People have been making predictions about the end of SXSW for a very long time. Back in 2011, technology blog TechCrunch mocked the rush to declare that the conference had tipped past its point of relevance with the headline, “Saying ‘SXSW Is Over’ Is Over.” For SXSW co-founder and managing director Roland Swenson, those predictions go back even further.
“We’ve had twenty years of people saying that it’s over,” Swenson says. “Every year, in the five weeks leading up to SXSW, we have a meeting where we bring in all the staff—which is now about 200 people—and one of the things that I’ve been doing for the past few years is I put up a projection of a headline from the Austin American-Statesman that says, ‘SXSW: How Big Is Too Big?’ and everybody looks at it like, ‘Oh, okay,” and I tell them, ‘That’s from 1991.’”
Still, the festival has continued to grow and so have the number of doom and gloom predictions. This year the doomsaying might be fed by the fact that a number of key sponsors—sponsors that have increasingly become associated with SXSW’s signature events—have opted not to return for 2015: Chevy, Subway, and Doritos, whose giant vending machine stage has been reserved for artists like Snoop Dogg, Public Enemy, and Lady Gaga (though some permitting issues with the City of Austin late last year forced her to relocate her set to Stubb’s). Also off the bill this year is the iTunes Festival, which brought international headliners like Coldplay, Pitbull, Kendrick Lamar, and Soundgarden to the comfy confines of the Moody Theater at ACL Live in 2014.
Doritos has become something of a symbol for the excesses of SXSW: The snack food company’s brand is synonymous with empty calories and self-loathing, and that, combined with the optics of a giant vending machine stuffed with hip-hop stars of years past, and a series of “Bold Missions” that required attendees to perform ridiculous stunts to get tickets, added up to represent something that might offer a pleasant “mouth feel” while you’re eating it, but leaves you a little sick to your stomach when you’re done.
Doritos’s reasons for opting out of SXSW this year are unclear—the company didn’t comment to the Statesman or Austin Business Journal—but Swenson suspects that the permitting issues surrounding the Lady Gaga performance last year were a part of it.
“No doubt Doritos was unhappy with the City’s refusal to permit Lady Gaga in their vending machine, so we weren’t surprised when they passed on this year, particularly with the uncertainty over details in how the City is going to move forward with new policies in place,” he says. “However, Doritos had been under the umbrella of Pepsi, a longtime sponsor we were highly pleased to renew for 2015.”
Swenson is quick to point out that for every sponsor that’s left, a new one has eagerly taken its place: SXSW may have lost Chevy, but that only opened the door for Mazda; Subway may have decided not to take over a parking lot next to the convention center to ply badgeholders with free flatbread pizzas, but McDonald’s is going to be in town!
In other words, the direct impact of the sponsors who decided not to renew isn’t something that worries Swenson, or something that should worry anybody who is concerned that SXSW 2015 is going to be a disappointment. Maybe Lady Gaga won’t be in town, but some brand with a lot of money is probably going to pay some artist who is very famous one or two million bucks to play in a venue much smaller than the ones they usually play.
But there’s another question here, which is: What does this mean for SXSW 2016? Or 2017, or 2018? Swenson notes that SXSW Music—the final part of the 10-day event, when the Gagas and Snoop Doggs, Kanyes and Coldplays of the world typically show up—actually fluctuates in size to some extent every year, and the perception of SXSW as “unchecked growth” isn’t entirely accurate. “This year, I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re flat, or maybe even a little bit down in Music, because it hasn’t been growing that fast the past few years,” Swenson says. But he also notes a truism of big cultural events: “If an event isn’t growing, it’s dying.”
So is SXSW dying? Or, more to the point: If Doritos isn’t bringing Lady Gaga, and iTunes isn’t bringing Coldplay and Kendrick Lamar, and if sponsors—and, eventually, fans—see that SXSW isn’t as cool as it was when not participating meant that you were missing out on one of the biggest cultural events in the world, does that mean that the “not growing” Swenson talks about that leads to death is about to happen to SXSW?
It’s not really a question with an answer, at least not yet. The fact that Doritos isn’t bringing its vending machine stage back to Austin, with all of the attendant permitting and crowd-control headaches, isn’t a tragedy for anybody except maybe fans who were willing to, like, bungee jump off of a parking garage or something for a ticket to see Katy Perry and Left Shark from the Super Bowl rock inside a 65-foot-tall Doritos ad. The fact that iTunes isn’t coming back is relatively insignificant—the iTunes Festival was a one-year experiment that normally takes place in London, and seems content to remain at the Roundhouse after dipping its toe in the SXSWaters. And nobody is going to care that their cell phones were charged at an installation provided by Mazda instead of Chevy, or that the badgeholders feted with free fast food are getting McNuggets instead of Subway pizzas.
But all of that said, now, as in every previous year, it’s paramount for SXSW to prove that just because Doritos and friends didn’t show, the value of the event hasn’t changed for other sponsors. Part of the appeal of SXSW, over recent years, has been that international superstars, thanks to the generous funds of sponsors, flock to Austin to play for fans in unique venues. That creates an atmosphere of cool that makes figures who command smaller booking fees and who possess lower profiles want to be there, too—whether they’re musicians, or filmmakers, or actors, or comedians, or athletes, or entrepreneurs, or tech-industry superstars. And as long as those people come to Austin, so too will tens of thousands of fans. All of which creates the stew that makes SXSW work: it’s an event where the next Twitter might be launched, or where Jay-Z and Kanye are gonna rock a warehouse, or where thousands of attractive spring-breakers are going to drink beer paid for by some sponsor or another in the middle of a weekday in a tent on East Sixth Street, etc, etc, etc.
That combination is what has transformed SXSW from a fun festival and conference that takes place in Austin every year to a can’t-miss cultural event that captures global attention for ten days each March. It’s way too soon to say that any part of it is going to disappear—but the fact that some of the key sponsors who helped develop that side of SXSW have bailed out on the festival in 2015 means that it’s worth watching to see exactly what takes their place.