Chasing the Trendsetters: Has SXSW Jumped The Shark?

SXSW 2012 LogoThanks to the internet and the shrunken global media scene, SXSW has exploded to become a multi-media behemoth with four arms and counting. For advertisers wanting to reach a whole lot of media hungry people, it’s currently great, but not for long. Those people who love to consume the very latest in media trends will soon realize they are not a select few privy to the hip factory any longer.

The catch 22 for advertisers trying to remain on the cutting edge of creativity is that as soon as you utilize an insider trend for the purposes of marketing your brand, you begin to kill the very trend you sought so hard to emulate. Enter SXSW, now in it’s 25th year and more gargantuan than ever. The once cutting edge music festival has grown over the years to include film, interactive, education and, most recently, ecology conferences.

The music festival, geared towards uniting musicians with labels, has never really been fan friendly, but as the conference grew in popularity, the situation became more and more futile for those hoping to catch a performance by their favorite bands. Unless you’re on the list, you’re not getting into a showcase no matter how many thousands you spent on your festival badge. That hasn’t stopped fans from coming in droves and a cottage industry of unofficial showcases from popping up to serve them.

The interactive festival began in 1995 as SXSW Multimedia, an offshoot of the SXSW Film Festival which began in 1994. No one really knew, in 1995, what the heck multimedia was or why they should attend the conference. Boy, have times changed.

In 1999, at the height of the internet bubble, SXSW Multimedia was renamed SXSW Interactive, or SXSWi. Eleven years later, it surpassed the music conference in attendance with 12-13,000 paying attendees. That year, the CEO of Twitter, Evan Williams, was the subject of a keynote event that featured a live interview that was largely panned by attendees for the interviewer, Umair Haque’s, “self-involved” interview style. According to the Austin-American Statesman, the audience began to empty long before the interview’s end.

The following year, the CNN Grill made its debut live from a local eatery. Maybe I’m crazy, but when my mom can hear about SXSW from Wolf Blitzer, it’s lost its insider edge.

To give you some idea of how big the music conference has become, (which, remember, is smaller than the interactive festival), American Express—perhaps the most establishment brand in the world—kicked off this year’s music week by webcasting a Jay-Z concert live from the Austin City Limits stage on YouTube. (Austin City Limits, by the way, used to be that nice, little PBS music show taped at the University of Texas.)

Waiting to take SXSW’s place are a group of smaller, hungrier and—most importantly—more indie music festivals that have cropped up in recent years. Trend Central, in an article called “South By Somewhere Else,” agrees:

Between the endless lines, corporate sponsors, and wallet-sucking airfares, South by Southwest Music is no longer the indie haven it once was. While attendance shows no signs of waning when the festivities kick off this week, a handful of alternative festivals hoping to siphon off devoted fans with better weather, cheaper tickets, or, in one case, snow have sprung up.

On the Latino front Trend Setter names Festival Nrmal which takes place in, of all places Northern Mexico. It’s partner festival MtyMx was invented in 2010 to give touring musicians a place to go after SXSW, but now threatens to become the cool event with Latinos taking over the country.

I was walking in Austin one night during this year’s SXSW festival when I saw a downtown parking lot turned into a soccer field courtesy of Nike adjacent to another parking lot turned into a cocktail lounge courtesy of Bing. A group of middle-aged tourists pointed, “Look, dear. Isn’t that neat?” Neat, maybe. Rock n roll? Cutting edge? Not at all.