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SXSW Is Now Too Big to Fail

A reporter chases the future at South by Southwest

Michael Buckner/Getty Images for SXSW

It happened at the Mohawk. A mixed queue of techies and music fans had been waiting in line to see Tyler, The Creator rap when a drunk driver, fleeing police, crashed through the pedestrian thoroughfare at full speed. It was about 1 a.m., last year, and blood streaked the sidewalks and gutters of Red River Street. “Bodies were flying through the air like popcorn,” a bystander near me cried, clutching his skateboard and texting frantic reassurances to friends. Dozens of festival attendees left in ambulances, and, by the end of the week, four had died. 

It’s a public safety miracle that nothing like it had ever happened before. After 29 years, South by Southwest has evolved from a regional festival hosted by an alt-weekly into a capitalist carnival for the young and energetic, and the city of Austin, Texas, now sustains an influx of nearly 100,000 people for one sweaty week in March. The festival’s first attendees—who came for a chill industry kick-back rather than a corporate frenzy—may very well see their own children return, hungover and exhausted, from this year’s non-beach spring break. And while SXSW’s organizers may have struck on a “fountain of youth for branding,” those who return each year may have begun to hear its death rattle, too. It’s a little like marriage: Will SXSW end in death or divorce?

Jill Abramson likely won’t be back to host the New York Times’ cocktail hour. Never again will SXSW attendees scramble over fences and push past each other to glimpse an old jokester named Bill Cosby, who last year sat on a small backyard stage wearing a sweatsuit emblazoned with the words Funny or Die. “Darned if the comic didn’t charm the pants off the young crowd,” one local blogger wrote the next day. And then there was the carnage on Red River.

Despite that, SXSW loyalists still look forward to an enticing troupe of crowd pleasers and iconoclasts. This year, everyone’s favorite rapper and weed enthusiast, Snoop Dogg, will join the list of keynote speakers. The others include Wu-Tang leader RZA, Selma Director Ava DuVernay, and America’s highest-paid female CEO, Martine Rothblatt—who, in addition to her role as the head of United Pharmaceuticals, created both GeoStar and Sirius satellite radio. Stroll into the right room, and you might find Mark Cuban talking about the future of pediatrics, or Steve Carell and his wife Nancy premiering their new TBS show, “Angie Tribeca.” Momofuku’s David Chang is flying in from New York, and the Los Angeles Times’ restaurant critic, Jonathan Gold, is touching down to promote his own biographical documentary. Nerds will be excited to listen to mathematician Talithia Williams talk about mining your own personal data. And the festival’s most highbrow cultural consumers will wait hours in line to catch Will Ferrell in Get Hard or Amy Schumer in Trainwreck.

As always, SXSW promises to be unyieldingly corporate, at least a little bit experimental, and still somewhat unpredictable. And loud. And bigger than ever. And with me in attendance, The New Republic can be your guide on the ground. 

As SXSW has grown, it has drawn more politicians, attracted by the national spotlight. Last year, it was Wendy Davis, who, in the run-up to the Texas gubernatorial race charmed the Austin Convention Center with a Q&A; New Jersey Senator Cory Booker did the same the year before. This year, Washington, D.C., mayor Muriel Bowser will speak at the “We DC House” kickoff party on the festival’s opening night. (Political junkies feeling out of place can always retreat to panels such as “How To Fix American Politics” and “Is Mobile Tech The Answer To Our Political Apathy?”) Al Gore is speaking about climate change. Rand Paul will be there to talk tech.

The most interesting political figure in 2015’s festival, though, may not even come from the Western hemisphere. On Saturday, crowds will gather for keynote speaker Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud, the American-educated Saudi Arabian royal. (“Please be informed that photographers can not photograph Princess Reema’s full visage,” a SXSW publicist emphasized to press in an email on Wednesday. “Only side angles are permitted.”) Of late, she’s brought her values to bear on Arab customs, as in her home city of Riyadh. And as an entrepreneur and activist businesswoman, Princess Reema has a clear message: Women in Saudi Arabia need to be allowed to work. 

