SXSW 2016 Recap: Festival Returns to Its Roots, But There's Still Room for Stunts

Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for Samsung
Festival goers cheer for The Strokes at Samsung Galaxy Life Fest at SXSW 2016 on March 11, 2016 in Austin, Texas.  

After 10 days, hundreds of panels, thousands of artists and too many beers to count, SXSW's 30th edition is finally in the books.

As Billboard's contributors on the ground finally recover from the madness down in Austin, Texas, we're taking a look back at some of the trends, memories and happenings that stuck out the most this year, from the ever-evolving role of brands, to free sundaes on 3rd Street to the sheer number of new hotels gracing the Austin skyline.

A Return to Roots

The 2016 edition of SXSW felt closer to the "old days" that many veterans lament than in recent years. Because the festival/conference footprint is bigger, extending particularly into east Austin on Rainey Street and north, the crowd seemed a bit more dispersed, making it easier again to hit multiple venues in the same night, which had become prohibitive during the past decade. That made it simpler for attendees to see a greater variety of acts and experiment a bit more with their choices.

Although the crusty old-timers again will bemoan the strong corporate presence at SXSW, it was pitched noticeably lower and didn't go for the big sell -- i.e., giant Doritos bags in the middle of town -- this year, with relatively low-key signage. The McDonalds Loft and Bud Light Factory in particular were high-caliber music venues in their own right, hosting quality showcases -- in particular the Roots' SXSW Jam on Saturday at the latter. And the McDonalds Loft gave away free sundaes to passerby during the afternoon. Can't complain about that.

It was also clear this year that Interactive continues to be the dominant of the three festivals. The biggest names were clearly front-loaded into the Interactive portion of SXSW, where manufacturers were clearly spending the big bucks to bring them in, and the music folks had to chase after what they could to fill their showcases and day parties, with the offerings noticeably diminished as the week went on. The silver lining? Not as many superstar acts to chase, opening the door for more discoveries and chance-taking. -- Gary Graff

Austin's Changing Landscape

Granted, it was my first time in Austin, but I was pretty floored by the amount of construction happening, even with its status as one of the fasting-growing cities in America. I saw the final performance at Austin Music Hall -- Kehlani and Erykah Badu at the Mountain Dew Showcase -- before it gets demolished next January in favor of... an office building.

I thought the Representations of Women in Music Media panel held an important discussion, particularly in the context of recent conversations around Kesha’s trial, the Heathcliff Berru allegations and a general increase in visibility for sexism and harassment issues in the industry. It was disappointing, however, to see that the SXSW panels with the most female speakers were generally panels ABOUT being a woman.

Spotify had multiple custom Snapchat geo-filters throughout the festival – I wonder how much those cost? It felt like Snapchat had the biggest presence at the fest without actually, really, having a physical presence at all. -- Emily White

The New Brand Power

It's incredible to think that only two years ago the complaints about SXSW were that it was too big, too party-hearty, and had become too much about the parties and too little about the business. The course-correction that kicked in after that unfortunately tragic year has clearly taken hold: not only were the marquee "surprise" headliners that defined the 2011-2014 era basically nonexistent (save Drake's Saturday pop-by at the Fader Fort), but so were the massive RSVP lines and overall disasters that used to be the norm at even the most civilized venues in town. This year was all about up-and-coming artists in the way that South By used to be -- and proof of that should become obvious in the next few months, when Anderson .Paak breaks through, inevitably, in a mainstream way. The industry may not be what it used to be, but -- thankfully or not -- South By is, again.

The difference between SXSW's Interactive and Music portions has never been as obvious to me as it was on Monday night, when a horde of people trying to get into the Mashable House assembled on 6th Street. "What's going on in there?" I asked. "The Mashable party." "Yeah, but, like, what are they doing? Are there bands? A product launch?" "I dunno, man. It's Mashable." Even at Music's peak, there needed to be more than a brand or label to get people through the door; it's bizarre to those of us that started coming to South By for up-and-coming bands to watch literal masses of people care far more about established brands, regardless of what their agenda is. -- Jeff Miller

Creativity Rules the Day

Ah, SXSW, the home of clever marketing stunts and totally random, pop-up occurrences. This year was less about last-minute showcase announcements and 60-foot vending machines-turned-stages than years past, but Young Thug managed to pull off a marketing stunt for his upcoming Slime Season 3 mixtape that got everyone marching alongside the Interrobang brass band down 6th Street. Why? Six somber pall bearers slowly processed down the main drag carrying a coffin tagged with Thug-associated logos and companies -- YSL, 300, Slime Season -- with the date 3.25.16 emblazoned across it, stopping at various intersections as many in the crowd wondered aloud if Thug himself would pop out of the casket. He didn't, instead delivering an electrifying set hours later at the Pandora Discovery Den, but it sure set Twitter ablaze with fans wondering what the hell was going on.

The sheer number of panels and Convention Center discussions that centered on the concepts of bad data, transparency and streaming royalties finally shifted from all-out fire and brimstone into a discussion about practical solutions and best practices. The industry is still a distance away from fixing the underlying problems that lead to these larger issues, but with a general consensus that the time to act is now -- particularly before VR/AR and 360 technologies usher in a new form of content -- there is hope once again that a solution could be on the horizon. Maybe next year those discussions will morph once again, this time into actions.

Maybe it's the vitality of youth, but it seemed like more artists than ever pulled out the whole "walking-on-the-crowd" trick, i.e. crowd-surfing while standing up, in a sense. It's a tactic that the Wu-Tang Clan's Method Man -- who has been doing it at his shows for years -- claimed three years ago to have invented after he saw Macklemore do the same thing at the MTV Woodie Awards at SXSW in 2013 and called him out publicly. This year, young artists like Tory Lanez and Jazz Cartier -- perhaps coincidentally, both Toronto natives -- got in on the act to the delight of fans at many of their showcases. Then there was Anderson.Paak, who didn't quite start walking on top of the crowd during his Saturday set at the Fader Fort, but who walked so deep into the audience that he eventually just disappeared, seeming to walk out of the side of the venue as his band, initially confused, began packing things up.

Echoing the larger theme of the festival at large, this year's sixth -- and final -- edition of the late night party The ILLMORE was a little more low-key than in years past. But by low-key, that doesn't mean it wasn't star-studded with both musicians and celebrities of all kinds, as 2 Chainz, Rae Sremmurd, Metro Boomin, DJ Drama, Trae Tha Truth, Kehlani, Bun B, Lil B, Baauer, Skepta, Johnny Manziel, Hannibal Burress and more all came through over its final three nights. Over the years, the party thrown jointly by the blog Illroots and ScoreMore Shows has become an integral part of the late-night SXSW experience, operating as a catch-all for anyone still up after the city's 2 a.m. closing time who are still looking to see live music or just people watch, and its absence will make SXSW a different animal next year. Who will fill the void? -- Dan Rys