AP, Photo by Jack Plunkett/Invision
AUSTIN, Texas — Rapper ScHoolboy Q had a great time at his first South By Southwest a few years ago, but found himself getting angry this year as he played a series of shows at the annual music conference and festival.
Everywhere he turned, his fans were standing outside venues festooned with corporate branding, unable to enter because they didn't have a formal invite.
"It's stupid. They changed it all up. It's corporate," he said as he prepared for a show Saturday. "I don't ever want to come back unless they change it to where the fans are in. I'm tired of performing and seeing my fans outside the gate. ... That's not fair. It's not about the fans no more, it's all about money, who can give you the best look."
As South By Southwest shuttered its 28th year Sunday, participants debated the growing corporate influence on the conference. Critics say SXSW has evolved past its core mission: to help new bands get discovered. Instead, they say, the media focus has shifted to already-established stars such as Jay Z, Kanye West, Lady Gaga, Coldplay, CeeLo Green, Rick Ross, Keith Urban and many more whose heavily promoted appearances are underwritten by international brands.
It's poor vs. the 1 percent in miniature, and this change in vibe is relatively new. Even those who've found the spotlight before say it's getting harder to break through.
"This South By feels different for us," said Adam Thompson, singer-guitarist for Scottish band We Were Promised Jetpacks, which made its fourth appearance at the festival. "It does feel like the first two were amazing to help us play shows and get people to notice us. Even stupid stuff like our name was funny, so people would come see us.
"We just came off the back of a really nice tour with some nice venues, and now we're sort of thrown off the deep end. Sometimes you're thinking, 'I'd like to play in a nice club with a soundcheck instead of not being able to hear ... on stage.'"
An hour later, the band had technical and sound troubles after hastily assembling its gear, but left the venue with a few more fans by powering through their fourth of five sets in three days.
We Were Promised Jetpacks' experience was far different from the major pop stars, who starred at some of Austin's nicest venues with state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems.
James Minor, general manager of the music portion of the festival, says he still thinks the focus is aimed at discovery, and that organizers are sensitive to groups most music fans have yet to hear about.
"I feel incredibly responsible for all these acts that we invite because it costs a lot of money to get here," Minor said. "If somebody's going to travel to Austin, you want to make sure that they're playing in front of people, that they're going to get something out of South By Southwest. We invite acts we feel have already gained some kind of momentum that could kind of use the festival as a platform to help them up to the next level."
The initial hurdle is the festival's sheer popularity. It has grown exponentially since it first started in 1987 with 177 acts appearing on 15 stages. This year more than 2,300 acts performed on 111 stages.
Where should a journalist put the emphasis: On bands that generate thousands of clicks or a little bit of buzz?
"That's an easy choice to make," Minor said. "It's a journalist's responsibility to do what needs to be done, to go see those young bands and help them out."
Lady Gaga, who played a Doritos-sponsored event that required entrants to perform certain acts and post them to social media, bristled at the idea that corporate sponsorship is a bad thing, dismissing the complaints with an expletive. She said critics were ignorant of the current state of the music business.
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