There’s a short story I’m fond of by Herman Melville called Bartleby, the Scrivener. In it, a wealthy lawyer hires a new secretary named Bartleby to help bring a sense of calm to his office, and to increase daily productivity. At first, the hire is a great success: Bartleby does what’s expected of him quietly and efficiently and bests the output of the lawyer’s other employees. Until, one day, he doesn’t. Asked to perform a routine daily task, Bartleby replies, simply but firmly, “I would prefer not to.” This becomes his stock response until the story ends quietly and tragically several pages later.
I was thinking about Bartleby a lot as I walked the streets of Austin this past week. Much has been written recently — some of it excellent — about the increasing encroachment of corporations on South by Southwest, and how the preponderance of marquee artists and billion-dollar brands is robbing the festival of much of its renegade spirit. Every year, that aspect is lamented as “the worst it’s ever been,” but that’s mostly because, every year, that’s true. This year, my seventh at the festival, the usual commercial claustrophobia began to give way to undiluted despair. It was harder to get into shows — and not the official, nighttime, badge-favoring showcases, but the free daytime unofficial ones, where lines routinely snaked out to encompass entire city blocks. I thought often of the smaller bands, working themselves to exhaustion by playing dozens of shows while big-ticket enterprises barreled down the center of the festival like someone’s lame older brother crashing the college kegger. It felt distinctly dishonest and naïve to hear reports that a major label superstar, from a stage sponsored by a billion-dollar company, told young artists that they don’t need the help of a record label. She may as well have said, “Let them eat Cool Ranch.”
At the end of a late-night show underneath a bridge in South Austin Greg Ambler, the bassist of the excellent hardcore band Perfect Pussy threw his instrument into the river and stormed off stage. He spoke glowingly of the festival when I interviewed him about it, and said the incident was mostly fueled by a sense of despair after the horrific drunk driving accident that had happened the night before but, in the immediate aftermath, it was tempting to read it as a response to the unconquerable absurdity that South by Southwest has become. That escalating sense of futility and frustration, and the notion that smaller artists were being relegated to support status for billion-dollar corporations, and that the festival had grown too large to allow the kind of exposure and opportunity it once promised, was only heightened by the gnawing realization that there was no real way to stop it. Or if that’s even a wise decision — the financial windfall from a corporate-sponsored show can be an invaluable boon to tiny bands struggling to make it from one city to the next.
In short, raising questions like this only necessitates the need for a solution, and I’m not sure I have one. You can’t blame corporations for greedily cool-jacking an event in the service of the bottom line, because that’s what corporations do — they make money. But this year, more than any other, it felt like, for those seeking something different, South by Southwest’s moment may have finally passed. No one’s suggesting the festival should be stopped — it’s a financial boon to one of America’s greatest cities, and to try to throw the brake switch at this point stands in direct defiance to Newton’s First Law of Motion. I am on record — recently, even — as being an apologist for the festival, but by the end of the week I felt sour and broken and despondent. There will be a South by Southwest next year, and the year after that, and the sponsorships will get larger and the lines will get longer and the names will get bigger, and industry wags and eager spring breakers and genuine fans alike will scour the streets in search of that last bit of difference hidden in a corner of a week-long, city-wide pop-up ad. And if they’re lucky, they’ll find it — there are still some to be had, mostly in the shows that take place at Beerland and Hotel Vegas, or at the annual GlobalFest event. But to do it requires an ever greater amount of patience, and a willingness to endure an environment that has become suffocating. And I’ll allow that this might just be the bitter aftertaste from a particularly dispiriting week. Maybe next year, I’ll be in a different frame of mind, optimistically packing bags, once again, in the hopes of hearing something new and thrilling and inspiring in the midst of corporate morass. As of this moment, though: I would prefer not to.