Band of outsiders no more: Documentary details how SXSW became a modern "sellout"
The South by Southwest music conference began by capitalizing on the outsiders: The bands beyond New York, L.A., and Nashville who were poor, talented, and dedicated to having the time of their lives. Alan Berg’s documentary Outside Industry: The Story of SXSW, which premiered Wednesday night in Austin, gives a rather honest account surrounding how the festival began, grew into a three-pronged conference, and has received as much criticism as critical acclaim.
Grainy black-and-white footage of high-energy billy-rock punk shows taking place at the iconic (and now nonexistent) Liberty Lunch in downtown Austin is spliced together with press clippings and interviews with the four founders, Louis Black, Nick Barbaro, Roland Swenson, and Louis Meyers.
The film takes audiences through the first conference in 1986 — where the lamination machine broke down during band registration and 700 disgruntled attendees had to wait three hours for their badges — to the modern "sell out" with giant corporate sponsorships and the addition of Film and Interactive.
(To put that aforementioned 700 figure into perspective, SXSW now accommodates somewhere over 35,000 participants.)
Berg shows that, as the festival created for the “little guys” became a way for already established insiders (i.e., signed bands and major labels) to garner more attention for themselves and push the indie acts out of stage time, dissent in the media and Austin grew.
Success is usually accompanied by a heaping dose of spite, and SXSW remains no stranger to criticism. In the film, Black says that with constant infringements on SXSW’s brand by way of mimics offering the same perks of the festival for free, the festival is “temporal” and “could die” at any moment.
However, the Outside Industry muses that that sort of authenticity is what keeps the festival heads grounded and realistic, even while sitting on piles of entrants and money. SXSW still relies on the word-of-mouth phenomenon and feeds off of the birth and strengthening of creative communities, even though it’s become more about the insiders than the band of outsiders to which the motley quartet was first devoted.
It seems, sometimes, consumers just love to hate what they love.
See the trailer for the Outside Industry: