By Molly Connolly
It’s the Monday after South by Southwest and the streets of Austin are eerily deserted. Less than 12 hours ago the main thoroughfare was teaming with over 400,000 people. Now, buss drivers are tearing the Walking Dead ads off their busses and concert posters blow across the street like tumbleweed. I’m about to get in a stuffy 15 passenger van surrounded by guitars, amps and Whole Foods shopping bags with free promotional samples that will sustain us for the next two days as we make the 22 hour drive back to Cleveland.
I find myself here because while my day job consists of working on projects with the Clapham Group and MORE Partnerships, my boss graciously allows me to moonlight as a touring musician with The Lighthouse and the Whaler, a band from Cleveland, OH that had the opportunity to play at South by Southwest this year in Austin, TX.
Although this was my first time attending SXSW, I was familiar with its evolving reputation. The three week long festival is dedicated to new and exciting things happening in the tech, film and music sectors. Traditionally, it has been the premier place for startups to launch and for indie bands to make it big. However, things came to a head last year when the festival experienced a tragic car accident killing four people and a few big corporate sponsorships gone awry. This January, SXSW decided to cut back on sponsorship permits for the 2015 festival by 25 percent which translated to roughly 100 less “officially sponsored” events.
Because of the work I do with the Clapham Group and MORE Partnerships, my ears are especially tuned to Artist, Brand, and Cause collaborations. My heart soars when these three things come together in an authentic way and are able to benefit mutually. A more streamlined South by festival seemed like the perfect environment for this to happen. Finally, a chance for smaller brands and bands to able to shine due to the big guys backing out. Or so I thought.
Unfortunately, as I walked into the third and final week of SXSW the over-saturation of the entertainment/brand market was more apparent than ever. I was visually accosted at every showcase, agency party, and VIP check-in with promotional buttons, beer koozies, free cold brew, and energy bars and left confused as to how these things connected to the ethos of the festival. Every bare facade was smothered with layers of logos screaming for my attention. Causes like clean water, hunger and education, which typically get some face time at festivals (Virgin Mobile’s Freefest, Global Citizen Festival etc), seemed to be an afterthought. The few causes I did see seemed to be thoughtlessly tacked on– a raffle for a nonprofit after school music program and a single poster board advocating against domestic violence.
At the end of it all I was left with not much to show for it except tired feet, an armful of concert wristbands and the aforementioned Whole Foods shopping bag containing far to many organic chapsticks.
SXSW is missing a huge opportunity here. Perhaps it’s naive of me to think that SXSW can be anything more than just the onslaught of branding, long lines and overcrowded streets that it has come to be, but I think festival goers, artists and industry professionals are likely to get tired of weeding through the vast seas of showcases and crowds (and in this this year’s case, rain) in order to discover something authentic and meaningful. Consumers today don’t want to feel like they are consuming- they want to feel like they are contributing. SXSW will always be an exciting place to discover new music, but if is going to stay relevant it will have to find authentic ways to engage attendees. The perpetual optimist -and socially conscious millennial- in me holds out hope that maybe next year artists, brands and causes that are pursuing the Common Good can somehow find a way to rise above the noise of South by Southwest and be heard.