Maybe it’s because I’m a native Texan, but there is something in the air here that makes me feel animalistic and free. It’s as if I can sense the expanse on my skin, surrounding and passing through me in a hot breeze. There are so many humans overtaking downtown, especially on 6th Street. People in their modded cars, blasting rap music through powerful bass-driven speakers in parking lots. Pedi Cabs and traffic. Live music all day into the late night. Swarms of people crowding closed off streets. Lines upon lines, venue upon venue. People come from all over the world to share their art with the whirlwind of culture consumers.
The first South by Southwest (SXSW) event was held in March of 1987. What began with a focus on music was only the beginning. Since then, it has expanded to be a congregation for film, interactive gaming, and comedy conferences and festivals. “The event has changed in many surprising and meaningful ways since 1987, but at its core, SXSW remains a tool for creative people to develop their careers by bringing together people from around the globe to meet, learn and share ideas,” says Roland Swenson about the history of SXSW.
I’ve reached out to some people with their own experiences and insights on the matter–some who are going this year, some who are repelled and staying at home in New York, and some whose homes are encroached upon by SXSW and it’s flock. Is it truly over saturated or is it still an open opportunity to cast a line and network with others?
Shaw Walters, a New York-based musician and VR filmmaker, simply doesn’t see the appeal and thinks SXSW “attracts people who like to be seen doing stuff.” He goes on to explain his moment of realization during a previous South by. “As I was sitting in a Subway sponsored chill-zone after a one-night stand with a local college chick whose name I don’t remember, eating some sort of weird pizza-sandwich hybrid and sipping from my start-up branded sippy cup full of light beer I’d smuggled out of the artist lounge, I thought, ‘You know, I’m over it. This shit is pretty lame.’”
As ridiculous and overbearing as the sponsorships and capitalism can be, there are the unofficial showcases where artists are able to come from all over to share their work, and there are people excited about the music and more than willing to show support. Amy Earixson and Chris Yaniak from the New Jersey-based label, Little Dickman Records, have traveled to SXSW and and thrown unofficial showcases for four years now and they don’t see a downside. “We have been doing it for four years, and each year it gets better and better,” they shared. “The connections you make when you put yourself out there can prove to be invaluable. You get to get out of your town and spend a week in a nice warm place with great tacos and beer, we really don’t see a downside!” They help their family of musicians on the label, including Ex-Girlfriends, Sharkmuffin, and The Off White by setting up showcases and renting out a beautiful Texas ranch house with a sprawling space of fresh green and horses to pet where the artists can live for the week.
Randy Ojeda of Cigar City Management also sees the upside of the festival. “I think SXSW is an amazing opportunity for artists if you go for the right reasons,” he said. “But it’s a chance to cut your teeth on a variety of different stages, get out of your hometown, and meet other artists from all over the world. Music is such a mobile industry, people are everywhere, so it’s cool to have a place where so many colleagues converge.”
The festival has recently come under some scrutiny due to the fine print in contracts for official artists. The timing was right for the contract’s language to be interpreted as anti-immigrant. The section in the showcase contract for Felix Walworth of Told Slant reads: “International artists entering the country through the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), B visa or any non-work visa may not perform at any public or non-sanctioned SXSW Music Festival DAY OR NIGHT shows in Austin from March 13-19, 2017.” It goes on to say, “Accepting and performing unofficial events may result in immediate deportation, revoked passport and denied entry by U.S. Customs Border Patrol at U.S. ports of entry.” Contrary to this seemingly harsh, seemingly anti-immigrant stipulation and language, Tamizdat has teamed up alongside Globalfest and PRI’s The World to organize an official showcase featuring artists from seven countries that are majority Muslim and affected by Trump’s immigration ban.
I value being able to come to a place that feels like home to me and watch a plethora of other live artists and observe how they do their thing. I love being able to come together with strangers, friends from childhood, and those who have also traveled from New York to do be a part of a larger community based on a love of music, camaraderie, and sharing experiences with one another from diverse walks of life. It’s not about the sponsorships and advertisements. There is still an organic experience to be had out here as well as professional connections to be made.
I know I’m not the only musician who loves playing more than anything. This is a time and place where playing two and, for some of my friends, four times a day can be reality. It’s hard work, but this is where we choose to focus our efforts. Somehow I have yet to run out of energy as I’m working, playing shows, and hitting the town all day and night. I’m still high off of good energy and the curiosity for unknown potential.