Bands vs. Brands: The Trouble With SXSW’s Attempt to Please Everyone

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Brandi Carlile and her twin bandmates, Phil and Tim Hanseroth, inside Austin’s Central Presbyterian Church. (provided photo)

AUSTIN, TX: I’m sitting in a pew at Austin’s Central Presbyterian Church, weeping silently in the dark, as alt-country singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile belts out a cover of The Avett Brothers’ “Murder in the City,” unamplified, 20 feet in front of me. At some point during the 90-minute performance on Wednesday (March 18) as part of Carlile’s Pin Drop Tour — the highlight of my own SXSW this year — I burped and it tasted like McDonald’s. What a buzzkill.

Earlier that day, I had stopped by the McDonald’s tent set up outside the Austin Convention Center. Naturally, I was curious, particularly after the PR kerfuffle that ensued when it came to light, via the band Ex Cops, that McDonald’s would not being paying the artists performing under its banner. For all the shameless branding witnessed at SXSW in recent years, McDonald’s had taken it too far. Forget Doritos spending millions on building a 60-foot vending machine stage and booking Snoop Dogg to perform inside of it. A multi-billion-dollar corporation wouldn’t pay a little-known band a measly couple hundred bucks — a common practice among hipper, less greasy brands. Unsurprisingly, the Internet expressed its outrage, at which point McDonald’s decided to pay the bands who performed at their tent. They must have lost more money serving all those free chicken tenders than they did paying performers, anyway.

The truth is, the McDonald’s tent wasn’t the absolute worst place to find yourself in Austin last week, at least as far as recharging goes. Free bottles of water (and fast food, if that’s your thing), a surplus of comfortable seats, and charging stations — all in a stylish, spacious setting that rarely seemed full. Perhaps that was because many SXSW attendees would rather be caught dead than in line for free McDoubles. At a conference where the hippest brands — be they publications or record labels — draw the most relevant bands and in turn the biggest crowds, McDonald’s carries zero cachet. Every band I heard perform in their tent sounded roughly like Gavin DeGraw. Ronald McDonald statues urged you to take selfies with him, as if some ironic Instagrams could undo decades of McDonald’s being a deeply uncool, casually vilified brand.

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First last year’s hit “#SELFIE,” now this. (provided photo)

Plain and simple, any facade of “genuine artistic experiences” — what SXSW was once thought to be about — was completely dismantled by McDonald’s and its shameless capitalism. Which is sort of funny when you consider that the ultimate goal of SXSW is for bands to impress industry folks in ways that can, and still do, make them more money down the line.

However, these scenarios — fake brand experiences and real art — are not mutually exclusive. I witnessed genuinely moving moments of music at elaborately branded events this past week. On Friday afternoon, I found myself at Neiman Marcus’ Make Some Noise event at 78 Rainey Street. It was one of those events where the ratio of attendees to snippy PR people and bulky security guards was 2:1, where the chocolate cherry martinis and Baileys-spiked cold brew flowed generously, where there was a cabana housing designer resort wear on sale now at Neiman Marcus stores. Essentially, I could not leave fast enough… until Christine and the Queens took the stage. Led by Héloïse Letissier, the triple-platinum Parisian synth-pop act is poised for an American crossover this spring, as Atlantic subsidiary Neon Gold releases her debut US EP, Saint Claude, on April 14 and Letissier plays shows with Marina and the Diamonds.

If this is how Paris does pop stars, then I really ought to keep up with French Top 40. Letissier ruled the stage, accompanied by a live band and two male back-up dancers, who joined her in on-point choreography that split the difference between contortionism and vogueing. Even amidst a rain shower, Letissier was comfortable and magnetic. And as soon as she finished, I saw myself out. Too many people were there for the artisanal vibes, not the music.

Over the last few years, SXSW Music has been deemed “over,” again and again. What this means is that its priorities have shifted, away from being an authentic music discovery event meant to benefit bands, towards becoming some sort of gauntlet of relevancy for brands. This does not mean that fucking magical live music doesn’t take place during SXSW, sometimes even when a big brand is footing the bill. The trouble this festival runs into stems from its willingness to be everything to everyone: music people, indie bands, major-label pop stars, and McDonald’s. My suggestion is to learn to accept that, and try to ignore the parts of it that bother your sensibilities.

“I’ve been wondering all day if it’s crazy to do this here,” Brandi Carlile told the crowd at Central Presbyterian. Though she was referring to performing sans amplification, some may have thought she meant doing this kind of thing during SXSW — home of the 30-minute set. For certain artists, time stops, and the chaos of SXSW is irrelevant. If you’re looking for experiences like that, you gotta look hard. If all else fails, sit your ass in a pew and wait a few hours.