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One brand is strapping brain monitors on people at SXSW to promote some godforsaken menu item. Another is convincing festival goers to get fucked up haircuts and do assorted dumb shit for a chance to see a top 40 pop star that is almost as blown out as SXSW itself. Thousands of people are standing in hundreds of lines for bags of commercial products they will never need. They have, in essence, paid up to $1700 to be a real-life product placement. They have paid to be treated as marketing tools.
It has become a gigantic global gang-bang of corporate culture and exploitation. It is not a celebration of anything that is unique or special about Austin.
Sure they call it a "festival." Forgive me for a moment as I channel Rand Paul and copy and paste from Wikipedia: "A festival or gala is an event ordinarily staged by a local community, which centers on and celebrates some unique aspect of that community and the Festival."
There was a time when this was an accurate description of SXSW. That time has come and gone.
Now SXSW is the cultural equivalent of renting your house out to strangers for three weeks. There is nothing celebrated during SXSW. It has become a gigantic global gang-bang of corporate culture and exploitation. It is not a celebration of anything that is unique or special about Austin. SXSW is about brand-sponsored stupidity. There is nothing remotely bold or original about it.
The festival is a giant factory of unscrupulous profiteering and for the life of me I can't understand why people let them get away with it. They charge over a thousand dollars to attend, and for those who can't afford it, they offer "volunteer" positions in exchange for admission.
Whether a for-profit "festival" is legally allowed to have non-paid employees is still being discussed. I don't care either way, but when I end up wasting an hour of my time because a “volunteer” has no clue what they are doing, I begin to lose it.
There are various representatives of the music, film and tech communities milling about like drunk children who just discovered their own genitals.
The volunteers at SXSW resemble freshly reanimated corpses standing around like zombies, except even a zombie has more direction and motivation than these people. Lower jaws hanging open, eyes gazing off into what I can only imagine is a blurred horizon. (Hey, SXSW, you get what you pay for! Unless of course you paid $1700, in which case you get a plastic badge and a bag to carry all of your useless products in.)
There are assholes on Segways wearing Google Glass and talking on their cell phones while riding down Congress Ave. There are aggressive drunks looking to start fights. There are various representatives of the music, film and tech communities milling about like stoned children who just discovered their own genitals. There are thousands of opportunities to consume something for a chance to consume something else.
You know what’s missing at SXSW? The opportunity to casually discover a new band at a random bar, and the comfort of leaving your house without the dread of realizing you will never find a parking spot.
The irony of this festival is that it has come to represent the complete opposite of what makes Austin special. Austin on a good day is quiet, but filled with music. It is mellow, but there's always something to do. It's a cultural oasis in the cultural void that is Texas. Somehow, SXSW has turned in on itself so many times that it's just become a prolapsed version of its former self. The corporate gang-bang has and always will take its toll.
In the end, I blame myself for taking part in SXSW. It's my own fault. No guns were put to my head. My hands and feet were never bound. It'll never happen again, though. I'm forever against this festival—at least until my film gets accepted, in which case, where do I sign?
T.Z. Heder is a filmmaker living in Austin. You can follow his work at sexwithdonuts.com.