Between Doritos trotting out Lady Gaga, Samsung tapping Jay-Z and Kanye West, and iTunes hosting Coldplay, corporate-sponsored music clearly dominated SXSW in 2014, but what I found most notable was the overwhelming hip-hop presence in the streets of Austin.
When I first started attending in 2006, rap seemed to be an afterthought. This year, thanks to the work of longtime of former SXSW hip-hop coordinator Matt Sonzala, hip-hop was inescapable. Rapper Tech N9ne happily described SXSW 2014 to me as an amalgamation of various hip-hop conferences, "It's Jack the Rapper and the BRE [Black Radio Exclusive] Convention and How Can I Be Down? all mixed up in one!"
Austin is inexorably a rock town, and while the locals (notably club security) may not have welcomed the influx of rap acts with open arms, the new face of SXSW represents the current youth climate; kids like rap, hip-hop slang is the prevailing language of Twitter, and rappers love social media. As a genre, rap has always been quick to adapt to new technology and the first to embrace Twitter as its chosen form of communication.
This year was not just the year rap music invaded 6th St. in downtown Austin, it was also the first year I heard people talk about "networking" as their motivation for being at SXSW. Networking was never something we discussed. Networking events were like online dating, we heard about them, maybe tried one once, then did our best to pretend it never happened. To hear young hip-hop kids explain that their intention was to "network with as many people as possible" blew my mind.
I was 25 when I scored my first paying job in the music industry. I had been on the outskirts for years, but I couldn't find a way in. I worked at Tower Records in downtown Manhattan, handed out flyers, interned for free at MCA Records, wrote for a bunch of websites and magazines who almost paid. I interviewed rappers during my lunch break at my dad's wood shop in Queens, writing at night.
I scoured Craigslist and Monster, constantly revised and sent out my resume, went to shows, met people, I did my best. All I wanted to do was work in music, but it seemed impossible. Admittedly, I was green. I was in my early 20's, but I was young, and I wasn't cool. It always seemed like the party was going on elsewhere and if I could just talk my way in the door, I'd find a way to stay. It felt like the Seinfeld episode where George uses a picture of Jerry's model girlfriend to sneak into a model club.
So, I went to Europe, ostensibly touring with a rap group, but ultimately traveling by myself, paying my own way, and things changed. I talked my way into shows, met a million people, ran out of money, came out of my shell and came back home, determined. I bulked up my resume, embellished a bit -- perhaps I made myself seem more experienced than I was, but I knew what I was capable of -- and the same week that I sold my cell phone to help cover my rent, I got a job working at an indie label. Though my rent was still barely paid, I was in. I asked my new co-workers what the guy I'd replaced, now a highly respected A&R, had done to move around so adeptly. "He went out every single night of the week. And he talked to everyone."
Although this approach never really worked for me, I did make a lot of friends, and I learned that no one wanted to help out an anonymous email or a resume, but they were happy to help a pal. There are probably only two people in the industry who helped me find a job, but I'm sure dozens of others would have, if I'd asked. Would we be friends if they worked in a hardware store? Would we be friends if I still worked in my dad's shop? No question, but how would we have met?
At SXSW this year, I met hip-hop kids from Chicago, New Orleans and Austin, and their networking was powerful. They shared contacts, gave out business cards, followed up with like-minded people. I don't know whether this is a hip-hop thing or a young internet thing, but I know I wasn't networking when I first came to SXSW as a label rep. We had business meetings, sure, but it was mostly about the bands, the fans and the press.
A quick survey among publicist friends confirmed that there were far fewer interviews being done this year than ever before, a glance at the streets turned up notably more brand-sponsored events. Bags of free corn chips littered the sidewalks, brand-sponsored branded events brought to you by more brands, headlined by the biggest headliners in the world. A 62-foot vending machine stage punctuated the transformation. The Doritos stage made was met with criticism when it debuted in 2013. This year, it just made me hungry.
Merriam-Webster defines "networking" as the "exchange of information or services among individuals, groups, or institutions; specifically: the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business."
Networking is a term I've never been comfortable with. Cultivating relationships to get work seems somewhat alien (do you grow them in incubators?). Music was supposed to be creative, and networking just seemed forced. We want to be friends, not contacts. On the other hand, networking definitely works among people who network. Perhaps this new rap generation, growing up on Facebook, hanging out via Twitter, perhaps networking is simply how they communicate. They think in terms we'd never considered, work on building their "personal brands" and take self-promotion to astounding heights.
It's hard to relate to. We didn't grow up tweeting at celebrities and having them respond back, or stand a chance of being famous amongst our peers by creating or becoming the subject of a meme. We don't share the same stigmas. Tinder's popularity proves my generation's online dating suspicions and corresponding feelings of shame around singlehood archaic; the app reportedly matches 5 million couples daily, half of them college-based users aged 18 to 24. I used it once and deleted it, it made me feel like I had just watched the "Jersey Shore" version of Her, and we were all shallow and alone.
To a large extent, this year's SXSW Music Conference felt like an extension of the Interactive portion that preceded it; a brand-sponsored networking event with musical entertainment. It's not about the fans and press anymore, it's just not. It's not about Lone Star beer and indie bands either. It's hip-hop, it's tech. It's about the sponsors, executives, dollars (and music). And if you're a young kid looking to break into the hip-hop industry and get a cherished paying job, SXSW is now your world.
Where does SXSW's future lie? Will it scale back its hip-hop programming, as one Austin promoter told me he hoped they'd do, and attempt a return to its rock roots? Will it reduce its snack chip-bloated girth? Will Interactive envelope Music, making the entire conference a tech networking event?
I got into the music industry because I loved being around music and other people who like music, and wanted to work as closely to it as possible. But I wanted my relationships to be authentic. I actively didn't want to network, if that makes any sense. Networking smacks of exploitation. But what else can we expect in a world where our preferred method of communication sells our personal information to advertisers?
When I needed an entrance into the music industry in my early twenties, I had no clue. I didn't have the right contacts. I snuck in some side door, and I'm not entirely sure how I convinced them to let me to stay. There was no Twitter to tell us where the cool parties were, no Facebook invites. All we had was word of mouth and being in the know, and honestly, if I could have avoided those years of hustling without a clue, if I'd had a ride a to SXSW 2014, I'd have scarfed free Doritos and networked myself sick.