Minimum Viable Hipsters: How SXSW helped ruin both tech and indie rock
As I exited the car in Downtown Austin, two young blonde women raced after the vehicle but were too slow to catch it.
"How fucking hard is it to find a cab in this city?" One snorted to the other as the three of us found ourselves standing outside a party thrown by a streaming music startup. In an act of revenge on more reliable transportation, the first woman pushed over two bikes, a motion that, while in keeping with the casual fuck-the-world attitude bred by America's fraternity and sorority system, came with enough force to have almost certainly damaged them. Even Austin's famed bike subculture can't survive SXSW 2015 unscathed.
Subcultures were under assault everywhere I looked in Austin -- but then you probably already knew that. Furthermore, nobody needs another "I-went-to-a-party-and-got-drunk-with-a-fringe-celebrity-and-it-made-me-realize-how-fake-and-lame-SXSW-had-become" story. It's done. Everybody from journalists to locals to true believers can agree: It's ten orders of magnitude beyond cliched to bemoan how "corporate" SXSW has become.
It bears repeating: Not because SXSW deserves yet another hateful Gawkeresque takedown. But because it's time to stop worrying about what SXSW was and start thinking about what SXSW has become -- and whether we can deal with it and take from it what we can.
I know it's hard. SXSW isn't your average branded takeover. It's much worse. That's because the festival isn't content to celebrate the corporatization of one major Western counterculture movement of the 20th century. No, its recent history is a chronicle of two countercultures, cast astray into the corporate void and chipped away by brands until everything that once made them attractive -- at least to people who like things other than money -- are gone.
These two movements are, of course, the digital revolution -- which began as a playground for LSD-addled dreamers obsessed with consciousness and connection -- and underground music. And here, at SXSW, lies the nexus of where the tech counterculture and the music counterculture came to die -- a quick death by brands.
It sounds like a nightmare -- and in many ways it is. The long-time Austinites -- which as far as I can tell means anybody who's lived here over six months -- bemoan how the event began as a celebration of local culture, designed by locals and for locals. Now the bands come in from all over the world and so do the tourists. Then in 2007, the technology firms descended and with them came even more money and more opportunities for brands who wanted their "presence felt." Thanks to social media we all have our own personal brands now too, and status-seekers -- who usually have money to burn, which is why they seek status and not something useful like food or shelter -- wanted their presence felt too.
So it's no surprise then that unfettered access to this year's event cost attendees anywhere between $1345 and $1745. And what was once a local celebration is now a destination for amorphous corporate entities, the humans who represent these entities, and the children of these humans, for whom this status -- sought and won -- is even more precious than it is for adults. Because within the narcissistic wormholes of a high schooler's Instagram feed, status is the only currency. This, for example, is a picture I took of a woman called Ali Spagnola as she takes a selfie of herself and the band she's seeing. She doesn't look like she's having fun. But once the "likes" start piling up...
Again though. Again. I already knew SXSW was "over." You already knew it. @SXSWPartyzzzzz definitely already knew it. And so it's time to stop hating and start reconciling with South by Southwest. It isn't what it was. It's something else. But what? And is it really a desolate cultural sinkhole without any hope of redemption, just because some brands came along and pissed in the punchbowl?
To come to terms with SXSW, first I had to get to a pretty dark place, so bear with me...
Last night, after leaving the sorority girls to their noble quest, I entered a sterile hall that felt better-suited to a wedding reception than a rock show. Bartenders served up free drinks, and almost nobody left tips. The attendees were either too young to observe this ritual -- these probably being the first alcoholic beverages they ever consumed in public -- or too old, battered by years of misfortune, and left with nowhere to turn but the Dockers-wearing libertarian tech gentry, which like Travis Kalanick, believes that the best way to go through life is by taking as much as possible and giving nothing. I heard one person remark how impressive it was that this startup was able to win as sponsors such formidable vodka brands. I'm sure the bartenders were pleased as they dropped a couple bucks into their jars in the hope that these patrons were capable of pattern recognition.
