Well, that was a drag. I'm very sad to report that SXSW is no longer worth my time and money. In previous years, this event had three fundamental characteristics that made is amazing:

1) They ran the tightest ship, and on the most epic scale, that I'd ever seen. Every band went on exactly on time; sound quality was always adequate to excellent; and the published schedule (when there was one) was always true.

2) The variety and obscurity of the music I discovered was unparalleled. I'd see bands who had never been in the country before, and might not be again for years to come.

3) If I wasn't that in to the band I was watching, I could walk down the street and poke my head into four nearby doors, and by the last one I'd have found something better!

All that's gone now. It's been a mess of cancellations and reschedulings. Even after the solid week and a half of prep I put in (much more work than last year) my schedule was very sparse. Not only that, but many of the bands on it were likely to come to San Francisco, which kind of defeats the purpose. Hell, half of them were from LA.

Maybe the organizational fuck-ups mean they have a new production team who don't know how to crack the whip like before? Or maybe it has just grown enough that they've reached their level of incompetence.

Maybe the lack of variety is due to the ever-increasing level of corporate sponsorship? Maybe we're now only seeing bands who have been pre-vetted by the corporate overlords, who already have their product endorsements all lined up?

I dunno. I just know that I spent too much of my time seeing nothing good. I saw about a third as many bands as I saw last year, and of those, honestly, I liked them half as much.

(By this I don't mean to disrespect the bands that I've posted about: if I posted about them, they are good! You should totally check them out! But in previous years I discovered multiple bands that rose beyond "really good" to "OMG my new favorite band forever" and that just didn't happen this year.)

As early as Wednesday afternoon I wrote:

    "So far I give this year a B- with 'SEE ME AFTER CLASS!!' written in red in the margin. Up your game, SXSW."

What I wrote Thursday evening:

    Three days of having basically no plan between 8pm and midnight -- I had entries in my calendar, sure, but only to discover late, "that one cancelled, that one went on an hour early, that venue is out in the middle of nowhere". It hasn't failed this badly in any previous year.

    Actual conversation: "Maybe I'll go see ___ at 11." "Oh, that venue is doing only Rolling Stones covers, and every band gets a 10 minute set." "You have got to be shitting me."

    With all this work, and with my hotel (the same hotel) costing 30% more than last year, and just a world of organizational fuck-ups, it's pretty clear that I'm not getting anywhere near the return on (excessive) investment out of this event that I have in previous years.

    This written while-and-after waiting in line - like an animal - for a band with one guitar and a keyboard who somehow still managed to go on 20 minutes late.

By Thursday evening I'd have been happy to call it quits and fly home right then, if that wouldn't have made me feel dumb by costing me even more money.

So I spent the rest of the time mostly seeing bands I'd already seen, because alternatives that didn't suck were undiscoverable.

I won't be coming back. I'd have had better luck by just looking at the schedule and punching names into YouTube, then waiting for those bands to come to SF.

Maybe someone who's local or who just has better hookups than I of will tell me what I'm doing wrong and change my mind, but at this point - fuck, it's a ton of money for a ton of frustration. Especially in comparison to how great a time I fad in previous years. This year just... cratered.

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42 Responses:

  1. Jon says:

    One organizational failure in a string of massive successes doesn't sound like a data point.

    • Jon says:

      (that said, very disappointing)

    • Rusty Hodge says:

      In my experience, there were a lot of failures last year as well, just not as many as this year.

    • Ryan Kather says:

      Actually when you consider this organizational failure was the culmination of a string of massive failures at a systematic level, it is a rather damning data point.

      Events like these are massive investments from the organizers and the participants. It is imperative things go smoothly and well, and each failure dramatically impacts the output. It's the reason planning is so crucial! It's naive to think that a bad event shouldn't dramatically impact their chances of success going forward. Organizers should not be complacent if they want to enjoy continued success.

  2. Rusty Hodge says:

    I felt very much the same. I did see some interesting stuff during SXSWi, and because I'm in the music biz I went to a couple interesting panels. But music was almost a complete bust for me. Discovered one or two bands who turns out I probably would have run across on SoundCloud accidentally anyway (since they've been reposted by other artists I follow there).

