I remember one of the most exciting moments from last year’s SXSW. I was walking out of my hotel and I heard the familiar strains of an iconic bassline rumbling across the avenue toward me like the vapor trail of a picnic beckoning to a cartoon wolf. “Wait, is that… Snoop Dogg?” I thought. Bad ass! I walked over to the edge of the outdoor venue, the Cheeze Crisp Boner Water Experience Tent Hut, stood outside the fence, and bobbed my head in time. “Maybe I should try to get in?” I thought. ” Who do I know in marketing at Boner Water?”
Similar scenarios transpired that night throughout Austin, with everyone from Bruce Fucking Springsteen, to 50 Cent and Eminem, and Lil Wayne anchoring the festival’s big name slots. Kanye even made an appearance, although that’s probably not so surprising given the sheer number of cameras and microphones on hand. He probably went to sleep the night before and ego-auto-piloted all the way to Texas without even knowing it.
Naturally, the venue was packed for Snoop, and you could feel the excitement in the air. After a song or so, something about it started to feel dirty, like an abnegation of professional responsibility. I said, screw it, and promptly got the hell out of there. I moved along on my way to go stand in a succession of empty bars to watch bands I’d never heard of, and wouldn’t end up remembering anyway, play to nobody. And you know what? It was awesome. That’s what SXSW is supposed to be about. It’s not, but it’s supposed to be.
Any moment now it’s expected to be confirmed that Justin Timberlake, paragon of get-in-the-van work ethos, will be performing at this year’s SXSW. That’s after exemplars of small-scale indie ethics Green Day were announced as headliners late last month. This is nothing new for the sprawling festival of course — Metallica played in 2009! — and the luster of the independent spirit has long since sleuced off in a body-spray whore’s bath of sponsored experiences and corporate influence peddling, but this might finally be the nail in the coffin. Not really for me, because I’m still going either way, but you know what I mean. Not for the festival either — there’s way too much money involved at this point for it to suffer from any sort of backlash from the likes of me; too big to fail isn’t just for bankers. But for some reason this feels like an overstep. One pop star too far. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Justin Timberlake, mind you. He’s pretty amazing, actually. There’s also nothing inherently wrong with your ex-girlfriend coming to your wedding, either, but the sideshow tends to take away from what the day is supposed to be about.
Maybe I’m deluded here, looking for “authenticity” in a place where it doesn’t exist anymore, saying something that many of you have been complaining about for years, but every time an artist the size of Timberlake or Green Day performs at SXSW they are literally stealing attention, and money, and fans, out of the hands of the 1,500 or so bands who shlepped all the way down there to ply their wares in front of the industry’s taste-makers. SXSW is a zero-sum game — there are a finite number of chips on the table, and there are winners and losers. Timberlake doesn’t need the fans, he doesn’t need the buzz, and he doesn’t need the torrent of “festival highlight recaps!” that will be written about his performance. Every blog post and magazine article written about Timberlake and Green Day is one that will not be written about an unknown band, because assholes like me will go out of our way to get into the show just so we can let assholes like you know we got into the show.
See also: The Worst Moments From SXSW 2012
My distaste for this news has nothing to do with the concept of what’s “cool” or not either, I should point out, although the fact that it was leaked by the Austin Police Department is both hilarious and appropriate. I’m just talking about a simple matter of supply and demand.
We as fans are implicit in this sell out too. Each of us who attend the concert of a band who we already know and love and will be able to see many times, or have seen many times, in our lives at SXSW are telling all of the other bands that they have wasted their time and energy going down there. Don’t get me wrong, most of them have in fact done just that, but it’s rude to come right out and deflate the illusion before it deflates itself. I have a feeling that a lot of the attendees of SXSW would scoff at this sort of thing in other walks of life without a doubt. You don’t go to Sundance to see a Michael Bay film, right? You wouldn’t go to New York City to eat at Applebees. Timberlake or Green Day, or anyone else on their level, playing a show at SXSW is like Starbucks setting up across the street from a local cafe. Sure, many of us will still go to the smaller option out of principle, but it’s hard to avoid the allure of the massive, especially when they’re sucking all the cultural oxygen out of the room.
All of that said, if anyone has the hook up for the Green Day show, hit me up — that sounds like it’s going to be amazing.