SXSW and the Threat of Counterculture Compromise

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SXSW and the Threat of Counterculture Compromise

It’s SXSW, and the films haven’t started yet. Time is on my side for the first and last time this week. The crowds are still manageable, the heat not too intense. It’s feeling fine in Austin, Texas, the bastion of safety for the liberal minded Texans and the countless transplants that inhabit the landscape. But soon this city will be flooded with film and tech enthusiasts, all anxiously waiting to witness the next step in our entertainment evolution. Shortly after, the music will start, the bars and clubs will be packed to the gills, thousands of musicians will try to win the ears of the masses, and debauchery will ensue. Oh, and President Obama is going to be giving a speech, the first sitting President to speak at SXSW.

SXSW has continued to grow since its inception in 1987. Starting as a music festival, the founders quickly added film to the roster, and in 1994 an interactive section, which has taken a strong shift toward tech in recent years. With over 84,000 attendees last year and expectations of surpassing those numbers in 2016, it’s hard to tell how the festival could grow anymore without requiring the election of public officials and establishing its own capital. But it’s this steady growth that has in many ways undermined what makes the festival unique.

The issue is cohesion. When a small festival turns into an annual cultural moment, change is inevitable, and with each passing year, the climate drifts further away from its original tone. Of course growth isn’t bad, but with said growth comes a specific kind of money, and that money stems from groups that are only interested in SXSW culture as a means to push an agenda. You can’t walk anywhere near the convention center or downtown without being bombarded with flyers advertising startups or corporate products. Every pedi cab is covered in ads for cable TV shows. Posters for comedy specials that have nothing to do with SXSW, and don’t happen during or around the festival, are plastered everywhere. No surface is safe from an advertisement, and the city knows this and prepares for it by wrapping every light-post, pillar, and electrical box with plastic wrap.

Some corporate sponsorship is integral to funding festivals. Without money from Coke or support from Southwest Airlines, festivals would not happen on the same level that they do now. So, while corporations and creative endeavors can and do coexist, it’s a delicate ecosystem, and once a festival grows to a certain size, the power shifts. This isn’t necessarily the festival organizers’ fault—there are plenty of ambushers (companies that use the SXSW brand for their marketing without contributing to the festival itself) that end up creating a contextless experience.

Sundance suffers from this same syndrome, and much like SXSW, it too started as a small destination festival, which is now plagued by ambushers. However, Sundance has a distinct advantage, taking place in a small town the amount of available real estate naturally creates a form of corporate population control. But in Austin, there’s plenty of real estate available, and soon every corner is covered with logos and promos. This oversaturation technique is utilized by large companies all the time, and the methodology behind it is innate in the corporate structure. Their goal is to grow their brand recognition as fast and efficiently as possible. But their target audience has shifted. It’s no longer the suburban housewife or the “working man” that companies target, it’s the creative types, and a festival is like shooting fish in a barrel. These companies throw money to shop owners, buy out bars, have deceptively interesting activations with free swag, and people get lost in the magic trick. Strategy is everything, and feeling like you’re at a party instead of experiencing a sales pitch, is one of the best strategies there is.

But the root of the problem is that these installations and parties don’t always make sense in relation to the festival’s ideology. When official sponsorship is on brand, there’s nothing offensive or out of place or nefarious about it. Take a look at the presence of the horror-streaming service Shudder at any number of festivals and events over the past year. It doesn’t feel like corporate shilling because it makes perfect sense—it’s introducing a target audience to a service they would love. It’s cohesive. It’s organic. And SXSW moving more toward this goal with its official sponsorship would be taking a huge step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, in its current state, it seems as though the corporate goal of most official sponsors or unsanctioned ambushers isn’t to fit in, or push forward the work of independent creators. The goal is to break down the idea of corporations as negative or unchic, and to shift the view to something “cool,” a place to get out of the sun and get a free drink while you take branded photos and share them on social media for your friends to like. It’s about hashtags and clicks. You want a free book, a free hat, maybe a free phone charger? All you have to do is take a photo and hashtag it with our brand on your social media accounts. Why pay Instagram or Twitter huge sums of money for an advertisement when you can get thousands of ads up for the cost of a bulk t-shirt order (which can be written off as a business expense)? This kind of marketing is everywhere, but it’s extremely concentrated at SXSW. It’s so well done that most people don’t even notice its presence when it’s packaged as an activation; they just enjoy the free Mountain Dew Bacon Tacos (yes, that’s a real thing), the T-shirt that makes the wearer a walking billboard and the engaging free app that uses an individual’s data to source information. It’s when you take a step back and ask yourself, “Why the fuck is there a 10-foot-tall transformer here?” that the veil begins to drop. While some will argue that ambushers and corporations aren’t actually part of the festival, the sad truth is that they make up a large portion of the festival experience. By taking over the public space, enticing people to attend parties, and some giving nothing back to the festival itself, save except a few items of swag, these businesses give the impression of impact but with no communal participation. It might have been completely off brand and absurd that McDonald’s had a lounge, but at least their official status implies some level of actual monetary support for the festival.

It’s hard at times to see the festival through the ambushing, but it’s still there, for now. One of SXSW’s greatest strengths is its curation of diverse experiences. Whereas some festivals are focused on a singular mission statement, the wide reach of SX gives each patron a unique experience. No single badge holder has the same exploits. While one person is seeing a block of short films another may be at the Duplass brothers conversation, or on the tech floor creating a hologram self-portrait. It’s an environment that can be overwhelming at times, and badge holders inevitably have to prioritize one experience over another, but this is a good problem to have.

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