    Part of the problem is that the corporate influx is all about influencing the young crowd by tempting them with free beer if they tweet their hash tag or Like Doritos on Facebook, etc. There are 52,000 college kids on Spring Break during SXSW now, and it's just too tempting for corporate marketing shills.

    It used to be that if you had a badge you could always get in with little or no line; and a wristband with an almost as short line. Random people looking to party weren't at those shows, instead at a club next door that wasn't hosting SXSW showcases. The showcase were for people serious about music, and who were willing to spend the $$ on a badge or wristband.

    Now that's all changed. Venues want to make extra $$ with $10 cover charges to people who aren't attending SXSW proper.

    I avoided day parties as much as possible, only going to a few smaller ones on Rainey street. And still I found almost all the evening shows overrun by people out to party, not out to listen to music. I first noticed this trend hitting critical mass last year, but this year it was out of control.

    And don't get me started about all the sound systems brought into venues that don't normally do live shows, and the sound guys who don't know how to run the consoles or configure the speaker management systems. Sound systems going out mid-show happened far to frequently, even at venues known for decent sound like Haven or Stubbs. And the venues that had the best sound systems had the worst rooms acoustics-wise.

    And I hear you on getting reamed by the hotels.

    I'm not planning on going back. There are a lot of better options, I'm sure. So I'll spend my time looking for those better options. Should be pretty easy with all the money one blows on SXSW.

    • jwz says:

      Well, keep me posted about those better options...

    • Adolf Osborne says:

      Ugh. Don't get me started about sound systems, period, or the sound guys who either don't know how to use them or just don't care to bother even trying, much less listening.

      The favorite sound company here (who really should be named/shame, except one mustn't speak the name) has an owner who likes to show up at events using his gear to preside over the board. His lackeys haul it around, he plugs it all in, lets it sit idle and silent, and waits for the band to get their gear on stage. After that comes an imitation the most rudimentary sound check ever.

      (Did anyone notice the lack of a sanity check there using familiar music?)

      Once the band starts, he might appear to tiredly poke a couple of things for a moment. And for the rest of the night he stands facing perpendicular to the stage, with his arms crossed defiantly, neither paying attention nor doing anything else -- his field of fucks-to-give apparently barren and lifeless.

      This person has singularly ruined live music in my area, as well as the perception of what live music should be, and yet people still hire him after several decades of this nonsense.

      Perhaps SXSW has been infected by the same sort of ilk.

      (Disclaimer: I butter some of my bread designing and integrating PA systems, many of which are complicated, unconventional, large in scale, and built for a particular space. They don't always sound good, and when they don't, it's always been operator error. Between inexperience with a console, an inability to hear, a twisted sense of how things ought to sound, or a barren field of fucks: There's so much that can go wrong with otherwise-awesome gear in an otherwise-awesome room, and it's all related to human error or malice.

      Further disclaimer: When I still played FOH engineer on a frequent basis, I had my own groupies. I'd do more of it, but most bands around here don't want to pay someone to run FOH, because....well, just because they have no idea how terrible they sound when they're on the other side of the mains, and I got tired of the fight.)

  3. Brian B says:

    Maybe the lack of variety is due to the ever-increasing level of corporate sponsorship? Maybe we're now only seeing bands who have been pre-vetted by the corporate overlords, who already have their product endorsements all lined up?

    I believe this is the 800-pound gorilla, based on David Carr's analysis:

    No one will miss the stranglehold the large music labels had on the industry, but having shoe and snack food companies decide what is worthy could strangle the new, unruly impulses that allow the music business to prosper.

    ... “The willingness of artists to partner with brands happened because revenues dried up from physical discs,” [Peter Gannon] said. “The labels are not going to get a lot of sympathy because they were not very good to artists. At least when a brand is involved, there is an understanding that we are borrowing the cachet that the artist has built and we try to make high-quality projects that give value to both the client and the artist.

  4. Brooke says:

    Generally speaking one reason smaller overseas bands don't play anymore is it doesn't make financial sense to base a tour around SXSW, there is pretty much 0% chance of getting a record deal out of it. All the energy goes into digital exposure now.

    For example in previous years the Australia and New Zealand governments would pay for nearly everything if a band from their country was playing, usually setting up a promotions team and tent for them as well. That's pretty much unheard of now.

