SXSW’s Corporate Sponsorships Overpowering Indie Music, Artists

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Giant Doritos vending machine
Giant Doritos vending machine

The South by Southwest music festival and conference, now in its 27th year, was once a meeting ground for industry debates and indie artist showcases.

Today the festival is a vehicle for promotion for the likes of Justin Timberlake, Prince and Green Day, and afternoon chats with artists are less about realities and more about compromises.

Which brand are you willing to partner with and will the association with say, Taco Bell, take something away from your music?

But the artists are arguably not even the stars, as a stroll around the 100-plus stages that pepper 6th Street in Austin, Texas, attests. The area around the venues is the modern-day equivalent of opening a Web browser and being flooded with pop-up ads.

A Doritos stage is built as a multi-story, interactive vending machine. Companies such as Myspace and StubHub have rebranded Austin establishments in their image. And to get to the stage at pop-up venue Viceland? One first must navigate around a makeshift Garnier beauty salon. Want a beverage? Hopefully you like free energy drinks.

There’s lots of noise and increasingly little in the way of substance, even at the daytime panels. Housed in the Austin Convention Center and designed to disseminate information in a crowded festival with 2,500 bands, approximately 10,000 registrants and an untold number of college-age partiers, the encroaching power of brands often made the panels feel more like a pitch session than a mecca for career advice.

When an artist on Wednesday stood and asked representatives from streaming music services Spotify, Rdio and Xbox Live just how much money the companies pay artists per stream — believed to be fractions of a penny and the subject of industry debate for multiple years now — he was met with blank stares.

After a moment he got a pitch. Join the Rdio “artist program” he was told by the company’s Adam Rabinovitz, and receive $10 for every new fan the act persuades to sign up. Simply put, he wasn’t given an answer, he was given an advertisement.

During his keynote Thursday, Dave Grohl used singing competitions to get at the idea of who the gatekeepers of music and taste have become. “‘The Voice’? Imagine Bob Dylan standing there singing ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ in front of Christina Aguilera: ‘I think you sound a little nasally and sharp.’ It’s your voice. Cherish it, respect it.”

Stephan Altman, a partner in Venice Beach-located commercial agency Mophonics, which helps connect artist and brands, had another way of looking at the current environment: “You have to sell out to play the game, but you don’t sell out your authenticity.”

Read more: Todd Martens, LATimes

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