"Anybody got any Adderall?" Yells a man who is either Turtle from Entourage or looks so much like Turtle from Entourage that his presence here is just as alarming. The good drugs obviously haven't arrived in Austin yet -- after all, most of the musicians won't arrive until tomorrow -- and it shows. Unlike the astonishingly polite crowd at Bonnaroo these Minimum Viable Hipsters -- who hide their jockishness with facial hair and T-Shirts emblazoned with punk bands that never made a dime -- push each other aside without apology as if a rugby match was about to break out. The venue, meanwhile, doesn't feel anywhere close to at-capacity, so I'm not sure what their aim is. In another life, in the 90s maybe, some of them would have thrown fully-loaded cafeteria trays at kids who wore the same Black Flag T-shirts they now wore. In the immortal words of Kimmy Schmidt, "Even the police officers have tattoos."
But it's not just punk subculture that's suffering here. For every two mall-punks there's at least one older tech guy, most of whom never invented a thing except maybe a new way to distribute an ad budget across an enterprise. They all worship Steve Jobs, but seem as unaware of his hippie roots as they are of his later sociopathy. They were not attracted to technology because of "the subtle sounds of product design and geekery," as the proud counterculture warrior James Currier would say. They came for the cash.
Tonight, the elders will mostly stay in packs along the walls, like chaperones at a school dance. Some, however, try to mingle with the youths, either to learn something about the next generation of consumers or for more nefarious purposes I hesitate to imagine.
And finally, there are people who, like me, aren't quite sure why they're there; who exist not so much outside of these two straight worlds, but in between them, unable to tear ourselves away from the hype even though we've stopped believing in it a long time ago -- the hype that this band could be your life, or that this piece of technology could "change everything" -- even though all of it is carefully calibrated by brands in order to induce specific buying outcomes.
Don't think anything's lost in that filtration process? Behold the band most of these kids came to see: Heartless Bastards. They offer nothing to offend the ears, just a clean, smooth amalgamation of notes and noises from the indie and classic rock songbooks. I imagine the band members were constructed by one of those giant robot machines that builds Teslas. It's corporate rock at its finest, like the Black Keys for people who think mayonnaise is too spicy.
At this point, I was getting pretty annoyed and bored with the whole thing, and even more annoyed with myself: I never thought I'd be the kind of guy to scream "Get off my lawn!" Even more troublingly, I never thought I'd be the kind of guy to scream, "But I'm from Brooklyn! Where corporations are illegal!" (They're not. And I'm not from Brooklyn. Like everyone who lives in Brooklyn, I'm from Ohio).
But then I noticed something strange. It's customary for venues to play songs over the soundsystem between sets. At one point, the crowd even seemed to be just as excited by a recording of a War on Drugs song as by any of the live acts, take that as you will. But tonight, it sounded like whoever manned the boards had simply fired up the free, ad-supported version of an Internet radio services because... there were ads between the songs. Not from the vodka company or any other sponsors of the event, but like, big national brands that do giant ad buys across platforms: One belonged to a car repair chain -- Aamco maybe? There was even a Sam Adams ad. And if there's a worse way for a brand to appropriate history, culture, and music than those Sam Adams "Shipping Out to Boston" ads, I'm not aware of it. (Unless Sam Jackson Beer becomes a real thing).
At first, I was pretty turned off. I tried to imagine what would happen if an audio ad interrupted the interstitial music at Lollapalooza in the 90s. People would be pissed, right? But for these kids, it didn't even faze them. One interpretation is that younger millennials and post-millennials think that brands are a good thing: That drinking Pepsi makes you like Michael Jackson, or that wearing Hanes makes you like Michael Jordan. Or, in the case of actual young people, that, uh, buying hoverboots makes you like Ariana Grande or something.
