A Sucker For Your Marketing: A Conversation

Did you go to Father John Misty's panel?
When Observer Web Editor Nick Rallo and I shuffled down to SXSW last week, we both noticed the same thing: The somewhat icky marketing that seems to have inundated the Austin music festival, to the point where even the fans themselves were part of the brand. Here's an excerpt of a conversation we had about it.

Audra: So two big marketing campaigns at SXSW this year were Doritos and Mountain Dew. Do you miss the days when the fest was about the music and not monitoring your blood sugar levels?

Nick: Yeah, I'm finding this strange. Austin's known for being one of the most rebellious, anti-corporate cities in the country (or Texas, at least), and there are indie bands playing under the shadow of a 2001 monolith-sized Doritos vending machine. So, what in the holy hell is the identity of SXSW? Is it a corporate-sponsored, Cool Ranchified band fest? Or is SXSW a showcase of the great independent, undiscovered bands from around the country? It feels like a grotesque combination of both. A massive consumerist orgy dedicated to cram brands into our face holes. Also, Pitchork's top 100. But, hell, do I love the orgy.

In a show on Friday afternoon, Father John Misty (aka Josh Tillman, formerly of Fleet Foxes) asked folks to retweet a photo (see above) mocking the ambitious ridiculousness behind brand management at SXSW. So yeah, some of the acts are about managing a brand and some are about getting their music out there. Either way, I feel like the festival needs to be focused. What would you do different about SXSW next year, in light of a Doritosy 2012?

Erik Hess
Welcome to the (Doritos) machine
Audra: I don't know. I mean, SXSW has already made everything a billboard, from homeless citizens to its own showcasing stars. You've got Tillman railing against one corporate sponsor, and then Lil Wayne fulling embracing his new sponsor, Mountain Dew. At his showcase on Thursday, he skateboarded onstage and did a little monologue about how being a rock star is like skateboarding: You know, sometimes you fall, but you always get back up. Then he took a big swig of Mountain Dew and I wondered if he was actually filming a commercial, and the audience was just extras. I guess that's become the SXSW experience? We're willing to be oversaturated so we can be part of the experience.

My "Five WTF Examples of Marketing" blog pointed out how Sixth Street has basically become a scene from Idiocracy, a refrain I heard more than once last week: Fleshlights, weight loss alternatives that involve freezing your fat cells, energy drinks. I don't think SXSW is ever going to return from that abyss, mainly because it's making them more money than you can shake a Fleshlight at, but maybe next year focus on products that might actually benefit music fans? Beyond that, what did you think of the actual music part? Are there too many bands?

Nick: As far as music goes, I've seen some pretty stunning acts, which makes me an asshole for complaining. Alabama Shakes made my knees buttery. So did Sharon Van Etten. Anything played in a church sanctuary is good, I found out. But it's an assault. There's everything. Every year this festival seems to increase in mass, and at some point I feel like we're all going to go supernova, and our faces will melt like the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I mean, the point, originally, was to find that new band -- right? For that young, buzzing band to get some face time with the fans? So, why do we have that happening at the same time as Lil Wayne's Pepsi-Snapple-Fritos show? My point: Why does SXSW have to be for everyone?

Audra: I wrote an April Fool's story last year for the Austin Chronicle about how next year the festival was going to be moving to a dome in Bastrop, which would have nine levels and alleviate the congestion of downtown. The "It's gotten too big" argument was being tossed around a lot last year, and many agreed SXSW had reached its tipping point. The story came out a day before April 1, and a lot of people were pissed and believed it was true, because it has gotten so all-encompassing. I'd love to see figures on what bands actually go on to get signed from this. Maybe 10 out of 2,000 bands? And is getting signed to a label even the dream anymore? Most mid-level bands -- and that's who the fest really caters to, for the most part -- aren't going to make a living just being on a label. They still have to tour for the better part of a year. I guess SXSW technically does help some bands, but there are too many for the fest to be effective in whatever its mission is in 2012.

