SXSW 2017: Smaller Crowds, Fewer Brands -- Will It Actually Be Fun This Year?
"It was time to pull back," affirms a top sponsor.
"Ten gallons of manure in a five-gallon bucket": For years, that was the typically Texan argot used by Don Pitts, the City of Austin's music and entertainment division manager, to describe the annual South by Southwest Music Festival. But as the event begins its 31st edition on March 12, there are new signals that SXSW 2017 might feel less chaotic than it has in years, that it might even be... enjoyable? This year continues the downward trend of the past two, with fewer big brands throwing boozy free parties, less likelihood of club shows from big-name acts and, for better or worse, fewer registrants.
Official numbers rarely reflect SXSW's attendance accurately. While organizers' headcounts for the last few years, which include registrants and artist wristbands, have remained within the 25,000- to 30,000-person range, conventional wisdom and experience indicate that 2015 and 2016 felt conspicuously dialed back (although the festival's economic benefit to the city last year was some $325.3 million, according to economic analysts Greyhill Advisors). And while several acts threatened not to attend 2017's conference over SXSW's treatment of international artists -- 50-plus acts signed an open letter demanding the removal of language in artist contracts that seemed to suggest the festival would report bands that played gigs outside their official showcases to immigration authorities -- it fell short of calling for a full boycott. The matter was resolved March 7, when SXSW removed the controversial portions from its contract for 2018.
So what might a leaner SXSW look like? Following are a few of the early signposts:
Some of the music festival's biggest annual parties have been eliminated or dramatically scaled back. A representative from RSVPster, an online service that automatically submits for its clients RSVPs to parties during SXSW's interactive, film and music tracks, has so far tallied 350 parties for SXSW 2017, down 100 events from this time last year. In 2014 -- the year that many consider to be the peak for parties and activations -- the service counted 600. Notably absent from the music roster are two of the festival's largest-capacity corporate events, Hype Hotel and Spotify House, although the latter is sponsoring a series of smaller showcases. Also sitting out this year is Samsung, which brought Prince to SXSW in 2013 and presented Kanye West and Jay Z a year later. Meanwhile, the Fader Fort -- which in 2016 capped off its 15th edition with a surprise set from Drake -- is moving to a dramatically smaller venue for an invite-only affair.
"We're committed to promoting emerging artists, so parties stuffed with people hoping for Kanye or Drake was a little inconsistent with what we're about," says Fader president/publisher Andy Cohn, who estimates the company brought in nearly $2 million in co-sponsors for 2016's Fort and barely broke even on the production. "It was time to pull it back, to curate something that's really about discovery."
In recent years, SXSW has been a lurid reminder that "brand" and "band" are just a letter apart. After the jaw-dropping excess of 2014 -- the year a woman vomited upon Lady Gaga as part of Gaga's performance on a Doritos-branded stage -- it seemed like big brands started tightening their wallets. Booking acts like 2016 headliners The Roots, Future and even Willie Nelson for a corporate appearance isn't cheap, but they cost less than West and Jay Z, or the $2.5 million sources say Doritos shelled out for Gaga. Still, this year is as lacking in superstar names as it is in major brands: Spoon, Ryan Adams and Weezer are about as big as it gets. "We're still working with companies that are supporting artists to travel here," says SXSW co-founder/CEO Roland Swenson. "Having Samsung drop off the radar is not a good thing, but typically, in years with fewer big names, acts on the next rung down get an even bigger boost."
With some of the largest free parties off the table, in theory, the more traditional nighttime showcases should absorb the orphaned crowds. That could be good news for Austin venues, which are facing rapidly rising rents and typically count on a SXSW windfall to carry them through the summer. "We haven't been at capacity for most of our clubs in a couple of years now, and I suspect that'll change," says Swenson. "Bar sales are probably going to go up too because people aren't going to be able to drink free at those giant parties." The downside for the venues is that day-party rentals, which involve sizable rental fees and guaranteed bar tabs, are harder to come by this year.
IT'S THE MUSIC (AGAIN), STUPID
One of SXSW's larger unknowns is just how much a leaner festival will regain its utility for music-industry professionals and the performers hoping to get their attention. "At its most chaotic point, the chatter among A&R reps was that you couldn't even get into shows you needed to see," says Justin Eshak, senior vp A&R at Columbia Records. "It became tedious to even try. I think a lot of the industry people said, 'I'm just going to hang out in my hotel room.' A more manageable festival could certainly mean a more productive festival."
Although he declines to reveal hard numbers, Swenson acknowledges an overall decrease in music festival credential holders in recent years. Could a relatively calm 2017 relieve SXSW fatigue and bring them back? If so, Cohn says that maybe the very thing that put the festival on the map -- a spirit of discovery driven by music, not money or stunts -- can sustain it again. "It got stupid," he says. "It's not about Kanye performing to a thousand people at a corporate event. It sounds corny, but it's about 'Remember seeing M.I.A. at a tiny club way back when?' Last year, it felt like it was pulling back, and this year -- already -- even more so. It seems like it's really correcting itself and getting back to the spirit of what it was."
He pauses a beat before adding: "It has to."
This article originally appeared in the March 18 issue of Billboard.