South by something’s wrong: 2014 recap

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I heard it many times this year: It’s bigger, rowdier and more corporate. It’s not the first year people talk about it, and it won’t be the last. But in the aftermath of the tragic accident outside the Mohawk on Thursday, many of us are forced to face the question, How much is too much at this festival?

This is my fourth year attending SXSW and as a quasi-local, the excitement building around the holiday is much like a giddy child awaiting Christmas morning: an opportunity to see my favorite bands that hardly tour; a chance to make new friends and see old ones visiting from around the world; and a time to show off to the world how amazing this city really is. I’ve made some of the best memories at this festival, and each year brings the hope of something wild and unexpected. But this year was noticeably different. Something was off this time around, and for the past few days I’ve been trying to figure out why.

After nine days of nonstop parties and concerts, it’s hard not to feel like a zombie wandering down Sixth Street on the last night of the festival. Aside from the sheer size of crowds, various events this year from film to tech to music attest to the well-known fact that SXSW grows exponentially every year. In the span of a week, we experienced a Skype chat with Edward Snowden, a surprise appearance by Justin Bieber and a keynote from Lady Gaga, to name a few. While some praise the festival for being at the forefront of new ideas and pop culture, others mourn the loss of its original spirit.

As a festivalgoer and member of the media, I try to soak in as much as possible in the span of those nine days—a daunting task between keeping up with social media, maneuvering among the hoards of attendees, sifting through the ridiculous amount of branding thrown at you, all while trying to see good music. It becomes even more frustrating when faced with growing crowds filled with those who aren’t there to enjoy the music, but simply because it’s “south by.” The past two years, I volunteered with the festival to earn a music badge, but this year I decided to go rogue. So perhaps my observations are slightly due to the fact that I had to deal with more lines and restrictions than before. Still, SXSW felt like more work than fun. It took more preparation, more patience, more stamina. Each year, music increasingly spills over into interactive, which makes it even harder to keep up when the music portion of the fest revs up throughout the week.

Oftentimes, seeing a band includes having to sit through its soundcheck, experiencing delays and short sets. It’s no secret that there have been tensions between bands and this festival; whether or not it’s worth musicians’ time and effort to get the mere payoff of exposure. Most of the time it seems like a preview to seeing a band’s headlining show, and I find myself more put off by the extreme amount of effort it takes to see them perform only a few songs.

To be fair, I did have a great time catching some of my favorite bands and discovering a lot of awesome music this past week (see who my faves were here). Not to mention, I enjoyed being able to legally (finally) chase the free booze and food around town with my friends. But by the end of it all, I was more than ready to have my city back to normal.

I’m so proud to call this place home. The community rallied around victims of the SXSW crash by raising over $100,000 in support. While it could have happened at any festival, anywhere, there’s no doubt that it paved the way for some “soul-searching,” as this New York Times article put it. I myself was impacted by the realization that it could have been me or any of my friends, since I consider the Mohawk almost a second home here in Austin. Needless to say, this horrific event was not the only off-putting thing that seemed to linger in the air this SXSW.

I’m still not entirely sure how to explain it; maybe I’ve just outgrown the festival or maybe I need to find a different approach to tackle the massive fest. Maybe I simply got overwhelmed by trying to keep up as both a music journalist and a fan. Or maybe there’s a larger SXSW issue at hand with an ambiguous solution. Ultimately and unfortunately, I’m left wondering whether or not it’s worth all the hype.

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