    • Rusty Hodge says:

      Tell the UK, Germans and Dutch that. They all took over clubs for the whole week. But you're right, a lot of other countries who did special tents or clubs didn't do it this year.

  5. max says:

    You can get by at SXSW on $400 and good looks. If you're looking for obscure quality bands, don't go to the showcases, just go to the random bars and venues which aren't even on the map. No badge necessary. Sleep at a friend's house instead of a hotel. It sounds like you went in expecting to pay your way to a good time - if you do that, of course you're a chump who's going to be taken advantage of.

    • jwz says:

      Every year, more than half of the shows I've gone to have been unofficial, and I had great luck with them in previous years, but like I said -- this year, going to "random venues" got me jack and shit. This year was very different.

      I'll bet that "you're just trying to pay your way to a good time" line works wonders for you when you're justifying not paying for music, too. Have fun dumpster diving! I can smell your stale bongwater from here, so thanks for the couch offer but no.

    • Rusty Hodge says:

      I suspect that works if you like 90s metal or that generic Texas rock that blares out of so many venues "not on the map". I'm a relative newbie, this is only my 8th SXSW, but it's changed drastically from what I started coming to. Even for $400 SXSW isn't worth it to me anymore. But if you still like it, great! I'm not stopping you from going.

      PS- I don't expect to "pay my way for a good time"; but SXSW used to be an event for the music industry; now it's just another spring break event.

  6. Liza says:

    I actually clicked thru expecting a parody post about how lame people are who go around talking about how lame SXSW is. I mean, I have been hearing this about SXSW for at least the last 10 years.

    In fact, when I first heard about SXSW it was over 20 years ago and it was not "cool". It was a Texas only thing. And then suddenly non-texans started coming and talking about how lame it is.

    And they haven't stopped.

    It may have been lame, I dunno, but if you get obsessive about something, you're going to eventually find that you're not as surprised by it in later years as you were in earlier years.

    Look at the people who complained about the introduction of the iPod as "lame", or the iPhone as "terrible, it doesn't even have a keyboard", and the like.

  7. NWer says:

    Try Iceland Airwaves. Prob costs you the same and it's a completely new experience.

    • jwz says:

      I've actually been considering that one; it sounds cool. But, the fact that it takes place over Halloween is kind of a deal breaker. I have Halloween plans.

      (Also my tolerance for Sigur Ros ends after about 20 minutes, so I'm not sure I could stand a full week of bands that sound exactly like that.)

      • Rusty Hodge says:

        Airwaves has been pushed back to Nov 5-9 this year. The music is all over the place; from nordic-style death metal to singer songwriters to electronic to disco to industrial to pop. You will probably spend less to go there than to go to SXSW.

        • nooj says:

          Scandanavia makes great new music. (Kate Boy, Legend, iamamiwhoami, Samsaya.) I've chanced by a lot of music spilling into the street, in a lot of cities. And I was constantly amazed by Stockholm. Iceland's taste (and global awareness of music trends) can't be that different.

  8. Colby Russell says:

    I'm wondering: Why are you staying at a hotel? The Firehouse is regularly (don't know what their SXSW rates are) $100-$120 per night for a private room. It's literally right in the center of 6th. AFAIK, they just opened last January, though, so automatic understanding if you were just following your usual SXSW routine. (I stayed there for a week in August and now live in Austin as of last month.)

    Also, I just showed up to the ATXHS tonight to hear that I apparently missed out on an amazing event Friday night. Sounds like you did, too. (Having said that, it is located ridiculously far up town.)

    • jwz says:

      Because that sounds like complete hell.

      Also, the cost of the hotels is not the point of this post.

      • Adolf Osborne says:

        Oh, come on. Hostels are supposed to be fun! The Firehouse has a lounge with a bar. I doubt they've got hard-boiled quail eggs to garnish a Bloody Mary with, but aren't head lice, the loud snoring and shuffling of strangers, and shared bathrooms staples of a good time out of town?

        With all of that, combined with theft risk (although The Firehouse says they'll rent you a lock if you don't have one of your own), I'd be surprised that anyone would have time to worry about the quality of the music OR its presentation.

        And srsly: I mean, who -doesn't- want to strip nude outside their own front door and bag up their clothes and other soft things to sanitize in a hot drier (or fire) before going inside their home?