But I don't think that's it. Jello Biafra taught me that brands were bad, and I believed him. Yo La Tengo -- and Neil Young and Bill Hicks and basically everybody who was cool between the years of 1980 and 2000 -- taught me that "selling out" was bad, and I believed them too.
But the anti-corporate philosophies that Gen-Xers and older Millennials like me so proudly displayed gave brands too much credit -- and too much power. It threatens to take these harmless bogeymen and give them real power -- because otherwise why would we care if Iggy Pop endorsed car insurance? It's not as if the car insurance company locked Iggy Pop inside a room and threatened to kill his family if he didn't do the ad. Moreover, it's not as if Iggy Pop's presence in a car insurance ad, to any logical observer, suggests a predilection toward that car insurance or a rival provider. Dude probably just balances value with comprehensiveness you know.
But you know who doesn't care about "selling out"? Anyone under 25. That's because these kids notice brands like a fish notices water. Of course, just because the fish doesn't notice the water, that doesn't mean that the water isn't integral to the fish's survival, or that the fish didn't evolve its every feature to better fit its watery habitat. But increasingly, a brand is a means to an end. It's how you listen to virtually every popular song ever created for free. It's why every piece of software you would ever need or want on your phone comes free of charge.
And brands can be good in other ways that don't involve getting free content or laying down cash for their products. Somehow I started talking to a guy in his early-20s about skateboarding. Like every counterculture, he said, corporations are trying to take it over. "What does Nike know about skateboarding?" he asked, in a not-exactly chill way.
But when asked if he'd take money from Nike, the young man said, "I'd take money from Nike. If they wanted to give me money, it means I'm good at what I love." Even his earlier antipathy toward Nike was less because it was a corporation and more because Nike makes basketball shoes, and is therefore not an authority on skateboarding shoes.
The kids of today are swimming in brands. Many of them won't know what an non-branded experience is even like. But with this one exception -- and I wouldn't even argue it's a bad thing -- young people are likely just as narcissistic and shallow and poserish as any generation that came before them. Sure, maybe the opportunities to embrace the counterculture are limited or less rewarding. After all, before Spotify, before iTunes, before Napster, it took work to be a music geek, scouring through used record stores, gambling on artists and albums $16 at a time. But did it require work or just money? And if it's easier and cheaper then ever for a kid to have a meaningful connection to some trash-can punk album that came out before the word "punk" even existed in a musical context, shouldn't we embrace that?
As for SXSW, yes, the expenses involved in attending have led to a more problematic clientele than in the festival's earlier years. But as for it "going corporate"? On one hand, I'll accept that most authentic experiences are not branded experiences. Then again, how many authentic experiences do you expect to have at SXSW? How many do you expect to have in your life? If the answer's "a lot," you should probably stay away from cities altogether. Furthermore, last night's final act, King Tuff, was fantastic, no matter how much vodka startup money his band is rolling in today. (I mean, how else do musicians get paid today? Seriously.)
If you're a SXSW lifer, the festival probably isn't for you. If I wasn't here to talk to industry folks and learn more about what the "digital music industry" means in 2015, it wouldn't be for me, either. But if you have a reasonable amount of disposable income, limited time-off, and want to see as many bands and meet as many smart tech people as you can in a small amount of time, hey, SXSW might be your thing. Just make sure to wander -- into random buildings, down random streets, while talking to random people. There are still surprises to be found here, and neither Pepsi nor Pandora can change that.
Near the end of last night, I asked a pedi-cab driver where I could get some food at such a late hour. He said if I gave him five bucks, he would take me. As he rode like a maniac up cement slopes that would have felt downright vertical if not for the cars weaving on either side of us, we talked about the changes he's seen over six SXSW seasons. He made all the familiar arguments -- it's gotten too big, corporate, too expensive, too inaccessible. And -- no offense -- too much of a tourist destination for guys like me, as opposed to a big party for local artists, local businesses, and local residents.
And then he dropped me off at a Wendy's. I get it. I'm no local, so Wendy's is where I eat. How's that for a branded experience?