South by Southwest's 2014 edition marked a turning point for the Austin conference -- and indeed, for large-scale music confabs as a whole. Safety concerns (a March 13 car accident caused four fatalities and more than 20 injuries) coupled with criticism of its shamelessly corporate stages (iTunes, Doritos and Subway were just three of the many sponsored showcases) could have foretold a mass exodus -- and, based on the departure of several major sponsors, there almost was. But on the eve of the 29th annual conference, which runs March 13-22, it's looking like big business as usual -- albeit with a slightly quieter tone.
For starters, SXSW is scaling back. In January, the Austin Center for Events announced a 25 percent reduction in permits for the 2015 festival, estimated by sources to be roughly 100 fewer official events, with earlier submission deadlines to allow for more streamlined safety, sound and traffic requirements. By February, the list of returning sponsors had dwindled: 2014 partners Chevrolet, Subway, Apple, Pennzoil and Doritos all declined to renew their activations -- and indeed, some felt the activations had reached a comical peak with Doritos' six-story vending machine stage, which towered over Sixth Street and made some artists (including indie-rock act Diiv) feel like unwitting spokespeople for the snack food.