Twitter’s launch at South by Southwest in 2007 is the gold standard for startup success at the festival. Such an unequivocal startup success story may never happen again. But that hasn’t prevented journalists from premature trend ejaculation.

Meerkat is a good example. The popular Twitter app, which has actually been around in some form since 2013, allows users to stream live video from anywhere. Analysts have predicted it would be the big hit at SXSW this year; but if your metric is viral media attention, Meerkat has already succeeded. “I’m hearing ‘Don’t believe the hype’ in loops in my head,” Meerkat founder Ben Rubin told the (recently defunct) tech site Gigaom about the virality of his creation. The novelty of broadcasting video live, he says, “wears off.” That’s the spirit.

Other bloggers think that the big tech breakout this year will be the several hundred iBeacons hidden like Easter Eggs around the festival grounds. Easter Eggs that find you, that is. Walk by a food truck and you might get a push notification that there’s free ice cream. But isn’t that what pieces of paper with words on them are for?, you’ll think. And the answer is yes. But how tech savvy is that? Though the iBeacon technology is already in wide use (most often at sports stadiums) BuzzFeed notes that, with the 1,000 iBeacons dispersed around Austin this week, “South by Southwest will be the first really large-scale window into what a beacon-filled future will look like.” Make of that what you will.

There’s almost nothing less modern or “millennial-facing” than the best-known fast food brand in the world—and so of course McDonald’s will be in attendance this year, swooping in as the replacement for brands like Doritos and Subway, who have both bowed out of high-profile sponsorships. The fast food giant announced its massive SXSW sponsorship with entrepreneurial pitch sessions (read: McDonald’s needs ideas!), a food truck, and, of course, “salon sessions,” which is festival code for “music.” But McDonald’s also caused a stir last week when it was revealed that it was soliciting musical acts to perform at its events for free. A letter, circulated by Brooklyn indie band Ex Cops, pointed out that a company with a valuation of $90 billion could perhaps spare a few bucks for its festival entertainment. (On Monday McDonalds promised to compensate its artists with cash or festival credentials.) 

Music trickles out of every single crack in the sidewalk at SXSW, though—and so of course it’s impossible to know where the next great thing will come from, despite the efforts of fully-weaponized PR teams. You could hear it in a library or in a record store, or maybe some punks playing from a generator in their van parked on the side of the road.

These joys are guaranteed, although there are definite signs of shrinkage. The Fader Fort, one of the festival’s major independent erections, has become invite-only; the iTunes festival, which brought last year’s globally-known headliners like Coldplay and Kendrick Lamar, has pulled out; Doritos, the mega-sponsor who was responsible for a lackluster Lady Gaga performance last year, will also not be returning for 2015’s exertions. Roland Swenson, one of the festival’s co-founders, told Texas Monthly that SXSW Music has grown slowly in recent years, and that he wouldn’t be surprised if SXSW Music’s trajectory this year was simply “flat.” NPR Music has scaled back to one event at the festival, canceling their well-known daytime event a few years ago. Pitchfork Media, long the benchmark for people who are generally in-the-know, has also cut its events to two daytime parties at the Mohawk.

Which brings up, again, that fated line at the Mohawk in 2014. SXSW hasn’t forgotten. According to local reports, the city of Austin has not only approved fewer event permits this year, but will also be cutting off events long before last call. Regulators want to shut down all parties at 10 p.m. during the week and end things by midnight on the weekends. To a seasoned SXSWester this might seem an impossibility. Even if properly executed, the early cutoff time will no doubt leave thousands of revelers confused about what to do with the remainder of their drinking hours; it could cripple scheduling the musical events, which routinely run late into the Texan night.

So: Is SXSW too big? Or too small? Too old or too new? Between bands, brands, billionaires, and barbecues, SXSW is now the greatest and most gleeful expression of fanatic American capitalism. And anyway, to think like a Texan, isn’t a festival’s size, above all else, the best metric of its success?