Monday, March 21, 2011

SXSW Hiccups

So there was this article this weekend in the Austin American Statesman titled Some Sour Notes as SXSW 2011 Closes. The article contains the usual complaints about overcrowded venues, traffic congestion, high prices, etc., as well as complaints more specific to this year, including mini riots (fans crashed a gate at a Death from Above 1979 show and, apparently, rushed the stage during the Strokes show), invalid tickets (at the Kanye West show), and the collapse of video equipment onto unsuspecting fans (at Stubb's during the OMD show).

As for myself, I had a pretty good time during SXSW, but I also understand the complaints and definitely think that they have some merit.
SXSW started off as a rather small music festival which was meant to showcase regional musical talent and to help them get national and international exposure. Tickets and wristbands used to be relatively inexpensive, easy to come by, and all but guaranteed that you could get into most of the shows that you wanted to see.
Nowadays SXSW is big business, and its harder than ever for most Austinites to get the chance to enjoy the whole thing. Granted, SXSW brings in a lot of money for local businesses, but it doesn't really cater to local bands (the conventional wisdom has been for years that the festival organizers prefer out of town acts over local ones in order to make the festival seem like more of a national event), and the Austin citizens are the ones who deal with the travel, trash, and traffic congestion that's brought on by the festival each year. Add to this the fact that $165 wristbands are effectively meaningless these days (you need a badge to get into most of the official shows, and those cost something more along the lines of the $700-$1000 range), and you start to get a better idea of why Austinites are starting to get fed up with an event that makes lots of money for a slim subsection of the population while inconveniencing and excluding a whole lot of others.
Sure, there are free shows and some unofficial events going on (which can be really nice for all of us who can't afford badges), but these tend to contribute to problems as well. The festival now draws in many more fans than its official participation accounts for, which makes planning difficult and tends to add to the congestion and chaos (the free Strokes show at Auditorium Shores, for example, had to close its gates because of the unexpectedly overwhelming size of the crowd, and Austin area hotels were pushed beyond maximum capacity during the festival, leaving many attendees with few housing options).
Venues which allow free entrance with wristbands and badges also often allow entrance for unofficial attendees (who usually pay a small cover), which encourages people who aren't associated with the festival to crowd into the downtown area. Venues and streets become overcrowded. Parking is a nightmare. As a wristband holder, I've noticed that shows are typically either so popular that you need an expensive badge to get in, or that you might as well not have bothered getting a wristband at all because the crowd is thin enough that they're letting everyone in.
Festival organizers try to point to the unofficial events as one of the primary reasons why SXSW has gotten a bit out of control, but you can't help wondering if that's just because the organizers would rather see patrons and their dollars crowded into official SXSW venues. On the other hand, it's probably harder to get the bars and clubs to sign up as "offical" venues if you're having to tell those places that they might have to turn away potentially paying customers (who will undoubtedly be buying drinks) in order to cater to SXSW attendees on a preferential basis.

Annnnyway, I just think that there has to be a better way to manage this thing. SXSW is kind of an unusual fesitival in terms of the fact that it takes place across the city at a large number of official and unofficial venues, which certainly makes coordination and planning difficult. With so many venues operating more or less autonomously during one citywide event, miscommunication and mismanagement is almost inevitably going to be a problem.
But they need to do a better job than this. Someone needs to get all of the venues together- official and unofficial- and really organize this thing so that it will run more smoothly. Part of this coordination effort has to come from the SXSW organizers, who need to realize that they're more or less responsible for the whole thing (both official and unofficial events) since the unofficial events have only helped to build the fame and size of the whole festival. The organizers make plenty of money off of the festival, and Austin has been more than accomodating of their needs, so it just seems like it would be awfully good of them to step up and take responsibility for as much of the activity as they can- not just the part of it that's putting money directly into their own pockets.

I still love wandering around and listening to music on a spring afternoon or evening in Austin, Texas, and I don't want SXSW to go away, but it needs to be better managed. Hopefully the organizers can find a way to get as many of the participants as possible around a big ol' talbe and get the thing a little better organized for next year.

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