The Social Dig: What Makes SXSW?

Chanell Noise

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SXSW is several things rolled into one: music festival, large networking event, tech-forward conference and, as some might say, a “shit-show”. This year’s SXSW, held in Austin, TX from Mar. 8-17, featured new artists on official stages as well as familiar faces on unofficial stages. This conference is largely powered by volunteers, independent musicians and local Austin businesses, alike.

“No one knows how much SXSW makes each year,” said a Stage Manager working Cheer Up Charlie’s inside stage. She asked to not be named and said how the festival has grown exponentially over the years. “There are volunteers that have been here long enough to remember events out of folks’ homes. I’ve been working for SXSW for just ten years and have seen it become much more commercial,” she said.

SXSW spans several neighborhoods in Austin and affects each differently. Downtown and parts of the University of Texas at Austin’s campus are swallowed whole by the week-long shenanigans. Elise, a DJ from KVRX and Ham, a musician from the band Why Bonnie and Dorio said students in Austin peripherally supported the local music scene.

“I would talk about catching a show in town in the middle of French class and my classmates would be like ‘you’re going to see who?’” Ham said. Elise and Ham said that UT Austin’s college radio contribution to KVRX was leaving a bigger impact within the city. “What Elise and folks are doing now is what my peers and I dreamed of doing,” Ham said.

While SXSW creates a platform for burgeoning college promoters to rally around, the story downtown is different. Official SXSW stages lined the closed-off roadways of Red River and 6th, forcing chaos to spill out in the streets.

Odonis Odonis, a Toronto-based trio comprised of Dean, Denholm and Jarod, said that this year’s SXSW was a return of sorts. “We haven’t been here in a couple of years so we [thought]: let’s see if this time is going to be fun,” Dean said.

“South By is weird- it’s too much. It’s like a massive ‘Battle of The Bands that is really overwhelming and exhausting,” Dean said. Dean said sometimes the festival can mean nothing for an artist if they aren’t playing the right shows. Odonis Odonis performed a Felte Records showcase at Barracuda as well as an AdHoc stage at Cheer Up Charlie’s.

“[We embarked on] two 13-hour drives to get to SXSW. Really fun, terrible, mind-numbing, masochistic torture,” Denim said. Odonis Odonis is not currently on tour but will begin touring in April starting with a hometown show in Toronto. For them, SXSW is several things: a chance to link up with fellow musicians, an opportunity to make some money and gain fans… and a big overwhelming mess.

“Yeah, SXSW can be a shit-show but we have good shows and we’re happy,” Odonis Odonis members said. Their new EP, Reaction, drops Apr. 12 and culminates nicely with their upcoming spring tour.

Labels, innovators, big companies and music-lovers are all looking for that next-big-thing or idea at SXSW. The reality is that the biggest thing to be found is sacrifice. Many independent artists, organizers and smaller businesses (like food-trucks) accept losses as part of getting in on the action. SXSW, however, profits at an unknown rate. “The folks that could force SXSW to release their profits can’t now,” the Cheer Up Charlie’s Stage Manager said. There are clauses in our volunteer and employee forms that bar us from taking up class-actions suits,” she said.

Artists are similarly barred in contracts from doing much to tarnish SXSW’s shiny name.