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The red carpet: A gift or a curse to independent music?

By BENJAMIN WILLIAMS, Staff Writer

I believe it is safe to say that in today’s culture most of us are used to seeing the glitz and glamour associated with the music industry’s biggest night of the year, the Grammy’s. It’s a star-studded affair, featuring some of the biggest names in the industry, all rubbing shoulders with one another, hoping to be presented with the prestigious golden statue. It is utter bliss for the mainstream music scene.

But what about those artists who are not known on a global scale?  Where do they get a chance to receive the accolades of their fellow performers? The answer is the annual South by Southwest Music Festival and Conference in Austin, Texas.

Founded in 1986, this independent mainstay has quietly played host to countless artists being discovered and music fans from all over the world flocking to hear music that the mainstream machine so easily overlooks.

For the past 20-plus years, SXSW has been a gala of unequalled proportions where artists from all walks of life can come together and do what they love — perform. With more than 2,000 performances spread out over the course of 10 days, there truly is nothing like it in the world.

In recent years, however, SXSW has begun to attract the attention of the mainstream industry.  It’s simple grassroots approach has given way to major corporations putting millions of dollars into marketing campaigns in an attempt to draw bigger names and even bigger crowds.

Some, such as myself, feel it is just one more attempt for the corporate world to try and capitalize off of the independent music scene’s uncanny ability to remain an industry all its own. This year’s SXSW music festival was more reminiscent of a Hollywood ball than a feel -good music festival.

Lansing resident James “P.H.I.L.T.H.Y” Gardin, who recently returned from performing at SXSW,  gave his take on the changing landscape in Austin.

“I think it could be seen as a positive; granted it does change the vibe and the feel of the festival, but I think as an indie artist our goal is to no longer be indie, so the more eyes that are there the better the chance of being discovered,” Gardin said.

“I think it’s a balance of both. They will find new talent, but they understand that today’s market really pays attention to a festival like SXSW so they, of course, will want to use it to rebuild relevancy of their own artists.”

Independent artists have been seemingly pushed into the background. In previous years you may have gone to any of the landmark venues to catch your favorite indie artist live; today you are forced to trudge through the countless city streets, to find the hole-in-the wall establishment where they now reside on performance night.  Headliners from the record labels in the world now hold the distinction of performing in front of sell-out crowds, at the most popular locations.

Gardin said,  “I did see some suffer. But also a lot of the unofficial showcases honestly lacked the quality of last year. The shows that had major artist cost and the unofficial ones are free. If you have a dope lineup for free in the daytime, you won’t really have to compete that much with the majors. You just have to put the work in to make it work.”

The ultimate opinion about the direction SXSW is heading is one that is completely personal in nature. However, it is safe to say that in this industry’s ever-changing landscape, SXSW may in the very near future be nothing more than a shell of its former glory, as an independent hub for creativity and camaraderie.

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