Why the Big Stuff at SXSW Still Matters

Since its inception in 1987, SXSW has grown from a small networking event in the heart of Texas into one of the nation’s premier festivals spanning film, music and the latest in interactive technology. The core of SXSW has always been discovery and whether discovering a new band or a new business contact, that core hasn’t really changed. Of course, with SXSW’s growth a lot of people have voiced concerns that less discovery is occurring and worry that the festival has “sold out.” And yes, it has gotten bigger and there are more corporate sponsors like Doritos and Samsung popping up every year with bolder and showier parties. The concern is how can SXSW be about discovery if an established artist such as Jay-Z has the big spotlight performance stealing the buzz and burying the publicity of another unknown act? It’s a valid concern, but I believe the “big stuff” still matters and still represents the mantra of discovery. This year, acts such as Coldplay, Lady Gaga, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Foster the People, Blondie, Snoop Dogg, and Soundgarden were just a few of the more established names to perform across Austin at both unofficial and official parties and while their names aren’t new to most, they still offered plenty of new things to be discovered.

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Lady Gaga caused some of the biggest hubbub at the festival, with the city initially rejecting her performance at its intended venue for fear that it would cause too many traffic and security problems. She found a new home at Stubbs, was invited to be one of the keynote music speakers and tightened down access to her show to contest and lottery winners only. But as a performance artist she offered an unusual and fresh performance that the likes of which had never been seen before. But it wasn’t really her performance that was the really benefit of her visit to Austin, but her keynote speech that really offered new insight for the young bands and industry representatives attending her speech. “Don’t sell out…sell in” was her big message, which was especially apt for the concerns being voiced at recent SXSW’s. You can listen to her full speech in the video below:

Apple debuted its iTunes music festival at SXSW this year. Not only was it their first appearance, but it was also Coldplay’s SXSW debut and they used the opportunity to introduce fans to “Ghost Stories” for the first time. It was a new sound for their fans and it was new experience for them. Another night of iTunes also saw a special set from Soundgarden. This established act was also making a SXSW debut, but they were also celebrating 20 years since the release of Superunknown. In a rare and one-of-a-kind move for their audience, they performed that album in its entirety. Yes, it’s an old record, but this allowed them to give a younger audience a chance to discover this milestone album and also draw out and reshape the songs for modern times.


Foster the People helmed one of the festival’s free park shows for SXSW attendees and the city of Austin. The festival fell just shortly before the release of their sophomore album, so these guys had plenty of new material for fans to discover, but the true specialness of their performance was a lot more than just new songs. The last time Foster the People performed at SXSW, they began the week as no names. They weren’t really on the radio yet and just a few blogs had given them attention. But by the end of the week, Foster the People had capacity sets and some of the biggest buzz of the festival. Their career continued to accelerate from there and now they’re some of the biggest rock bands in music and they owe a lot of it to SXSW. They touched on this during this year’s performances and their gratitude served as a reminder that SXSW’s support does and should continue beyond success. Yes, SXSW is about discovery, but once discovered, it doesn’t mean that an act should be forgotten. The bands haven’t forgotten the importance of SXSW’s support, but a lot of SXSW attendees could use a little reminder.

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So while the sponsors could maybe tone down some of the stunts required to access their shows, don’t discount the bigger names for performing at the festival. They might be launching their career for a new generation, paying their respects, or showcasing a new facet of their career or sound — all valid things for their audiences to discover at SXSW. But if you do go to SXSW in a future year and get the chance to see the well known acts, make sure you also take the time to wander into several venues to hear someone you’ve never heard of before. Because that type of discovery is equally as important.

About Bethany Smith