Austin’s South-By-Southwest Has Lost Its Soul

Austin’s South-By-Southwest Has Lost Its Soul
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It had been seven years since I last attended SXSW. As one of the original attendees from 1988 to 2010, I’d seen the changes as the internet gradually wiped out the music business, and the festival diversified into film, interactive, gaming, etc. But I really wasn’t prepared for what had happened to Austin itself.

The first indication was driving from the airport to downtown on I-35, a strip previously lined with motels and fast food joints, now obliterated and replaced with corporate parks and condominiums. A precursor to what awaited as we approached the Convention Center. Previously proudly one of the larger structures downtown, it was now dwarfed and surrounded by monstrous steel and glass hotels and construction. The blue-collar neighborhood of small homes behind the I-Hop where I used to park, replaced with a sprawling condominium complex. In fact all the old parking lots were now filled-in with modern multi-story monoliths.

Inside the Convention Center seemed as chaotic and energetic as usual, but there was something missing… the fun. Instead of separate bags for each festival filled with promotional goodies from indie bands and films, was one bag with an Austin Chronical newspaper and program guides. No bells and whistles and kazoos and condoms and postcards and bubble gum, just official pamphlets.

Inside the exhibit hall was anything but a festival. A mish mash of unrelated booths, the only ones remotely promoting music were guitar manufacturers, a ticketing company and Pollstar. These, interspersed between T-shirt silk screen vendors, film equipment, jewelry, leather goods, sneakers health companies and Home Depot! No record companies (major or indie), or music publishers, or fanzines, or bands (except one playing on the day stage). And for some reason, various countries like Japan, Germany, and Italy had pavilions? And of course there were corporate logos everywhere, all completely unrelated to music or film, from Mazda, to Capital One, McDonalds, Esurance and the obligatory Bud Light.

Sixth Street remained the last vestige of the original festival, lined with clubs, doors open, music blaring, but much louder than in the past, desperately demonstrating they were still there, as long plastic pylons now placed down the length of the thoroughfare forced revelers to one side or the other. The venerable Austin City Music Hall had been torn down along with the La Zona Rosa stage nearby to make way for developers. But there was still music taking place, much of which in non-SXSW stages, tents and food truck venues forced to the outskirts of downtown.

I couldn’t help but think that this entire experience seemed to mirror what had happened to the music business itself. ‘Progress’ in the form of the internet had demolished the music industry, with record companies swallowed by entertainment conglomerates creating brands instead of artists, to be sold with toothpaste and Maxi-pads. And musicians forced out into the fringes, relegated to the ranks of other starving artists, in a society that prizes money and power over art.

L.E. Kalikow's "Sex, No Drugs and Rock n’ Roll (Memoirs of a Music Junkie)" is available in paperback, iBook, Kindle, & AudioBook online.

You can follow L.E. Kalikow on Twitter at @LEKalikow or Facebook at LEKalikowAuthor

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