Now that South By Southwest is over, I’m seeing a lot of postmortems, some not very complimentary. As always, plenty of people enjoyed it, but the bitching from those who didn’t seems a bit louder this year. There was plenty of fodder for bad reviews: Big crowds, some quite rowdy — a bunch of people who didn’t get into the Strokes concert on Thursday pushed their way through a barricade; there was an actual mini-riot where police had to pull out the stun guns and pepper spray; a camera boom fell on the crowd at the OMD show, sending several people to the hospital; and the lead singer of Screeching Weasel punched a couple of women in the face, allegedly for throwing ice.
One particularly scathing review compared SXSW 2011 to Altamont, the infamous 1969 festival that was marred by violence, including one murder. The writer calls SXSW a “music industry dinosaur” and has some sexually explicit and very funny insults for the festival’s organizers. I think he’s unduly harsh to say the least, but there’s no doubt about it, this year’s festival has finally gotten big enough to make people wonder if it has become more than just an inconvenience that Austin has to put up with in exchange for an infusion in cash and some great rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe it’s on the verge of becoming both irrelevent and dangerous?
I would not go that far. I did not buy a wristband or a badge this year and did not get in under a press pass as I’ve done before. I saw some very good shows, all of which were free except one — and that one only cost 5 bucks. I discovered some new favorites, made some new friends and all in all had a great time.
I do not think SXSW 2011 was “Altamont.” I would say this: Enough things went wrong that SXSW should take it as a warning and make some changes for next year.
Number one issue: crowd control. When a very popular act performs in a venue that is too small and crowds of “might-get-in-probably-won’t-just-wait-and-see” are allowed to build up, or crowds of people first get invited to a show, then get unceremoniously dumped via text message, that’s a recipe for disaster. What I’m afraid of isn’t another Altamont, it’s a repeat of the 1979 stampede that killed 11 people and injured dozens more at a Who concert in Cinncinati.
They either need to put big acts like The Strokes into much larger venues or stop letting them play at SXSW. It draws a lot of people and that makes SXSW a lot of money, but it’s liable to get some folks hurt.
Number two: Make it relevant again. SXSW has turned into a huge party and a cash cow for the local economy, but it isn’t so much about the little guy any more. People like The Strokes and Kanye West suck up all the oxygen so independent acts don’t get the attention they deserve, in my opinion. SXSW used to be about discovery. I found Gogol Bordello there, Kinky, Melissa McClelland at SXSW. The Decemberists have since gotten huge, but they played a tiny venue the first time I saw them at SXSW. You used to get these exciting news stories about the unknown band that wowed everyone and got that big record deal. It shouldn’t be about going to see a huge concert by a popular artist. You can go to that person’s show in some arena if that’s what you want.
Popular artists don’t just create dangerous crowd situations in my opinion. They attract narrow-minded music fans and they attract meatheads, the kind of people who only go to see the bands they already know, and will disrespect any bands they don’t — by not paying attention during the shows, talking, heckling, etc.
Bradford Kinney, an indie musician and indie music fan told me he wasn’t worried about “meatheads” or the big artists stealing the little guy’s thunder. “I went to plenty of shows of small-to-medium-time bands this year, and the attendance at all of them was at least healthy,” he said. “At our show [No Strings Attached], we didn’t have a big headliner, and we got pretty much exactly the crowd size that we wanted.”
The shows I saw were well-attended and they weren’t by extremely well-known acts and the crowd was pretty friendly. Practically lovefests. There were plenty of examples like that I’m sure.
On the other hand, Matthew Morden, aka Bubblegum Octopus, had some of the aforementioned meatheads at some of his shows, acting like jerks. There has to be a reason for that. Perhaps as Bradford suggested, when guys like that come for the big name and the venue is too small for them to get into, they’re more likely to spread out and cause problems at the shows they do attend. Bradford suggested opening Longhorn Stadium for the free concerts and big name artists. That might work. Or the Erwin Center maybe?
Whatever they have to do. I personally don’t think artists like The Strokes or Kanye West belong at SXSW, but if SXSW must have them, I wish they would find a way to keep their fans out of everybody else’s hair.
Finally… It’s too damn expensive. $750 for a music badge, $165 for a wristband… Really? When I went for the first time a wristband was less than $100. Marc Campbell, the guy who made the Altamont comparison, did have a good point: You could see an awful lot of great shows throughout the year for that amount of money. If the price keeps skyrocketing, people are going to figure that out eventually.