        (That said, I'm enough of an asshole that I could spend a few months traveling and staying cheaply in hostels with flagrant disregard for any infectious human parasites that I might carry around with me, and I assume others at $random_hostel are similar in that regard. And I'd certainly burn my clothes / delouse upon return. SXSW is not lengthy enough for that sort of commitment -- at least proper hotels have the ability to shut down one wing/floor at a time, set the HVAC to "speed bake," and kill anything that moves periodically.)

        • Colby Russell says:

          Your smug is intense. Looks like you missed the "private room" bit.

          • Pavel Lishin says:

            Do hostels exist that offer private rooms with their own private bathrooms?

            The last one I stayed in, in New York, I had a private room. The rest of the floor was two big rooms, holding maybe 6 or 8 people each. We had one closet with a toilet in it, and one with a shower. The sink - outside the closets - was used from 6am onwards by some French girls who needed their hair to be very, very blow dried.

            It was fine at the time, and there are definitely times and places where that would be acceptable, but on 90% of occasions, I want a place where I can get out of bed, naked, walk straight to the toilet, take a violent, drunken shit that's probably a misdemeanor in Japan, and then go and sit in the shower for awhile and consider my life.

            That's hard to do in a hostel, even with a private room.

            • Nick Lamb says:

              Is this a trick question? Because when I visit that Firehouse site it lists two private rooms ("Suites") which as you would expect include a private bathroom.

              I expect they considerably undermine the savings associated with staying in a hostel though.

          • Adolf Osborne says:

            Nope, I saw that: A "private" room with a bunk bed, just like summer camp...including the shared bathrooms.


  9. josh says:

    I sort of wonder whether the proliferation of publicity-grabbing mega-events (iTunes Festival, Gaga, Samsung, etc.) has taken some of the pressure off of the organizers to actually do a great job with managing the actual festival?

    • Rusty Hodge says:

      Yes. This is exactly the problem. The corporate mega-events (and there were even more than you mention) are now a large part of the draw of the masses to the event. All the big brands want to be associated with SXSW and are throwing lots of money at it.

  10. nooj says:

    I thought about this quite a bit this week, and there are a lot of good points being made here. My commentary, in no particular order:

    1. SXSW used to be a place for labels to discover new bands; so a lot of good bands came here to be discovered. Now, a lot of them choose to architect their own discovery. Kate Boy is an example. They chose to finish their first album instead of attend SXSW 2014. We can assume similar conversations went through a lot of bands' heads. This is bad.

    2. Most of the shows I saw that I liked were accidental. People say "That's the beauty of SXSW," but that was a virtue ten years ago. Today there's absolutely no reason Wolf Alice--an official SXSW band--should have three unannounced daytime shows! The first time I saw them I only caught the last two songs (because I was late) from the street (because the venue was full). I liked them, so I decided to skip a potentially good band on my schedule two days later to see Wolf Alice's only other show listed on the SXSW website. Only later did I find out they had done three more shows by then during times I was wandering around bored!

    This is a general failing of SXSW and the entire City of Austin music industry (and the music industry as a whole), not to post shows when they're decided upon (both official and unofficial). For fuck's sake, Twitter launched at SXSW; you think someone here could figure out a way to announce things on short notice in a centralized, searchable manner.

    3. SXSW should re-address the issue of venues allowing themselves to fill up with non-SXSW attendees. Especially venues booking SXSW bands and official SXSW showcases. Most "random venues" as mentioned above either had shitty bands, or a line around the block because the venue is 3/4 full of non-SXSW posers who RSVP to a venue and hang out there all day and treat the band as background music. So a SXSW showcase venue quickly turns into a typical club / house party with a "one in, one out" policy. Fuck, if you want that, you can do it in your own city, or come to Austin any night of the week.

    This was especially true of popular Austin venues from 10pm-2am, which happen by no coincidence to be the same venues/times to book good SXSW bands. Examples: MS MR @ Empire Garage. EMA @ Elysium. Hell, every single popular Austin venue is an example.

