AUSTIN, Texas—Festival-goers at March’s South By Southwest have been asking if the music, film, and interactive festival has gotten too big for its designer cowboy boots. During this year’s festival, when drunk driver Rashad Charjuan Owens crashed through police barricades, killing four festival-goers and injuring 21 more, the question took on greater urgency.
Police charged Owens with capital murder, and the incident caused an unusual season of public soul-searching in Austin. A press conference the morning after the tragedy was carried live on Austin’s local radio stations. Reporters asked Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo if he should shut down the festival. He replied, “We cannot allow one individual to ruin a celebration of life, of music.”
But an incident two days later caused some to wonder anew if “South By” or SXSW, as the festival is known, had become something else. On March 15, police arrested rapper Tyler The Creator for inciting a riot after he yelled at fans to push their way past security guards at a sold-out show.
Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell said both incidents were unprecedented in the 27-year history of the festival, and on that narrow point he’s right. In fact, given the number of people who show up for SXSW—200,000 to 350,000, depending upon whose count you believe—it’s remarkable there aren’t more incidents.
Still, the deaths at South By Southwest have brought new scrutiny to a phenomenon that is relatively new in the way it is profoundly shaping entertainment culture. Multimedia music festivals are now a multibillion dollar industry whose high season is just kicking off. Milwaukee’s Summerfest, which bills itself as the world’s largest music festival, is expected to attract 1 million people this June and July. Recognizing that the trend is becoming a genre of its own, colleges like the University of Minnesota and the University of Nevada–Las Vegas now offer degrees in “Festival and Event Management.”
Live music festivals were not unknown before 1969’s Woodstock. Summerfest began in 1968, and historians tell us the first music festival, the Greek Pythian Games, began in 582 B.C. Medieval music festivals often included singing and playing competitions.
But 21st-century festivals have surpassed precedents. And their growth has caused problems. The deaths at SXSW are just the latest causing festival organizers—and government officials—to ask questions about public safety. Last year, police arrested 10 people on felony drug charges at Chicago’s Lollapalooza festival. In 2011, two people died at Tennessee’s Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, likely from heat stroke, though drugs and alcohol many have contributed.
Some in Austin also wonder whether the deaths, tragic in their own right, are also symptoms of a festival that has lost its way. Even South By’s staunchest defenders concede it’s not the same event it was when it started in 1987. The music resembles its Americana/singer-songwriter roots less each year. This year, hip hop moved to SXSW’s top-tier position, with Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs generating the most buzzed-about shows.
But even the rise of hip hop isn’t without irony. An art form born on the streets, it was not so many years ago a sign that SXSW was trying to “keep it real.” Now it’s big business. Samsung, for example, hosted the Kanye West and Jay-Z show at Austin Music Hall at exactly the same time iTunes was hosting its own hip-hop night, featuring Kendrick Lamar and ScHoolboy Q at the nearby ACL Moody Theater. If you didn’t have a VIP pass, you had to stand in line for hours to get into the Samsung show, but you got in for free if you had a Samsung device with the company’s new streaming music service, Milk Music, loaded on it. The tie-in was a purposeful slap at Apple, whom Kanye West had called out recently for exploiting artists with its iTunes system. It’s hard to know if it’s good or bad when rappers go to battle over operating systems.
GOOD OR BAD, when the numbers of people are so large, more than music brands show up. Doritos, Subway, and Chevrolet all had a major presence at the festival. And even though music is still central to the event, with more than 2,000 bands playing at more than 100 official venues, not only is it impossible to hear them all, it’s impossible to know who’s playing and where, even after downloading SXSW apps and keeping an eye on updates.
That said, it’s possible to find some humanity among the walking dead. A singer-songwriter like Andrew Belle can restore waning faith in the ability of South By to find and nurture emerging talent. Other signs of life (see sidebar below) at South By this year included Penny and Sparrow.
But can festivals that become this large remain vibrant and trend-setting? Michael Parrish Dudell, a technology maven who has been a regular at SXSW Interactive for years, chose to pass on South By this year: Not since 2011, he said, when Twitter got a boost from South By, have any significant new products launched at the interactive festival. “Is [SXSW] dead? No,” he said. “Is it still good for launching products? I don’t think so.”
That doesn’t mean that festivals like SXSW are in danger. Their combination of music and art, or music and digital, is a powerful draw. Silicon Valley recently ripped off SXSW with its own Creative Convergence Silicon Valley (C2SV), a four-day festival that this year will feature The Lemonheads and include opportunities for technology startups to pitch their companies to venture capitalists.
