As South by Southwest (SXSW) gets underway for another year, the irresistible nexus of creativity and technology provides a unique opportunity to compare and contrast the progression of each.
Clearly technology plays a pivotal role in our daily lives, and continues to go from strength to strength financially, but how has that rise impacted creators, especially musicians?
Way back when, SXSW was all about the music.
Started in 1987 as a regional alternative to New York City’s New Music Seminar – and playing on the North by Northeast location (and associated Hitchcock film) – throughout the nineties and into the new millennium it was musicians who flocked to Austin for the festival attention.
A tech element ran alongside it for much of that time, first tagged a “multimedia” offshoot before becoming the SXSW Interactive segment that we know and love (or love to loathe) today. Although the title change dates back to the late nineties, it wasn’t until 2007 and that the SXSW tech side truly rose to prominence.
2007 was the year that the festival broke Twitter, much as it helped break out artists like John Mayer and The Polyphonic Spree gain recognition in previous years. As social media gained traction and businesses looked to become the next Google (attract users, harvest data, sell ads), mid-March in Texas became an important place to be for any tech startup looking for consumer attention and/or investment. Foursquare broke in similar fashion two years later, and now we annually look to Austin for signs of the next must-have app. (Early bets are on live streaming video app Meerkat, in case you cared.)
Plenty of musicians still make the same annual pilgrimage to SXSW, but the chances of breaking out on a national level have been swallowed up by not only the tidal wave of tech coverage, but the falling investment in new musical talent. Record labels fighting against the threat of piracy, at the same time as they work to adapt to a constantly changing digital marketplace, have been forced to focus on acts that already have some audience awareness.
Where once it was possible for talent scouts to take a chance on artists they encountered at SXSW, those odds are greatly reduced nowadays. Bands were always taking a chance themselves, spending time and money schlepping down to South by, but at least the payoff back then was a potential recording contract. Today we’re reduced to global brands offering to pay acts in “exposure,” even as they fall over themselves to become associated with the rising stars of the tech sector.
Even with this surge of interest in startups, however, there’s some suggestion that the technology bubble could soon burst, at least within the confines of spring time in Austin.
In recent years there have been few major apps or products to emerge from SXSW, and the clamor for attention has reached such a level that it’s difficult for any service to stand out. Much as artists have always found it hard to stand out from the pack unless they find a high-profile media name to advocate for them, startups have only a few days to get the word out and catch the eye of established investors. There may still be some excellent connections to be made, but most are out of the public eye and, even then, must be made against the backdrop of infinite parties and frenetic networking.
The trend is eerily similar to the wider world, where music has in many ways fallen to support act status while behemoth technology brands like Apple, Google and Facebook become the rock stars. Artists are still making great music, and fans still want to hear it, but the valuation placed on that experience has been driven to unnaturally low levels. When we can access more than 20 millions songs for less than $10 per month, it’s clear that a correction is coming, and easy to see why creators and IP advocates work so hard to protect copyright.
Meanwhile, technology companies have reached hugely inflated valuations, even when they have no business model to speak of. Snapchat rejected several billion dollars from Facebook in 2013 based purely on potential, and that valuation has only surged since then. Apple’s record-setting Q1 profits this year speak to the longevity of established brands, yet the sound of bursting bubbles still reverberates in the ears of stock market investors burned at the turn of the century. The extensive exhibitor lists of SXSW Interactive in years past could equally be used for a tech sector obituary column. Even SXSW tech darlings like Foursquare, the stand out “killer app” from 2009, has struggled to turn its exposure into profit.
That word exposure continues to crop up in association with SXSW, whether we’re talking about songwriters or startups.
It’s an important reminder that while some opportunities are worth passing up a pay check for, it’s far from unreasonable to expect a fair day’s pay for hard work, whether that’s crafting a song or coding a script.
Musicians know this more than most, and SXSW tech exhibitors aren’t immune from the same slowdown that has heavily impacted artists over the last ten years. Perhaps working together, the two groups can create a future festival experience that’s about more than just attention?