Atx SXSW 2012
Who's Gonna Run This Town

SXSW rewind: The Eagles, U2, The Rolling Stones, and Lady Gaga for SXSW 2013

SXSW rewind: The Eagles, U2, The Rolling Stones, and Lady Gaga for SXSW 2013

Austin Photo Set: News_Dan_Jay Z_sxsw_march 2012_4
Jay-Z at ACL-Live Photo by Brandon Fuller
Austin Photo Set: News_Jessica Pages_SXSW_music Day 1_march 2012_fiona
Fiona Apple Photo by Jessica Pages
Austin Photo Set: News_Dan_nas_sleighbells_march 2012_nas
Nas Courtesy of Nas Facebook
Austin Photo Set: News_Dan_sxsw_emos return_march 2012_skrillex
Skrillex Skrillex/Facebook
Austin Photo Set: News_Dan_Jay Z_sxsw_march 2012_2
Jay Z Photo by Brandon Fuller
Austin Photo Set: News_Dan_Jay Z_sxsw_march 2012_4
Austin Photo Set: News_Jessica Pages_SXSW_music Day 1_march 2012_fiona
Austin Photo Set: News_Dan_nas_sleighbells_march 2012_nas
Austin Photo Set: News_Dan_sxsw_emos return_march 2012_skrillex
Austin Photo Set: News_Dan_Jay Z_sxsw_march 2012_2

And thus another SXSW has drawn to a close. If the 2011 edition was something of a low-point for the festival — and opinions on that will forever be mixed, with some pointing to a $167 million boost to the local economy and others reminding us that things got so out of hand people actually believed for a minute that they were going to build a big dome in Bastrop to house the thing this year — then the 2012 version was a nice rebound.

Yeah, there were some issues, but most of the doom ‘n gloom in the forecast (remember when San Antonio offered to take the festival off our hands?) seems to have subsided. What we have left is the same question as last year, but with a lot less urgency: namely, where does the festival go from here?

 In regards to the 2012 festival, there was very much a crowd of haves and have-nots: limiting an appearance by Jay-Z to Amex holders with badges (and a few lucky media types), or restricting Bruce to badge-wearing lottery winners. 

There are a lot of things to consider when weighing that question. Here are some of them.

What’s with all the big-name headliners?

Historically speaking, if you could headline a night at Lollapalooza or the ACL Festival all by yourself, you were not coming into Austin to perform during SXSW.

That tipped a bit last year, when Vevo held an unofficial showcase for Kanye West’s GOOD Music at Seaholm Power Plant, featuring a slew of megastars — Kanye himself, John Legend, Kid Cudi, and a surprise appearance at the end by Jay-Z. (A few years prior, a poorly kept “secret” show by Metallica at Stubb’s drew less hype.)

This year, that was all out the window. Instead of the hottest ticket in town being some buzz act that nobody was going to care about six months later, it was... well... Jay-Z, or Bruce Springsteen, or 50 Cent (with Eminem), or Lil Wayne, or even Nas, or Jack White, or Fiona Apple, or Skrillex.

There’s a lot of hand-wringing going on about this (“when did SXSW turn into SummerJam,” someone asked me on Twitter yesterday), but it’s hard to know what it means in the long-term.

It definitely means that, in regards to the 2012 festival, there was very much a crowd of haves and have-nots: limiting an appearance by Jay-Z to Amex holders with badges (and a few lucky media types), or restricting Bruce to badge-wearing lottery winners (plus some dudes in famous bands), or Fiona Apple to people with both badges and a two hour wait in line at Stubb’s means that there are a whole bunch of people whose experience of SXSW was one of missing out on some of the big fun.

Maybe that actually helped settle some of the cloud of toxic entitlement that hung over the 2011 festival (there’s nothing to keep folks who are being told by Doritos that they’re the most important thing in the world humble than being denied entry to the things they most want to see), but it also means that when you say you were at SXSW 2012, it could mean that you saw huge artists perform intimate concerts at A-list venues or that you caught a lot of second-tier acts at clubs and parties.

To the extent that there have always been haves and have-nots at SXSW, the division has always been about who got the earliest tips or knew the best secrets, it was about music smarts. Now, seemingly, it’s about who has the credentials, hook-ups, or credit cards that can give them access to a show that anybody in town would be psyched to get into. That’s a shift worth thinking about.

It’s too early to tell what this’ll mean going forward. Maybe, as Michael Corcoran hypothesized on Twitter on Sunday, the zoo-like atmosphere that comes from having Jay-Z airdrop in for 75 minutes at ACL Live will keep young acts looking to break their careers open, think twice before coming to Austin.

Time will tell if that’s the case. But if the excitement over newcomers like Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire (who signed to Universal Republic at the festival), Kendrick Lamar (who inked a deal with Interscope the week before), A$AP Rocky, Alabama Shakes, Michael Kiwanuka, Kimbra, 2:54, etc — or the boost in profile that early career hopefuls riding a new album like Best Coast, Sharon Van Etten, The Heavy, Theophilus London, Sleigh Bells, Ceremony, and more aimed for — materializes in 2012 the way that it seems likely to for at least some of them, it’s hard to see why 2,700 people missing their showcases for Bruce Springsteen one night is going to keep young artists away.

So where was the chaos?

