I’ve never been to SXSW and I’m not going this year. As I have never been to SXSW, I cannot make a judgement on whether it is getting better or worse each year but what I do know is that it is getting bigger. I’m sitting here in London reading and watching what I can of this year’s creative celebrations and trying to work out whether SXSW is starting to outgrow itself. The thing that really got me wondering about this was the confirmation of Lady Gaga as a Keynote speaker. What I’m debating is whether Gaga’s attendance is more a statement about her current situation in music or that SXSW is becoming a festival style music event.
Gaga has had an interesting few months. There have been stories about ARTPOP not doing as well as the label would have liked, Live Nation have had to come out and deny stories that the tour is struggling to make money and of course there was that ridiculous flying dress. Gaga’s approach has always been to grab attention through spectacle rather than her music, which is a bit confusing really when you consider that the music is generally very good. So the announcement that she will be interviewed and then perform at SXSW suggests she wants to engage with a “cool” crowd who should be interested in her creativity and bolster her credibility. Of course if that doesn’t work she can always hit the Doritos stage in an outfit crafted from Hot and Spicy nachos and be splashed across every entertainment blog in the known universe. I guess either way she will do pretty well out of SXSW.
With Gaga having nothing to lose will SXSW suffer from this leap into the mainstream? Gaga is the biggest name to appear on the Doritos stage and a significant leap from the previous headliners which have included Ice Cube and LL Cool J. Which leads you to wonder if a Gaga gig fits at SXSW or does it shift the event too far into being entertainment rather than education and exploration? Is somebody going to refer to SXSW as an edu-tainment event (may the inventor of this term be locked in a room with the Oxford English Dictionary for the rest of their days) in the near future?
Gaga is a big investment by a global consumer brand and an even bigger statement by SXSW. This is a significant leap into mass appeal for an event that has always seen itself as a little maverick and edgy. The true impact of all of this will be felt at SXSW 2015 rather than now. Who will headline in 2015? Who will be the sponsors? Most importantly, will the creative communities in film, music and interactive come or will they consider the event to have lost its identity?
I really hope this is not the start of the end for the SXSW I have heard everyone talk so passionately about for years. I still hope to one day make it over to Austin and I really hope it is not the year that 1 Direction headline sponsored by McDonalds. I guess it would probably be a good idea for some of the SXSW brand team to attend the talks about music and brand partnerships so they can avoid the pitfalls of always focusing on the biggest cheque rather than long term brand guardianship.