Wednesday, February 6, 2008

SXSW is a Parasite

Michael Corcoran interviewed SXSW co-founder, Ronald Swenson, about SXSW's battle against "pirate parties," "fringe entities," and "entities improperly using the SXSW name or trying to compete with sanctioned venues."

Swenson's defense, which makes it seem as if SXSW is fighting for its survival, includes this:
SXSW exists only because more entities choose to pursue a symbiotic relationship with us rather than a parasitic one. However, every year more marketing groups representing huge multinational corporations and their local proxies choose to feed off of us.
Mr. Swenson, thank you for the handy biological metaphors, because SXSW has ALWAYS been parasitic upon the city of Austin itself -- all in the guise of symbiosis. Your attendees swamp the city. Traffic swells; the restaurants are jammed. You receive city largesse. The SXSW promotion machine sucks the air out of coverage of anything else locally for weeks. And yet, as SXSW made clear last year, the festival isn't for the locals, who might get a hold of wristbands but complain that they can't get into venues for all the badgeholders. No, it's an industry conference (you said), it's not for anyone who might want to catch some of the overflow vibe or, heaven forbid, some music.

Not everyone picks cotton for the music industry in Austin, you know.

In your defense of SXSW's brand purity to Corcoran, you muddle two sources of competition: one, from outside money, big corporations using the festival to market their own stuff; two from local venues and businesses with an indie spirit, such as all the businesses on South Congress, like Yard Dog and Home Slice, that have bands play. A couple of years ago I watched Billy Bragg in a crush of people in Yard Dog's courtyard -- an amazing show -- and Magic Surprise at Home Slice -- even in the rain, a great show. Are these the events that you want to crack down on?

I don't care about your fight with big music promoters booking other bands, but if you go after other locals, that's plain offensive. Because those events are creative response to SXSW's own exclusivity -- why shouldn't local bands, brands, and businesses benefit from the celebration without SXSW taxing it?

SXSW has already taken its piece of the city; it doesn't need to skim off any more.

The delicious twist worth noting: because Austin Chronicle co-founder Louis Black also co-founded SXSW, you won't read any smart, critical coverage of the festival or its relationship to the city in those pages. So where do you have to turn? To the Statesman, which traditionally sides with the big money on most other things.

Update: typo fixed in last paragraph.

Update update: The comment thread at the Statesman piece contained this gem supporting the parasite argument:
A big problem is SXSW’s reputation for strong-arming competitors and sponsors rather than engaging them in discussions that might bear something mutually beneficial for everyone. They have an almost universally bad rep among local musicians regardless of whether their particular bands play the fest. How can they repair that image? How about re-investing in the local music community upon which it depends? Earmark a percentage of their profits to SIMS (every year,) lend their name to some charity events, and hold something during the summertime when clubs are hurting, and advertise these efforts so everyone remembers them when festival time comes around. A little responsible corporate citizenship goes a long way for whole lot of our local businesses. Such behavior might help SXSW garner the local support it obviously needs to help it survive.
Paraphrased: how about some symbiosis, Swenson?

Update update update: This comment was good, too:

the KARL ROVE look-alike gets: *VOLUNTEERS to work his festival *priority access to every venue in town *huge corporate sponsors PAYING to be involved *a monopoly on all downtown hotels at a DISCOUNTED rate for headlining acts only. *bands PAY THEM to play the festival in exchange for a wristband that doesn’t guarantee anything *free press and media coverage which increases corporate sponsorship money as the festival grows in popularity year after year.

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