Nick: I hope my band The Thick Doritos gets signed next year.

Audra: No, Nick! That's just what they want you to say! But Mr. Tillman was right during his set on Saturday: SXSW is the singing Olympics. It's a competition, but it also puts you within arm's reach of those acts competing. As Springsteen said in his keynote speech, "We're living in a post-authentic world," but does that mean you don't have to try as hard to stand out anymore? I mean, can you, when you're playing inside a four-story Doritos vending machine?

Nick: I feel like there's a line that's crossed. Behind a monolith of advertising, or at least an Invisible Hand, the artistry of the music loses focuses. [Cue Radiohead song] I understand The Boss' rationalization, but at some point SXSW just starts to look like Blade Runner. So, where's the line? Do we just accept it and continue to drink our Brisk Tea and eat Taco Bell while, behind the scenes, every aspect of your experience is branded? I think SXSW needs a line. Or, at least, to maintain a balance so that the music is always the focus. There's gotta be a way to do that. There must be, or I'm going to Mars.

Audra: Next year: SXSW on Mars. I'm sure they can get Richard Branson to provide a few space limos for it.

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What a bunch of hypocrites, hey earth to these idiots; this a capitalist country, our whole economy and way of life including "jobs" is funded by it.   This is the greatest country in the world and we are all, including our new socialist government, dependent upon it.  Get it?  No I didn't think so.


Guys, don't shake your Fleshlight. That isn't how you clean it!


Most bands that attend now just treat it like a vacation: they party, hang with friends, play shows, court blogs, flirt, drink, etc. with no real expectations. To expect much more is delusion. It's not 1991. To rail against the corporate-ness of it all is also an out-of-date, 90s contention. The alternative is the traditional fest: pay $200 to see a handful of bands on huge stages with $9 beers. SXSW is better than its ever been. As usual, I saw all the bands I wanted to see for free with very little effort, and discovered new ones I love to death.

Jon Daniel
Jon Daniel

I think the best analogy for me is the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It's the biggest trade show in the US. I've been going since the late 70's. It used to be about connecting retailers and products. But now it is all about press, bloggers, PR, job seekers, Venture Capitalists, and super geeky Pro-Sumers. The big gadget blogs bring teams of 10-20 people, and live tweet and live blog the whole show 24/7 for 4 days. Product buzz for current and future products generate interest and that translates to sales.

I think SXSW is the same way. The whole idea of bands getting "signed" is kind of passe, right? It's more about getting the buzz louder so that downloads increase, and tours generate more income. And to do that, you need press, bloggers, PR, job seekers, Venture Capitalists, and super geeky Pro-Sumers to either notice your band, or to validate the buzz already out there. 

So think of how much PR Bruce got by being keynote and then playing. I would say that dominated the music blogosphere for days. Same with Jack White and Alabama Shakes. 

If there is a direct connection between the buzz on-line and the ability to generate income, then SXSW has become the conduit to allow that to happen all in one place. 

This is the reason there are so many more hip-hop acts now. I don't think it's because the SXSW folks are more open to different kinds of music. It's because the genre generates enough concert and download sales to justify access to the press/blog coverage.

Jon Daniel
Jon Daniel

And here we have the typical clueless Dallasite. A classic rock listening, AppleBees eating, Dockers wearing every-man. A guy who didn't say shit when Bush passed the drug bill, but thinks Obama is Trotsky. (Dear GBC - here is a link for Trotsky to save you the time )http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L...

Audra Schroeder
Audra Schroeder

Yeah, I get that SXSW has basically become a trade show, like JD said. And yes, the free part is great, even if all those parties have sponsors too. But should I just smile and nod while a Doritos monolith looms on Sixth Street and Taco Bell burritos are shot at my face with t-shirt cannons? I don't think railing against that "corporate-ness" is out of date, especially because SXSW looked a lot different in 1991.

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