- Alan Berg
Every March, South By Southwest turns Austin, Texas, into a musical ground zero. The 10-day conference is the single-largest music-industry event in the world, presenting thousands of bands to tens of thousands of fans, artists, media and record-label execs. But SXSW wasn’t always the cultural phenomenon or corporate bonanza it has become. A new film, Outside Industry: The Story of SXSW, by Austin-based filmmaker and journalist Alan Berg, explores the roots of the festival and its transformation from a small, grassroots showcase for regional bands into the world’s premier music event. The film, which debuted at this year’s SXSW, will screen at the BCA Center in Burlington this Friday as part of Big Heavy World’s IndieCon music conference.
“We had this music scene down here and felt sort of like we were on an island,” says Berg in a recent phone conversation, explaining the origins of SXSW and the music scene in Austin at the time. He says the festival was born of necessity.
“Talent scouts from New York or L.A. or even Nashville were an exotic breed,” he explains. “We had to figure out how to connect bands to somebody who could actually make a difference.”
Roland Swenson, who cofounded SXSW with Louis Jay Meyers, is generally regarded as the event’s godfather. While working for the Austin Chronicle newspaper in 1986, he attended the New Music Seminar, a music conference in New York City, as a representative for an Austin band he was managing. A chance encounter with an industry exec in an elevator landed his group a showcase gig at the conference. It also planted the seed for what would become South By Southwest.
According to Berg, Swenson had tried to convince the NMS to sponsor a version of the seminar in Austin. But after setting wheels in motion, the NMS balked. Undeterred, Swenson and a small group of friends and associates decided to forge ahead anyway.
The first SXSW in 1987 drew 700 people — a far cry from the crowds at the conference now, but it was enough.
“It was a hit,” says Berg. “It was just one of those accidents. Austin in March is a magical place.”
But the early success of SXSW runs deeper than pleasant weather. Austin is a college town, home to the University of Texas. Before SXSW, the nightclubs that line 6th Street would sit empty during spring break. Swenson approached the clubs with his idea, proposing to book the venues while students were away. SXSW would keep revenue from the gate; the clubs would keep liquor sales. The clubs agreed.
Berg says the centralized location of venues was a hit with industry scouts who were used to sprawling fests in NYC. And there were other advantages, too.
“Shiner Bock beer was a buck down here,” quips Berg. “Whereas in New York it’s, like, 10.”
Berg notes that Austin in the late 1980s and early ’90s was a very different place than the “live music capital of the world” it has since become. Back then, the city was a low-rent haven for musicians and artists with a reputation for bohemian eccentricity in largely conservative Texas. But as Austin became one of the country’s fastest-growing cities, and the festival’s reputation grew, more bands wanted in.
“It’s a circle,” explains Berg. “You get more bands that want to come, so you need to find more clubs to put them in. Then more people come. It perpetuates itself.”
In the early 1990s, SXSW organizers attempted to tame the monster they’d created and limited the size of the conference.
“It’s sort of laughable now, but at the time they thought 500 bands were just too many,” says Berg.
The plan backfired. Attendance dropped and, with it, revenue.
SXSW had an identity crisis on its hands: Was the festival still a showcase for under-the-radar, unsigned bands? Or was its march toward the mainstream inexorable?
The philosophical conundrum caused a rift between the festival’s cofounders. Meyers advocated for keeping SXSW small. In those early days, a jury selected the bands that would play at the fest, basing its decision on artistic merit alone. But as the event grew and the stakes increased, labels began wielding more influence on those decisions.
“They’d say, ‘We’ll bring in Iggy Pop, but you have to accept bands X, Y and Z,’” Berg explains.
Swenson argued that the opportunity to bring in major acts essentially for free outweighed the compromise of artistic integrity. Meyers felt they were buckling to label interests and destroying any sanctity SXSW still held.
“Louis felt that instead of artistic merit being the sole decider on who gets in, they were letting economics be a trigger, as well,” Berg explains. “Roland’s view was that music is subjective, and who were they to play God? They both have valid viewpoints. But in the end, Roland won.”
That schism is central to Berg’s film and to the changes to SXSW that followed. But the filmmaker says he was careful not to take sides in the argument.
“We explore that, but we try to let people judge for themselves,” he says.
Still, Berg says the sheer magnitude of what South By Southwest has become is shocking.
“I hadn’t really kept up with the festival,” he admits. Berg has lived in Austin off and on since 1981 and settled there for good in 1994. While he was aware that SXSW was growing, he says he didn’t understand how much until he began filming for Outside Industry. “It blew me away just how big it had gotten. It’s a beast.”
Attracted by the festival’s size, major corporate sponsors have, perhaps inevitably, gotten in on the action. These sponsorships, in turn, increase the festival’s mainstream popularity, which leads to more corporate involvement, and so on.
“You look at it now, and there is a Pepsi stage, a Zynga stage. Companies are renting out entire buildings and tricking them out with their own stages. I see them as parasites,” Berg says of corporations that sponsor massive, unaffiliated showcases with headliners such as Kanye West during SXSW. “They don’t do anything to help the festival. And that’s the rub.”
But Berg doesn’t see the corporate influence on SXSW diminishing anytime soon. If anything, he views commercialism at SXSW as an increasingly necessary evil.
“It used to be that the worst thing you could accuse a band of being was a sellout, of doing something corporate,” he says. “Now, shit, man, [commercials] are the only way half these [bands] can monetize … It means companies like Mountain Dew, Red Bull, they have that much more sway at South By Southwest. But if it helps an artist eat, is it really a bad thing?”
Outside Industry: The Story of SXSW screens at the BCA Center this Friday, November 11, followed by a Q&A session with Alan Berg and live music from Lawrence Welks and Our Bear to Cross, Caring Babies, and Shawn Grady, 6:30 p.m.
Big Heavy World’s IndieCon takes place Friday, November 11, and Saturday, November 12, at various locations around Burlington.