ago, the blog community she refers to offered young bands with promise and an advocate a chance to play at a party or showcase to people who were actually looking forward to seeing them. Since then, various digital advancements and the nature of the festival itself (focused more on brands and marketing itself than anything else) have made even that small window of opportunity close.

Sure, sites like Brooklyn Vegan, Gorilla vs Bear etc. still throw great events (and are obviously very dedicated to supporting the emerging music community) – but even the best of those lineups have to struggle against bigger and bigger names each year, fighting for the attention of the fickle, drunken masses. I booked SX parties for years with Austinist, and it wasn’t that long ago that just one recognizable headliner with a solid following could anchor a lineup of almost entirely ‘breaking’ indie acts. No more. Sure, you can fill a room (partly because the rooms get smaller and smaller for these types of shows, as big brands pay the rental fees for the most desirable locations), but then what? You hope people take photos and share them? You hope that someone important discovers a band? You hope that someone famous wanders in? What is it we’re after anymore? Do these bands drive out of town feeling they accomplished something besides a good set in a less-than-perfect venue, usually with competing sounds and a distracted audience? It seems like the best you can hope for is a room full of mostly attentive kids who actually give a shit … and those authentic music lovers who really hit the streets to (still) try and support and discover bands are few and far between, and not interested in whatever Twitter hashtag you’ve created for your event.

As Maura mentions, at this point, the curation concept that was once able to give music blogs a sort of loudspeaker to interested listeners has faded. We’re a song culture, an instant gratification hype machine of a listening community, and we’re not likely to need anyone to tell us what we like or should be interested in. How this has happened and whether or not I’m right is a longer conversation, but this shift is, I think, critical in understanding the changing role SX has on the indie community and should be a huge part of a greater conversation we all have.

If I managed a band that gave a shit and wanted people to really listen and fall in love, I’d tell them to stay the hell away from SX. Book a small tour in rooms that sound good, write good songs and share them, make friends on the road that want to evangelize for you, invest in a beautiful video that people will want to appreciate and share … any number of things besides drive down here and work your ass off (out of your own pocket) for an unknowable result.

If the result isn’t a record deal, or ‘buzz’, or being ‘discovered’ – what is it? How do you measure?

Over the years I’ve worked on a variety of SXSW events from a brand perspective and from the perspective of someone dedicated to helping bands get some visibility. Anymore, the market is so saturated (forgive the drastic marketing speak here) that it becomes hard to step back and understand the goals for either. As a brand, you have to count on a solid, loyal group that follows you no matter where you go, and you have to go bigger and bolder every year just to fight the noise. As a band, well, we’ve covered that.

In this way, film and interactive have a somewhat easier road: there are only so many theaters, there are only so many panel discussions, there are only so many physical places for people to be – this is actually a huge piece of the puzzle. Bigger, more “venues” and endless “parties” seem to be essentially wrecking whatever benefit musicians once had by performing here unless they’re a top tier name. Music, though lauded as the centerpiece to the entire event, has been stuck in sidewalk cracks and city armpits, and it’s hard to tell the difference in value between a good busking session at a coffee shop and a showcase in some bar no one can get to.

What I’d really love (please don’t suggest I submit this as a panel idea for SXSW 2013) is a real, honest conversation in the music community between artists, promoters, labels, writers, etc. about why we keep encouraging bands to this musical internment camp, and how we can do better to give them the support and attention they deserve given the changing landscape of discovery. Stop the knee-jerk reaction to such an overwhelming force like SX and really ask what it is we’re after and if it is the best road. It might be! But for some it might not be – and that’s ok, because SXSW stopped being about discovery a long time ago.