World Comes to Austin in SXSW

By Rob Patterson

There are many reasons why I am fortunate to live in Austin, Texas. A major one comes around every March: South By Southwest (SXSW). The annual event, which started as a regional grassroots music conference and festival, just celebrated its 25th anniversary the third week of March.

It’s what finally brought me to this city, known for its music as well as — perhaps not as much as some may think — its reputation as this red state’s most politically progressive burg. In 1989 I moved from New York City to Austin to sell ads and trade show booths for SXSW. After doing so for two conferences I took an editing job but continued to work on planning and running SXSW’s professional panels.

At the time SXSW was still a rather small but rapidly growing event oriented towards the music media, record company A&R (artists and repertoire) executives and independent music businesses.

It later added a film festival and conference and then an interactive conference dedicated to the booming digital media industry. The film fest has become a notable event in that realm, and the interactive conference has grown into the main yearly gathering for its business.

And as it has grown, so has a plethora of parties and music showcases and events around it. For most of the week, musical artists play almost anywhere that a stage can be found throughout the center city, all in addition to the official showcases that SXSW presents, which this year featured some 2,000 acts performing at over 90 venues. It’s the one time in the year when Austin lives up to its debatable rep and official slogan as “The Live Music Capital of the World.” Nonetheless, the music SXSW festival, once known as “spring break for the music industry,” now seems to have become that for many more. For this writer and longtime music journalist, it has been a reliable annual indicator of the state of contemporary music and a place to hear new and rising artists.

The good news: Even as the music business contracts and spins through a both welcome and troubling redefinition, there is no lack of artists creating music. As the tools and means of recording, promoting and selling music have become easily accessible by all thanks to the digital revolution, more people than ever are making music.

The possible bad news: Music has become just another consumer product. To those of us who came of age alongside rock’n’roll and modern popular music — I was born the same year Elvis Presley first hit the radio waves — it is no longer the defining factor of what could be called youth culture (even if those of us who were once youths now qualify for AARP membership).

This was evident throughout downtown Austin as consumer product companies like Chevy, Pepsi, Levi’s and many more sponsored and staged artist showcases and concerts, some an official part of SXSW, others not. The cachet of popular music has shifted from being a definitive aspect of our American culture and its soundtrack and poetic lexicon to background sounds within all the wheat and chaff of popular entertainment.

This makes me sad, as every year when SXSW gets underway I continue to be amazed and impressed at how an event that I had my small part in building has become a definitive popular musical gathering. But in 2011, it has reached a crisis point. SXSW used to be a magical week when one could hear new and favorite old music acts, see friends and peers visiting from points across the nation and around the globe, and enjoy parties and gatherings and have one heck of a fun time.

It’s something I once knew as an infant and adolescent that has now grown into a behemoth and this year became beastly. It has become too big for its own and Austin’s britches. I fear for its survival as a viable event even as it has become an amazingly vital and massive musical gathering. Tune in here again 12 months from now to see if my concerns are real.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2011

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