    4. Going back to 2 a bit: SXSW should avoid hosting "secret" late-announcements of big shows. The long lines and long wait times that form are antithetical to the point of SXSW (which is to see bands). Snoop Shithead is a perfect example. The line to get tickets for his show literally went all the way around the entire block and back to the ticket window again, before the ticket booth opened. So then he gleefully fucks everyone's life by not bothering not to show up for his own concert, and reschedules. Assuming he showed up to the second one (I never found out), the attendees who saw him had waited in lines for something like a total of eight hours. That's just nuts. Maybe it's just me, but I believe SXSW should not be a Disney World for adults.

    So who cares, except for Snoop lovers? Phantogram lovers cared. I didn't get in to see Phantogram because the time I reserved for them turned out to be the lead-in for Snoop's Sloppy Seconds. Here's how that conversation went: Me, to venue's security guard after somehow lucking into "VIP" access, before Phantogram was scheduled to play: "All I want to do is see Phantogram and leave. What's the chance I will get in?" Security guard: "Zero."

    A few years ago I was at a venue that cleared everyone out of the venue between every band. I like that more and more.

    5. SXSW really needs to get on top of making the demo tracks available for all bands. I don't know how many highly-recommended bands I didn't find out about until too late because there's no demo track available to listen to, and I couldn't schedule them in by the time I heard a source say "yeah, that's a good band." I know the number is at least 3, which is a huge percentage (20-30%) of all highly-recommended bands I saw.

    6. I spent a lot of time during the day bored. This is a fundamental failing of SXSW. It's the broadcast TV problem: "I pay for hundreds of channels, and nothing good's on." The problem is TV/SXSW has no ability to provide attendees with an organized, understandable way to navigate options.

    7. Poor locational organization. As SXSW books more bands and its venue list widens geographically, it becomes more important to be able to know how far away a venue is. It's frustrating to find out too late a good show is too far away to see. Again, it's 2014. There is no excuse for attendees to have poor access to information. Hell, have SXSW Interactive hold a contest for next year's SXSW app design!

    All of the above have been growing issues with SXSW for years and have been half-assed by SXSW constantly. And all of them conspire to make it hard to find new music.

    • Brian says:

      1. It is not bad. From a band perspective, SXSW is a tool. A band has limited resources and has to choose how to best use those to meet their goals. Not every band can come to SXSW every year.

      2. That is a band fuck up that has nothing to do with SXSW. Some bands are not good at social media. But apparently Wolf Alice are. They posted their full schedule on Facebook on Tuesday. You're the one who fucked that up. If you wanted to see them, they gave you every bit of information you needed. If you're looking for unofficial shows:,

      3. SXSW has nothing to do with most of the day parties.

      4. If people want to stand in line for 8 hours to see Snoop, let them. If they weren't there, they'd just be clogging up some other club, which you bitch about in #3.

      5. I agree that SXSW could do a better job of this. Until they improve, there are options. There is a Spotify playlist with one song from every official artist that is on Spotify.

      6. SXSW has nothing to do with the day shows. During the day, SXSW is more interested in having industry people attend panels. If you want a schedule for the day, see the sites in my response to #2.

      7. There is this thing called Google. It even has maps. You can conduct a "search" and it will tell you where a place is. Of course that would require effort on your part, which appears to be something that you aren't willing to do.

      • nooj says:

        1. No shit. I'm not saying making good decisions is bad. I'm saying SXSW offers good bands less incentive to come. Maybe it's a stupid argument people have been saying for years, I don't know. I saw very few undiscovered acts this year.

        2. I can't check every single media source for every single halfway decent band. I'm here to listen to bands and socialize, not spend another full battery charge on my phone staring at the screen. I check a lot of media for a lot of stuff. I did a lot of preparation, and researched and updated my schedules every morning. Maybe Wolf Alice was a bad example, but there are others.

        Wow, do512 is much better than I gave it credit for! Thanks! Damn shame we didn't meet last week.

        6. I see no reason SXSW can't schedule daytime shows. It's silly to ask people to come here for the whole week so they can be entertained from 8pm-2am.

        I understand they're totally different events, but at Austin City Limits Festival I can see just as many good bands in the space of three days on only five stages as I can in five days and hundreds of stages with SXSW.

        7. Don't be a dick. There are hundreds of venues and I can't keep them all straight all the time. "Nueces" is easy to mistake for "Neches", and they're separated by a thirty minute walk. And who would guess that 801 Tillery is a mile East of every other venue? Do I have to memorize every river in Texas to instantly recognize "Tillery" isn't in downtown?

