Once upon a time, South by Southwest was a music festival. These days, it's many other things, as well: film showcase, tech expo and, perhaps most importantly, the subject of much handwringing about how corporate the small indie festival has become.
But if you want to complain about SXSW selling out to corporations and forgetting about the music, you have to look beyond the festival itself. SXSW isn't the problem — it's just a perfect microcosm of what's happening to the music world.
SXSW's inaugural year was 1987, back when Austin, Texas, was only a fledgling market. At the time, musicians in the city were isolated from the larger scene, so they reached out to musicians across the country and invited them to come perform in their little corner of paradise. During its inaugural year, SXSW attracted 700 acts; 28 years later, the festival's film and interactive events alone have over 50,000 registrants. Somewhere in that exponential increase, the bastion of indie talent lost its idiosyncratic edge.
What was once a platform for emerging musicians has added outlets for film, trade, gaming and even job hunting. SXSW's enormous growth has led to a glomming on of corporate sponsors — Doritos, McDonald's, Miller Lite — which, the media feels, generate nothing more than money-grubbing and gimmicks.
But what these outcries over musical integrity miss is that the presence of corporate sponsorships isn't unique to SXSW; for better or worse, it's become core to the music industry.
Corporate sponsorships are standard in the music industry. Last year, entertainment data insiders Next Big Sound released a state of the industry report titled, "Brands. No longer a dirty word in the music industry." They argued that music professionals only have so much money at their disposal after factoring in radio play, touring and promotion. But with the help of brands, they say, music still has the potential to thrive in a market tasked with making money from the cloud.
"Because of the declining sales in the music industry, you almost can't blame an artist [for doing] something that 20 years prior would be unheard of, and that is have a brand sponsor," Storm Gloor, a music business professor at the University of Colorado Denver, told Mic.
And corporate sponsorship goes beyond just placing songs in advertisements — which everyone from Bob Dylan (Chobani) to Aloe Blacc (Lincoln) to Florence and the Machine (Apple) has done. A recent study Gloor completed found corporate branding is literally moving into our music. In 2006, he found, two out of every three songs used what he calls "advertainment," or product placement within a song.
"In today's music business, artists and their stakeholders have had to take non-traditional approaches in navigating the marketplace," Gloor said in a Science Daily release about the study.
A brand's mention in lyrics mention has a huge influence on sales. When Busta Rhymes rapped, "Pass the Courvoisier," in 2002, the alcohol's sales jumped 10 to 20 percent, Gloor found; Run DMC's "My Adidas" back in 1986 had a similar effect on sneaker sales. And among all advertainment, most lucrative are automobile mentions, like Cadillac, Chevy and Mercedes-Benz, according to the study.
Brands are starting to cut deals around that bump. "Many people thought music was the last bastion free of marketing but that train has left the station," Gloor said, according to Science Daily. "Many musicians these days make less money from their recorded work so they must become marketing entities since the music doesn't entirely pay the bills."
The study also notes that advertainment goes both ways, though artists mostly try to keep their sponsorships a secret. "In the last few years at least, some artists or their handlers have indeed pursued opportunities to benefit financially from product mentions in songs," the study says. "A leaked email from the Kluger Agency in 2008 revealed how a certain brand of jeans could, for the right price, 'find its way into the lyrics of an upcoming Pussycat Dolls song.' To preserve credibility, many of these deals are kept under wraps."
But at SXSW, artists are obviously not keeping their sponsorships under wraps. On the contrary: Lady Gaga slathered herself in barbecue sauce last year while simulating a pig roast on the Doritos Bold Stage. And this year, D'Angelo of all people played a show sponsored by Samsung. Corporate sponsorships at SXSW have people in a tizzy, but branding goes way beyond the festival.
"People could get sick of it and there could be a backlash, but for now this is the new reality," Gloor told Mic. He added, "The kind of people that attend these festivals are so used to advertisements that it's not problematic by any means. Millennials are growing up in an age where it's just more accepted. I think it's a combination of branding being more accepted and necessitated by the change in the music business."
SXSW is part and parcel with the music industry. Grantland recently summarized the festival as a "10-day beast of an event ... [an] in-your-face, all-out assault by corporate brands attempting to distinguish themselves." That may be, but so is music in any other medium: streaming, radio, even tours. The corporate branding at SXSW deserves no more attention than the corporate branding mixed up in the rest of music. This is how the industry works now — SXSW is just making the airwaves visible.