A couple of weeks ago, musician Felix Walworth was excited to be heading to South by Southwest, the multi-pronged juggernaut that, every March, turns Austin into a boozy musical wonderland or a hellish clusterfuck, depending on who you ask. Walworth even joked on Twitter that what their band, Told Slant, hope to accomplish with their performance was “to make as much money as possible.”
But their enthusiasm shifted to dismay once Walworth noticed a disturbing clause in their invitation letter that seemed to threaten international acts with deportation if they played unofficial showcases. Walworth’s tweets about the clause gained traction, prompting a number of other artists to call for a boycott of SXSW, asking that the organization remove the clause and “cease any collusion with immigration officials that puts performers in danger.”
It would turn out the clause had been in the invite letter for five years, but in a new era of open hostility toward immigrants, where families are split up at the border and detained at random, it wasn’t hard to see why this language incited such ire. SXSW managing director Roland Swenson did little to assuage the fears of international artists when he told Pitchfork that “It’s not stuff that we’re going to do to them, it’s stuff that Immigration would do to them.”
SXSW claimed the clause was really meant as “a safeguard” against “something truly egregious,” like bands starting fires on stage or causing fights in bars—although experts like Future of Music Coalition national director Kevin Erickson pointed out that the agreement appears to exist to discourage unofficial events, not to condemn rowdy behavior. Under pressure from the public, SXSW eventually agreed to change their immigration language. But not only do many artists have lingering visa concerns—some of them are already having problems at the border—the controversy has reignited questions about SXSW’s priorities and loyalties.
For the past three decades, SXSW and Austin have evolved alongside each other, their explosive growth (and the tensions that come along with it) happening in tandem. Just as Austin’s boom has caused many of the city’s natives to question whether that growth is sustainable, over the last few years insiders and fans have wondered if SXSW has lost sight of its original aim, which was to give promising bands and industry veterans a chance to intermingle and collaborate.
But as hundreds of thousands of people descend on Austin this week for its 30th year, it’s worth asking whether those lofty goals were even there to begin with. Dig a little deeper into the event’s history, and one starts to wonder: Was there ever a point when SXSW wasn’t taking advantage of vulnerable artists to serve its own growth?
Before determining whether SXSW was ever pro-artist, it’s important to determine what SXSW isn’t.
SXSW is not a music festival.
There is no real term for what SXSW is, but it combines elements of music festivals, seminars and conferences, transforming the city of Austin into what is essentially the pop culture Olympics. Data suggests more than 135,000 people attended last year (though Wikipedia suggests it’s closer to 200,000).
In 1987, the first year of its existence, SXSW brought out a mere 700 attendees and was easy to label as a “seminar” event. It came to fruition after the organizers behind New York’s influential New Music Seminar approached SXSW founder Roland Swenson, then a staffer at the city’s alt-weekly, the Austin Chronicle, about starting a southwest version of their event. Then a young writer who had his life changed when he saw the Sex Pistols in San Antonio in 1978, he’s now a wealthy middle-aged man who doesn’t seem to mind the implication that he has sold out.
“I’ve been vilified, insulted, castigated for thirty years,” he told Texas Monthly in 2015. “It really takes a lot to make me embarrassed.”
Swenson functions as the bad cop, while cofounder Louis Black fulfills the professional rock star BFF role, cavorting with SXSW success stories like Richard Linklater, the subject of a recent documentary he directed.
But when Swenson, Black, and fellow cofounder and Chronicle alum Nick Barbaro—all white men—initially teamed up with booking agent Louis Meyers the intent wasn’t to sell out. It was to create a regional networking event for artists and music industry professionals of all stripes. Music critic Michael Corcoran description of the first year almost makes it seem like a large family gathering, with the first day party being “a barbecue in [musician] Jean Caffeine’s back yard.”
But in 1994, two things happened that changed SXSW forever: The organizers introduced a film and multimedia branch of SXSW, and teenybopper band Hanson was discovered at a showcase.
Within a year, SXSW would morph into three mega events as the “multimedia” branch became its own entity (now SXSW Interactive), and Hanson would be world famous, establishing SXSW’s reputation as fertile ground for labels and press hoping to find the next big thing. Nowadays, Swenson’s official manifesto on the SXSW site touts SXSW as “a tool for creative people to develop their careers,” to “meet, learn and share ideas (and maybe have a few once-in-a-lifetime experiences.)” It’s the type of idealistic language a new tech start-up would employ.
SXSW had become not just not a music festival, but its own brand. And for brands to thrive, they must aggressively protect their image and identity.