GIVEN THE MONEY INVOLVED, don’t expect crime, drugs, and even the deaths of four attendees in Austin this year to slow the festival juggernaut. Live events have become the bread and butter of the music industry. According to a statement released by Pollstar, which tracks the live music industry, 2013 was “a record year” for the global concert industry. The top 20 worldwide tours took in $2.43 billion in primary ticket sales, a 24 percent increase over the $1.96 billion generated in 2012.
SXSW claims to inject more than $200 million into the Austin economy. In October, the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership said the Coachella Festival pumped more than $250 million into that region’s local economy.
And local governments are learning how to take their cut: Indio, Calif., site of Coachella, now has a 17-year agreement with festival organizers to tax each ticket sold $5.01. The agreement will generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue for the town of 76,000 about 100 miles east of Los Angeles.
So despite growing problems not only at South By Southwest but other festivals around the country, they will likely continue—at least until the body count grows.
April 11-13, 18-20: Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. For two weekends each April the Empire Polo Club in Southern California’s Coachella Valley is the site for a festival that traces its roots to a 1993 performance at the Polo Club by Pearl Jam as a protest against venues controlled by Ticketmaster. Last year’s combined attendance: 225,000.
April 24-27: MerleFest is mostly bluegrass, country, and Americana in Wilkesboro, N.C. Founded by guitar legend Doc Watson to honor his son Merle, who died in a tractor accident. Attendance: 75,000.
June 12-15: Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival takes place on a 700-acre farm near Manchester, Tenn. It started out as a showcase for jam bands such as Phish. Last year’s attendance: 90,000.
June 25-28 (Pennsylvania) and July 30-Aug. 2 (Washington): Creation Festivals are two annual, four-day Christian festivals that take place in two locations, Pennsylvania (Creation Northeast) and Washington (Creation Northwest). They include not only music but sermons, baptisms, communion services, and children’s programs. Organizers claim combined attendance of 50,000-100,000.
June 25-July 6: Summerfest bills itself as the world’s largest music festival, with 700 bands on 11 stages spread out over 11 days. In 1968, Bob Hope headlined. Last year’s attendance: 1 million.
Aug. 1-3: Lollapalooza features alternative rock, heavy metal, and hip hop at Chicago’s Grant Park. Attendance: 160,000.
It’s hard to believe that more than 2,000 bands play SXSW, but do the math: The festival has about 100 official venues. Some book as many as 20 acts per day.
At one venue one band set up while another band played at the other end of the room. When the first band ended its 30-minute set, the crowd simply did a 180 and the other band launched into its set. And so it went for 11 days.
Amidst the 2,000 bands I found a few favorites. Here’s an idiosyncratic list of bands who performed at SXSW worth checking out.
Andrew Belle’s new album Black Bear is reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens, though not as weird. Belle graduated from Taylor University but had a spiritual crisis after college that in the end caused both his faith and his commitment to his music to deepen. Microsoft and others have licensed his music for commercials and television use, but that success hasn’t turned his head, and his latest album, which he featured in three different showcases at South By, explores relationships and mystery in interesting and compelling ways.
COIN The founders of the band met as students at the Christian college Belmont University. This is their second trip to SXSW with their infectious synth-pop sound. Nashville, Tennessee. www.thisiscoin.com.
Gungor This Dove Award–winning band led by Michael Gungor and his wife Lisa already has a significant following among 20- and 30-something Christians. But their music transcends genre, as this year’s appearance at SXSW demonstrates.
Matisyahu is the stage name for Matthew Paul Miller. The name means “Gift of God” in Hebrew. Matisyahu blends Orthodox Jewish themes with reggae and rock, with his most recent music trending toward dub. The band’s 2005 single “King Without A Crown” was a Top 40 hit in the United States.
Penny and Sparrow Rich songwriting and soaring harmonies. Penny and Sparrow are Texas singers and former roommates Andy Baxter and Kyle Jahnke. They claim The Swell Season, Bon Iver, and Mumford & Sons as musical influences. You can hear all that in their music, but there’s more. They weave biblical imagery into their music in ways that are surprising and unself-conscious, and the duo’s backing band allows for sonic adventure as well. The band’s latest album is Tenboom, featuring a line drawing of Christian heroine Corrie ten Boom on the cover.
Matrimony is a family affair, with Jimmy and Ashlee Brown leading and Ashley’s two brothers and a cousin rounding out the band.
Michael Martin Murphey A long-time Austin favorite, he was one of the founders of the Austin Music Scene in the 1960s. Despite his (well-deserved) reputation as one of the originators of “Outlaw Country,” Murphey has also been singing about faith, family, and freedom for a half-century.
Run River North The core members of the band met through the Korean church community in Los Angeles. Though all the members are Korean-American, their country-rock feel is often branded Americana. They claim John Mayer, Jason Mraz, and Jack Johnson as influences, but you can also hear in it Dawes, Jackson Browne, and the Eagles.