SXSW Reflection #1: Prols Rising

March 23, 2010 § 1 Comment

“It’s a paradigm shift. There are no more perks in the music industry.” – Music executive outside a full SXSW showcase

In a sense, binary oppositions define the South by Southwest festival: badged vs. un-badged, official vs. unofficial, paid vs. free admission, restaurant vs. street food. Without an official SXSW badge (priced at a minimum $400 and a max $1225), the task of finding and gaining admittance to quality events can be daunting. You are confronted with the choice of waiting in long lines for official showcases (where you’ll have to pay a hefty price for entry) or taking your chance with free unofficial showcases. While the festival is really a business to business convention for the music industry, the privileged class at SXSW is largely made up of record executive, press, and sponsorship types. If you’re waiting in line for an official showcase, you’ll often see these people walk right in without having to exert the same diligent patience. As an unofficial outsider, there will be inevitable frustrations at SXSW. ¬† If you will it, red tape will ruin your time in Austin.

Fortunately, it seems times are changing. On Friday of the festival, my travel companion and I approached a packed free unofficial showcase on 5th street. As it featured a number of hyped up-and-comers, the line for entry stretched around the corner. It was clear no one was getting in any time soon. We, however, found a good spot to watch and listen right outside the showcase’s grounds¬† where a number of other onlookers were standing as well. Among those was the executive whose statement introduced this post. It seems neither his insider pass nor industry cred could push his entourage past the entrance gates. Outraged and moaning, I overheard his polemic against the rising number of free concerts and the growing power of the free consumers. He was absolutely right in perceiving the paradigm shift. From my perspective, he was absolutely wrong in denouncing its worth.

The music executive’s failure to adapt to the industry’s changing climate is a succumbing to innovation’s oldest rule: older generations cede to younger ones. Part of me wanted to turn around, look this guy in the eye, and say, “Do you know how goddamn old you sound?” But it would never have been worth it. Even since Thomas Kuhn systematized the nature of shifting paradigms in his classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, we have known this was inevitable. It’s not necessarily a matter of ignorance, but rather a matter of epistemologies. The SXSW executive was undoubtedly accustomed to back-stage, no-questions-asked privilege, and the idea that non-paying youngsters could transcend his powers is unthinkable. The bourgeois losing out to a new proletariat.

This was a widespread phenomenon at this year’s SXSW. Although we didn’t have badges, we still managed to see every band we wanted to see. For every official red-taped showcase, each band was playing double the amount in free, first come first serve shows. Those who worked hard to find the right shows at the right venues and showed up early were awarded over those who paid $500 to cut the line. Although this may seem unfair to the wealthy, the number of free showcases was surely a crucial factor in drawing the festival’s largest audience ever: over 50,000 people in a town of 650,000. While I don’t have financial statistics, it would be interesting to see how revenue compares between years, number of badges sold, and number of free showcases. My guess is cutting the red tape benefits SXSW.

There has been much analysis and debate surrounding the way people consume music in the 21st century. The major labels and government have attempted to regulate free downloads to no avail. The fact is that this is outdated thought. To create an innovative music business is to embrace the new culture surrounding consumption. The people know how to find music for free in vast quantities and there has never been a better time for the grass-roots proliferation of new artists. As a bastion of the music industry, SXSW was not without tension between these trains of thought. Lucky enough for all us prols, it appears the revolution is churning.

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