Like any buzzworthy band, SXSW has been accused of “selling out” more or less since its inception. But SXSW’s integrity has been more seriously questioned over the past five years, as the organization swelled to encompass more events with higher badge prices and increasingly became hostile to the free unofficial events surrounding it—even though most fledgling artists now view the unofficial shows as more valuable to their careers than the official showcases.
Speaking to Consequence of Sound, Zac Traeger of Zorch said “if your only show is a SXSW showcase” and “a decent size blog or company hasn’t asked you to play their event — then “SXSW is not worth coming to.” In the same piece, critic Bob Lefsetz put it in blunter terms for Consequence of Sound: SXSW organizers “prey on wannabes who will get nothing in return for their trip.”
In 2014, SXSW released a report by Populous, a branding consultancy firm with clients like the World Cup and the Olympics, to the public. The report focused on what SXSW could do to grow and expand its operation and suggested what one local media outlet called “bullying tactics” to suppress unofficial events, like stop-and-frisks of attendees and “clean zones” that restrict the operation of non-SXSW-affiliated businesses. The report put their intentions in stark, unmistakably hostile terms, but SXSW had not-so-secretly been waging war on outside events for years by calling in permit violations on unofficial shows. They had long been making it clear they were not above putting bands between a rock and a hard place in order to wipe out competition; Swenson told the New York Times in 2011 that “We tell acts they have to choose between playing a SXSW show or a handful of piggyback festivals that have been set up to compete directly with SXSW for bands and venues.”
For true festivals, this no-compete policy makes sense; if you’ve booked a band for an incredible sum of money, you don’t want them simultaneously booking a show at the club up the road within the same week. But SXSW is not a true festival. The bulk of the more than 2,000 bands at SXSW are not paid. SXSW offers acts a choice between a nominal fee of $250 or badges and wristbands to the event. Most artists opt for the latter because it provides them an opportunity to network at official events and panels. And as the visa debacle this year revealed, most international acts coming to SXSW explicitly cannot be paid under the “audition” visa that allows them into the country.
When Swenson outlined this policy, he was not only threatening bands who don’t stick to official SXSW shows, but also inflating the importance and worth of an official SXSW blessing. In the same Pitchfork interview during the Walworth dustup, Swenson credited his brand’s power: “Any time you send out a tweet attacking SXSW, and that happens a lot, part of it is wanting to get your name out there.”
In other words: Haters gonna hate. SXSW’s brand is now so desirable, Swenson seems to imply, that bands need SXSW more than SXSW needs them. But the reality is that brand is built on the backs of artists who rarely see a penny of the event’s massive success.
Last year, SXSW had perhaps its most lucrative year ever, riding a milestone appearance from President Obama to a $325 million economic impact on Austin. But that success often comes at a cost to its participants. Many artists put themselves at economic risk just to get to SXSW. Paul Janeway of St. Paul and the Broken Bones told Consequence of Sound, “I couldn’t get the days off for SXSW, so I will be unemployed as of March 11th.” In that same piece, Tom van Buskirk of Javelin spoke with regret from his own SXSW experience: “You could trade the money you would spend going to South-by for a music video or three round-trip plane tickets in the future somewhere else.”
It’s not just artists who are sacrificing their time and finances to be part of SXSW. The event has also been under increasing scrutiny for its reliance on a self-described “army” of unpaid volunteers. While many conventions have been forced to scrap their volunteer programs as courts become more and more hostile to them, SXSW remains curiously static. This is particularly bizarre since SXSW’s reliance on volunteers is through the roof. SXSW volunteers are not merely information kiosk fixtures or guides; they are often highly skilled photographers, stage managers, camera operators, and editors. Not only is this highly unethical behavior from a brand that built its reputation on providing a major platform for creatives and independent thinkers, it is, in the opinion of many labor law experts, straight-up illegal.
Despite Swenson’s claim that SXSW didn’t actually intend to follow through on its warnings, the visa controversy was just proof to many SXSW critics that the event had ceased caring about the concerns of the creatives it exploits, no matter how hard it argued otherwise. But the victory Walworth and others achieved by forcing SXSW to correct its visa language at least indicates that it might be capable of change. In the open letter released after the change was made, the group of artists stated: “The effort shows that artists can and must take collective action to fight unjust policies within the cultural sphere.” Perhaps by giving them a common enemy, SXSW has brought artists together more effectively than it has in years.
Morgan Davis is the co-founder of multimedia criticism collective Loser City and the managing editor of Ovrld, an Austin publication that seeks to showcase and examine the Austin music community.
This feature is part of Fusion’s project to recruit local, embedded reporters and essayists across the country. Read more here.