Monday, March 17, 2014

SXSW 2014: The Moral High-Ground

Full Disclosure: I received a complimentary music wristband to SXSW so that I could cover it for this blog. Also, I get guest-listed to a lot of shows here in town and as you can see there is a Google Ad or two on this page. No one tells me what to cover or how to cover it but in the rest of this post I'm going to judge you for not spending enough money on the music industry so, I want to be very plain about the areas in which I am being hypocritical in this arena. I would also add that I subscribe to Spotify, have a collection of band T-shirts and own far more records than any person deserves. Now that all of that is out in the open, I'm going to start the scolding. If you're not into reading, you should just bail now because this is gonna get wordy y'all!

Most of the major media coverage about this year's SXSW festival has been the same Human Centipede that created this monster in the first place. It was decided before the festival even started that Lady Gaga was a bad fit and "forcing" people to jump through hoops/stand in lines to see one of the biggest artists in the world was somehow less ethical than say, working for a consultant-controlled, corporately-run radio station for instance. Once that narrative was set, it was easy for journalists from the New York Times, Billboard, Esquire and any number of outlets to focus all of their attention on the big names while rolling their eyes and complaining that the discovery element was lost to the corporate madness.

That's a great story, and an easy narrative to weave. It's an especially easy narrative to weave when you're going to all of the corporately sponsored gigs as a VIP and not even trying to go see lesser-known artists. The real problem isn't SXSW per se, it's a question of what is valuable in the music industry. I wait tables to pay my bills and in the service industry we have a phrase we call, "The Verbal Tip." That's when a customer goes out of their way to make eye contact and tell you that everything was great, that the service was fantastic, they can't wait to come back and then you get a 10% or less tip.

As a culture, we have been verbally tipping the music industry since the late 90's. Most people I encounter love to say how they are HUGE music fans and they listen to EVERYTHING. They'll tell you how important this artist, or that album was to their lives or how a key lyric inspired a major change in them. Then they'll tell you how they use the free version of Spotify/Pandora/YouTube/etc. but it's ok because they spent $10 to talk through one of the band's performances one time. Check out the selfie I took, you can see the band in the background because I turned my back to them while they were playing so I could take this photo.

In the weeks and months leading up to SXSW we scour the internet, making sure that our name is on every list for every party. We watch a free performance from a band, whose MP3 we downloaded from Hype Machine, while eating free tacos and drinking free liquor. Then we deride SXSW for being too corporate. We refuse to give our "favorite" bands our own-money then we criticize them for taking money from corporations.

I got heated last week because I saw a tweet from a young lady, whom I am sure is just a doll in person, but she tweeted that SXSW was the worst experience she had ever had as a music journalist. That tweet hit several of my hot buttons. First of all, unless you're using the upside-down triangle, writing pieces that are printed on actual paper maybe you should just keep that "music journalist" proclamation to yourself. Secondly, don't call whatever bullshit events you've been attending "SXSW" unless it's ACTUALLY SXSW. Just because you got on a plane and decided to wing-it in Austin DURING SXSW doesn't mean you can actually write shit about the festival itself. I'm sure your piece on how drunk you got at Willie Nelson's ranch was highly-entertaining and got your site plenty of hits but what are you bringing to the conversation? You came to Austin for SXSW, you left Austin, you drank free moonshine, then you came home. What an excellent piece of music journalism! Thank God you flew all the way from Queens.

That little piece of the conversation seems to be getting pushed toward the way-side lately. A lot of people have a lot of opinions about SXSW and what they are really talking about is all of the parties that happen at the same time. Also, don't complain about the lack of discovery if you're just following the herds. If you're standing in a line that's 100 people long, all you're discovering is last year's hottest artists. If you're a "music journalist" coming to Austin to cover SXSW you might be interested in checking out a SXSW music showcase? Maybe I'm wrong about that though.

I can tell you from my own coverage of the festival this year that the posts that got the most hits for me were the least-journalistic pieces. I wrote 8-10 pieces highlighting "discovery" artists from around the globe, representing a variety of genres and no one gave a single fuck. The piece that received the most attention on this site was the piece that was nothing more than a series of single sentences of imagined dialogue.

I watched full or partial sets (at least three songs) from around fifty bands this year. I went to a variety of venues to see a variety of artists. I went to some day-parties (non-RSVP) but mostly spent time at official showcases. I was able to see a different band every hour, at a different venue, without waiting in any lines several nights running. Out of all of those official showcases I only saw print journalists at one event, that was Perfect Pussy at Red 7 and we all know they were only there because NPR decided they were worth covering so the human centipede of coverage was perpetuated.

My no standing in line, no drinking free drinks policy was tough to maintain. I missed an artist or two that I would like to have seen but I also saw some great artists from all over the globe that weren't even on my radar. The key to my strategy was choosing venues wisely. I LOVE Mohawk and Red 7 but during SXSW that's where the more established artists perform so the venues have more lines and are more crowded. Same goes for Hype Hotel. First of all, they don't acknowledge me as one of their elite bloggers because I don't post free Mp3s on my site. Second of all, as I alluded to earlier in the post I'm not trying to "discover" the most blogged about artists according to some blog-aggregate. Lastly, I love tacos as much as the next guy but isn't the whole "Feed the Beat/Doritos Tacos Locos" the original SXSW shark jump?

The one thing I think we can all agree on, is there needs to be a paradigm shift and it's not going to happen without less verbal tipping. If music is really as important to your life as you claim it is, then you need to attach a value to it. Is it worth $10/month for the paid version of Spotify? Is it worth $20 a week to buy a new record or two? Is it worth the $150-$200 for a SXSW wristband? Is it worth the roughly $300 for an ACL or FunFunFun pass? Is it worth $5 to see 5 local bands at a place like Beerland that gives the artist 100% of the door? If your answer to these questions is no, it's not worth it. Then you have no right to complain about corporate money taking over the music industry. If you don't want your favorite artists to become corporate shills then buy one of their shirts when you see them on the road, grab their CD at your local record shop, start your own blog and help promote your favorite artists.

The last point I want to make has to do with the title of this post. If you've made your career in terrestrial radio, which isn't about discovery of new artists, doesn't pay artists royalties, accepts cash, gifts, and trips from promoters and record labels in exchange for spins then maybe you should cool-it-out with your above-reproach moralism. I look forward to reading your article about how Doritos ruined SXSW in the advertisement-free magazine you work for as well.