SXSW: Losing Touch With Its Musical Roots?

Nas (Courtesy of MTV)
Nas (Courtesy of MTV)

A walk down the Sixth Street bar district in Austin, Texas, will show you just how large the South by Southwest Festival has grown in recent years. With music floating from every direction, it is most certainly an audiophile's dream.

To music lovers, going to Austin in March is something akin to a pilgrimage. Billed as one of the largest events in the country, South by Southwest has steadily outgrown its humble beginnings since its launch as a music conference in 1987. Last week more than 100,000 people flocked to the Texas capital for the music portion of the annual festival, which now includes technology (South by Southwest Interactive) and film. The festival featured more than 2,000 recording artists and 10,000 performances.

One of the most noticeable aspects of the festival is the increasingly corporate nature of the event. Brands such as Doritos, Red Bull, Converse, Nike and Google sponsored massive events to target music tastemakers. However, many emerging artists are questioning whether the festival is losing touch with its feisty roots. The increasing scale and importance of the music showcase has made it even harder for emerging artists to get noticed, but apparently it hasn't stopped them from trying.


Just a few short years ago, the discussion around SXSW revolved around how to include artists of color at the festival, but in 2012 this issue was a moot point because black artists dominated most of the higher-profile events. The festival's musical palette has exploded with the inclusion of hip-hop and pop music at the once indie-rock gathering. Artists such as Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, Eminem, Timbaland, Erykah Badu and Kanye West were in Texas to mingle with industry types, music heads and influencers.

Jay-Z kicked things off on March 12 with a private show for American Express at the Moody Theater in Austin's fashionable West End. For little over an hour, Hova delivered a medley of his past hits to a small but select group of fans. The credit card company invited the 2,700 or so attendees to the solo show for the launch of its new sync collaboration with Twitter.

Less than a week later, Queens, N.Y., rapper Nas appeared at the same venue, complete with a New York-inspired set design. In addition to performing, he sat down for an interview with longtime collaborator and manager Steve Stoute. Nas was questioned about the vitality of hip-hop, which he once said was "dead." He now believes that hip-hop is "thriving" and is optimistic about the future of the genre. Nas also talked about his once tenuous relationship with Tupac Shakur and revealed an unlikely collaboration: writing "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It" for Will Smith.

Nas is right. Hip-hop isn't dead. In fact, it was more alive than ever at the festival. B.o.B, Talib Kweli, Rick Ross and Snoop Dogg made their presence known. Yet it was emerging MCs such as Big K.R.I.T., Kendrick Lamar, Big Sean, Stalley and Action Bronson who were carrying the torch for the new school of hip-hop. Mississippi-born K.R.I.T. (aka King Remembered in Time) and California rapper Lamar, with his Black Hippy movement, were the most promising standouts showcased at the festival.


R&B performances were sparse this year. However, Miguel did his duty for the genre. The crooner played six showcases in support of his newest project, Art Dealer Chic Vol. 1. With rousing performances, the 25-year-old artist made new fans in Austin. Texas-based Badu, a longtime fan of the festival, came back this year with a special performance with her backing band, the Cannabinoids, while classic-soul artists Lee Fields & the Expressions made a rare appearance.

Some of the emerging black artists came from genres that many thought were dead: blues and folk. One of the most talked-about bands was the Alabama Shakes. Led by 21-year-old singer Brittany Howard, the Tuscaloosa, Ala., band (unknown seven months ago) sold out several shows. Austin-based bluesman Gary Clark Jr. also sold out shows and delighted fans with his down-home blues performances, while British folk singer Michael Kiwanuka had ears buzzing.


Unlike last year, when scrappy rap group Odd Future stole headlines, there didn't seem to be a clear fan favorite coming out of the festival, leading some to believe that the extra competition from chart-topping acts might be hurting some up-and-coming acts in the long run.

As South by Southwest enters its 26th year, some wonder if the festival has grown larger than its roots can handle. With more mainstream artists making the trip down to Austin, it is becoming harder for emerging artists to get noticed. One thing remains clear, however: South by Southwest should be on every music lover's cultural calendar.


Winston "Stone" Ford is a New York City-based writer, social media strategist and entrepreneur. He is the creator and editor of the Couch Sessions. Follow him on Twitter.

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