  11. Dan says:

    It's funny...the only reason I know about SXSW is from years of reading this blog. After reading JWZ's rant I finally looked it up for some history, and discovered it's been around for 27 years!

  12. Brian says:

    Sorry, but a "solid week and a half" is not much time to prepare for SXSW. I start prepping in Dec as soon as the first round of bands comes out. I spend 3 months prepping, and then about an hour putting my schedule together on Monday afternoon. Some years my schedule is thinner than others. Last year (a very busy year for me), I had ~65 new-to-me bands that I wanted to see. This year it was ~30. I'd say I average about 35-40 every year.

    If you want to see international bands, why are you even looking at bands from LA? It sounds to me like your small amount of prep was not put to good use. I saw lots of great bands from around the world. With 2200 acts, you need to tailor your prep to your expectations better.

    Every year I run in to cancellations, schedule changes and shitty soundmen. Consider yourself lucky that you've managed to avoid it until now.

    The last thing to consider is that there are many ways to "do" SXSW. You can meticulously plan your every moment. You can float around hoping you see something good. You can can give a fuck about music and just look for free food and booze. You can stay at home and bitch about it. None of those ways is wrong, but the onus is upon you to make sure that your actions leading up to SXSW will give the best possible change of having a positive experience.

    • jwz says:

      I listen to and rate over 2000 tracks each year, then create a calendar that contains the schedule of every highly-rated band, including cross-references. Plus, this year I had to write custom code to actually download those tracks, since this year SXSW decided that DRM was the way to go. And yeah, that took me a week and a half, which was more time and effort than in every previous year -- years in which (I seem to need to keep repeating) I had vastly more success.

      If it takes you months, maybe that just means I'm better at it than you.

      These "dude, you're doing it wrong, just follow the magic" comments are getting tedious.

      • Brian says:

        I didn't say, "just follow the magic". I, too, listened to every official showcasing artist, which takes me from December until the start of SXSW. Since I had a successful SXSW and heard lots of great bands, maybe I'm better at it than you. I don't know what your tastes are, nor do I care, but if you couldn't find quality music, your system is broken. I'm sorry if you don't want to hear the truth, but in your last paragraph you said, "Maybe someone who's local or who just has better hookups than I of will tell me what I'm doing wrong.."

        • jwz says:

          Well, you didn't actually tell me anything, unless you consider "try 50x harder" to be useful advice. My system worked in every previous year and failed this year. My system is not what changed.

          • Brian says:

            I did give you advice. You just refuse to think that you might be doing something wrong.

            1) Focus your research. If you don't want to travel to Austin to see bands from California, don't research bands from California.

            2) Spend more time. Sorry, but if you listen and rate 2000 tracks in 10 days, you aren't spending enough time doing it. Based on my Spotify playlist (2171 tracks), you'd have to spend 14 hours a day for 10 days to listen to it. Listener fatigue and other distractions will set in and your ability to rate that many tracks in that time period is suspect, at best.

            Maybe you've gotten lucky in years past. Maybe SXSW just happened to pick 2200 bands that you didn't like this year. I only found 30 (less than 1.5% of all artists this year). Maybe you were in a bad mood while you were listening because you dog took a shit in your shoes.

            I just think it is ridiculous that you have one bad year at SXSW and you post "SXSW RIP". The festival hasn't changed that much since 2013. If you don't think attending it is a good investment for your business, that's fine. Stay home, Austin won't miss you.

  13. Alan Smithee says:

    An argument could be made*, hypothetically, that you are both uniquely qualified (as a compulsive curator and a seasoned impresario) and in an exceedingly rare position (logistically, financially, intellectually, etc) to create/curate a music/media festival yourself. Certainly not something on the bloated scale of SXSW.
    But still, something grand and good and far less personally insulting to you/others who are frustrated.

    *In fact I'm pretty sure it already has.

  14. Stuart McDow says:

    I can't believe that no one's mentioned the recent death of Brent Grulke, SXSW Creative Director since 1994 as a factor in this mess. (

    I know a bunch of people who worked with Brent on SXSW, and trust me, the guy was dedicated. He and the teams he assembled would listen to THOUSANDS of submissions every year to select acts. If SXSW enters a decline, it will be because of this loss.

    Here's a good obit from someone who'd know: