SXSW Music

The recent article on washingtonpost.com about the “oppressive corporate presence” at this year’s SXSW Music Festival in Austin, now the world’s largest, got me thinking about the marketing of the arts in general. I had a great discussion about this with my friend and colleague, Darci Ratliff (@DarciRatliff) and we both agree, this has historically been a slippery slope for marketers with a conscience, and there are no signs of that easing anytime soon.

Anyone who grew up with SXSW, like I did, like Darci did, likely bemoans what has become of SXSW. (don’t get my husband started; he attended the very first SXSW in 1987 with a $5 wristband!). The once-small and intimate, indie experience is now replete with corporate logos, promotions, stunts and gimmicks. There are still plenty of small, unknown bands and discoveries to be made (who are starved for corporate support), but they compete for air space and media attention – not to mention fans – with big-name acts and big sponsorship campaigns. Surely for some music fans, the corporate presence threatens the very ethos of the festival. You can draw some parallels with what has happened to The Sundance Film Festival, though I would argue that SDFF has done a better job of retaining its original vibe. Both began with a real indie, homegrown spirit–introducing and promoting new artistic talent and hoping to gain commercial success for musicians and filmmakers. That both festivals have become so big and corporate can definitely feel disheartening from a fan’s perspective, but it can also be an affirmation of everything the fan believes, that someone should support this artist or band because he/she/they are amazing.

Artistic survival — the challenge for artists to get their art, their product recognized and supported — isn’t new. The challenge remains, even with the advent of DIY recording and social media outlets to get the word out. So when you’re struggling, you’re broke but cool, and everyone hopes you make it. When you make it, you have money and are backed by The Man, you’re a sellout.

A conundrum for sure, so what is the solution?

I am not sure, exactly, but it feels like there needs to be some code-of-honor that encourages corporations and brands to walk the fine line of supporting the new films or cool music their consumers love without co-opting or ruining the experience. This deserves more thought as to what those rules would be but the need for protection seems obvious.

I don’t happen to agree with the author of the Washington Post piece that the relationship between brands and consumers is not sacred (well, maybe “sacred” is too exalted a word). But I do believe there can be a strong connection between the two. And if I am sure of anything, it is that some of what has developed at SXSW has not only threatened the integrity of a beloved musical festival, but also threatened the relationships between consumers and the brands they love. I think fans are smart enough to know that brands, no matter how “cool,” have an agenda when they sponsor an event or artist, and I think they are willing to forgive/accept that agenda when the experience the brand creates is interesting and fun and speaks to them. Dos Equis accomplished this at a recent music festival in Denton, TX, where it sponsored one of the stages and called it “The Most Interesting Stage in the World”–a nice fit between their advertising platform and a festival sponsorship.

So, basically, it’s like any good marketing effort: when it’s strategic, creative, thoughtful, genuine and makes sense, it can be a positive experience for the brand, the band and the music fan. But like any relationship, if you force it, if feels inauthentic. SXSW ought to be hip enough to understand that.

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