Although its attendance actually peaked in 2016 at around 95,000, many people would argue that the South by Southwest festival — the sprawling music, film and interactive conference that takes over Austin, Texas, for two weeks every March — reached a tipping point two years earlier. The confab, which began in 1987 as a kind of late-winter oasis for the music industry, rapidly grew and kept expanding, morphing first into a mandatory proving ground for young acts and executives, then added film and interactive components and became a showcase for over-the-top excess for brands and superstars.
By 2014, fed by a perfect storm of industry professionals and hopefuls, brands, superstar artists and hordes of college kids who’d discovered a new spring break destination, the festival “became bloated and imploded,” according to Jeff Sosnow, veteran Warner Bros. Records A&R exec and 15-time SXSW attendee.
The city’s main drag — Sixth Street — was almost impassable; the lines to get into shows were like interminable airport security checks; attendees could barely take five steps without being hit up by someone hawking a band or brand or film or app or drink. The level of A-list talent on display — at a conference designed for up-and-coming acts — rivaled the Grammy Awards: Lady Gaga and Snoop Dogg performed inside a giant mock Doritos vending machine; Kanye West and Jay-Z headlined the Samsung Concert Series; Coldplay and Soundgarden played the iTunes festival. And tragically, five people were killed when an intoxicated aspiring rapper driving a stolen car attempted to evade police and crashed into a crowd of people outside the Mohawk nightclub.
While the tragedy was largely outside the purview of the festival organizers, that year’s excesses were not lost on the SXSW brass, who made an effort to scale things back without losing the strength that has come with numbers. In recent years the branding overkill has been dialed back; the superstars performing tend to be more along the lines of Lana Del Rey than Kanye; and attendance was down from its 2016 peak. More significantly, in 2017 the lines and waiting times were shorter and the festival simply felt more comfortable than it had in many years.
While speakers in recent years have included President Obama and Bruce Springsteen, 2018’s highlights include keynotes ranging from Bernie Sanders to super-producer Nile Rodgers, YouTube’s global head of music Lyor Cohen and Glassnote Records founder Daniel Glass, and among the thousands of showcasing artists are Khalid, Sylvan Esso and Speedy Ortiz.
“Bigger isn’t necessarily better,” says James Minor, GM of the music festival. “We’re here to help creative people achieve their goals, and we try to make the programming as impactful as possible — that applies to film and interactive as well. We’re focusing on the quality rather than the size, and I feel we’ve done a good job with that over the last three years or so. To hear people say SXSW has gone back to its roots is a good feeling.”
Minor’s tips for this year’s festival include Max Richter’s eight-hour overnight performance of his “Sleep” composition, the “88Rising” showcase of Asian hip-hop, rapper Jay Park, the veteran rock band Low, and buzz acts Lo Moon, Superorganism, Jade Bird and Starcrawler.
Still, for many industry executives who have attended for decades, the conference is too big to be worth the effort and expense of trying to make a splash in an increasingly vast pool. Judy Miller Silverman, founder of the indie PR firm Motormouth, says this is the first year she’s not sending anyone from her staff, even though the company represents several artists who are performing.
“I don’t believe it’s truly useful for media attention in the way it used to be,” she says. “There’s such an overwhelming overload of opportunities, and superstars take all the attention away from [developing] artists. A couple of years ago I spent around $5,000 — just on flights and lodging — to send three [staffers], and it’s just not worth it. People used to go to the panels during the day and meet people and actually talk about [issues], but no one I know uses it for education. They just go to party.”
All of those complaints have been leveled against the festival for many years, which has led others to adjust their expectations and tactics. Big Hassle Media co-founder Ken Weinstein, who has attended 25 of the past 27 conferences, says: “It’s great if the expectations are realistic. This is a very social business, so it’s an opportunity to add dimension to relationships and see lots of people and bands away from your home base. I tell bands that being part of the conversation is half the battle, and South By is a great place to do it. Are they going to get signed or land a Rolling Stone feature? Probably not — but you have to put yourself in luck’s way.”
Sosnow agrees. “A couple of years ago people said, ‘It’s over,’ but I think we’re on the other side of that. It’s getting back to basics. But it’s on the individual as to how they spend their time. Personally, I’ve created value by having lots of meetings — literally from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. But I’d tell anyone: Go down there and crush it, meet everybody you can and see a lot of music, and one day one of those people or one of those bands may have something for you.”