Last year, there was a lot of talk about how free events (with their free beer) needed to be limited after the messes that broke out all over Austin. People tore down fences to get a glimpse of The Strokes at Auditorium Shores and Death From Above 1979 at Beauty Bar; the guy from Screeching Weasel punched two women in the face at his band’s showcase at Scoot Inn; thousands of fans were left out in the cold at the Kanye showcase at Seaholm after being promised entry; and more that we’ve probably forgotten about given how exhausted we still are from the past week.

This year, SXSW incorporated events that had previously been unofficial, like the Fader Fort, or events that would have been unofficial if they’d existed before, like the MTVu Woodies Festival and the Jay-Z/Amex gig. The difference for the end-user was minimal — Fader Fort gave priority access to badges who had a million other things to do every day — and the festival had some oversight into what was going on. If the idea was to curb the unofficial freebies in order to present a unified vision of SXSW and thus make things less of a mess, it worked. It’s hard to know at this point exactly what impact it all really had, but it definitely made for a more peaceful, less depressing festival.

Instead, you ended up with A$AP Rocky getting into a fight at 3:00 a.m. on Saturday night being the big story of SXSW chaos. Given that there was a perfect storm brewing — St. Patrick’s Day! SXSW! — the fact that the biggest drama was a minor skirmish at a rap show in the middle of the night before everybody left town barely registers. Even the Occupy Southby showcase ended peacefully, with Tom Morello unplugging his guitar when asked and everybody singing “This Land Is Your Land” together. Not bad.

  In the end, there’s a ton of money, and a ton of fun, in Austin every year at SXSW. This year, the money was spread out in some awfully weird ways, and the fun carried a lot fewer apocalyptic overtones than in the year that preceded it.  

Who were the big winners and losers?

Here’s a big winner that’ll probably fly under the radar: Wholly Cow Burgers on 7th and Congress, which opened last month in a spot that’s been a Pita Pit, Texadelphia, and Wendy’s in the past several years. That place was packed all day, every day, during SXSW, which is pretty good if you’re a brand new fast-food joint in a location that’s never been able to work as a restaurant. 

In fact, the economic benefits of SXSW 2012 will probably exceed those of 2011. (Let’s give a “losers” to the newly-reopened Hickory Street on 8th and Congress, which jacked up the prices on its opening-day menu for SXSW by a buck or so per item, which isn’t an awesome way to ingratiate yourself with locals who might otherwise become loyal customers.)

Whether it was nine days of every effing parking garage/lot/patch of dirt downtown charging $20 for a spot, or Doritos building a giant-ass stage (and, sure, stuffing Snoop Dogg inside a vending machine to perform at one point), or the countless temp jobs that opened up promoting startups, snack foods, and cigarettes, a whole bunch of people spent a whole bunch of money at SXSW.

Well, except the Austin homeless, who became a major international news story after they were turned into wi-fi hotspots at the behest of a marketing firm during SXSW Interactive. Opinions vary about whether this was a crass scheme that exploited our vulnerable population for some easy press, or an opportunity for people who’ve historically been excluded from the orgy of fun and money that is often described as “city-wide” to benefit from all the people coming to town. But regardless of your take, it’s still a cogent reminder that while SXSW very much takes over Austin every year, there are segments of our population who are left out of the show.

It was also still a reminder that haves and have-nots extend way beyond who got a ticket to see Jay-Z.

Consider this: did you see the good-looking young people running around town all week in nude-colored body stockings to promote some product or other? Those folks were getting paid $25 an hour for participating in that affront to human dignity. The “homeless hotspots,” meanwhile? $20 per day, plus tips.

Ultimately, the cyberpunk dystopian levels of marketing that occur at SXSW each year made the Occupy Southby showcase refreshing in ways that the event organizers probably never intended.

Livestreams are a big thing at SXSW, and the people outside of Tom Morello’s showcase at Swan Dive who didn’t have badges or wristbands were treated to “The People’s Stage,” a set of speakers in the street broadcasting the sound from inside, along with a sheet hung on the side of the building onto which the onstage action was being projected.

Across the street, meanwhile, Jay-Z’s Amex gig was being re-streamed onto a billboard, with regular interruptions to display a bunch of logos. When everything in Austin is branded by somebody, just the image of an artist playing music for the sake of music becomes radical.

In the end, there’s a ton of money, and a ton of fun, in Austin every year at SXSW. This year, the money was spread out in some awfully weird ways, and the fun carried a lot fewer apocalyptic overtones than in the year that preceded it.

There are still questions to sort out; if at next year’s festival, ACL Live, Austin Music Hall, and Stubb’s are all packed every night with showcases from The Eagles, U2, The Rolling Stones, Lady Gaga, Drake, Kanye, and Eminem, then maybe the sky really is falling for indie acts at SXSW.

If this year’s relative peace and calm was an outlier because everybody who’d have been causing trouble was busy on Saturday night drinking green beer and puking at Fado and Bull McCabe’s, then we’ll see if the calm lasts.

And if the marketing schemes and floods of money that roll into town every year finally find a way to incorporate the Austinites who’ve historically been excluded from the festival without turning their right arms into routers, maybe we’ll even feel less gross about every inch of downtown being branded with something.

As to whether any of that will end up happening, it’s way too early to start offering guesses — not that that has ever stopped anybody from trying to predict what the next SXSW will look like.