My first trip to SXSW (‘South by Southwest’ for the uninitiated) was in 2004, when I was invited by the organizers. Ten years ago, the festival was a bustling confluence of independent film, indie rock and fringe hip-hop, and a burgeoning interactive / new media sector. It was grassroots, all about the artist, and the empowerment of ideas that would be glossed by the mainstream, only to become the pillars of the future mainstream. It’s an invigorating event, one that mirrors the “keep it weird” ethos of its host city of Austin, which has to be one of the five coolest places on Earth. I’ve been going on and off to SXSW for the past ten years, and it’s been an amazing experience every time.
Ten years on and the festival is bigger, louder, faster and more crowded than ever. I did not attend but I had about a dozen friends and colleagues who did, and they all came back feeling that the festival may have jumped the proverbial shark. The indicators were the presence of Justin Bieber, corporate sponsors for every event, Hollywood productions with distribution peppering the lineup of films, and first and foremost, the inclusion of Lady Gaga as the keynote speaker for the music festival.
I like Lady Gaga. I think she’s a true performer who knows her shit. I saw an interview with her and her knowledge of performance art and music is vast and impressive, more than any recent pop-star. She pushes the envelope of good taste. It was indeed confusing when the festival decided it was to be her to deliver the keynote address. It wasn’t that she was a commercial success and that disqualifies her. Last year, Dave Grohl, who is arguably one of the most commercially successful musicians on the planet, delivered one of the best speeches I’d ever heard about staying true to one’s voice - because it’s the only voice you’ve got - and it always being about the artist first. It remains as one of the most inspiring speeches I’ve ever heard, and if you’ve got the time, I’ve included it below. It will, without a doubt, change your life.
Lady Gaga’s keynote address was posted online a few days ago. I watched it with great interest on what insight she would bring to an industry very much in flux. There was already buzz because of her performance of ‘Swine’ a few days earlier, in which she had self-proclaimed ‘vomit artist’ Millie Brown puke green pain all over her chest. Okay. Gaga being Gaga. There was a major hullabaloo that Gaga’s “you don’t fucking own me” vomit performance was sponsored by Doritos.
Next stop, Nikelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards!
But hype will be hype, and in our age of Twitter and instanews, it’s best to get it from the source. Gaga walked on stage, dressed in a melange of white trash bags and a giant white Battlefield Earth wig, and I waited for her keynote address.
First of all, it wasn’t an address. It was an interview. She didn’t prepare a speech, like all the keynote speakers before her had. She was interviewed, asked questions, and spoke off the cuff. I have to admit, it made me mad. You look at the thoughtfulness and immense work that Grohl, Springsteen and the keynote speakers before put in, and she didn’t even take the time to write a speech. Okay, that’s just me. Put it aside. Let her speak.
She was asked about the Doritos thing, and she responded that her critics “don’t have a fucking clue how the music industry works.” She was right. So many artists get flak for selling their music to ad agencies, that they ‘sold out’ for the money. But to Gaga’s point, the sources of revenue for bands have all but shrunk, and if you can get that money, it’s more money and exposure that you can get touring for a few years. It’s a business move, and in many cases a survival move. I don’t begrudge artists for selling their own music. Gaga had a point.
But then she went on and on about how she wants to connect with fans, about it all being heart and soul, and yet the elephant in the room remained: she was being funded by giant corporations and despite her cries that artists should own their own music, she doesn’t own her own music. Gaga works hard, she says that even if she didn’t have a giant record deal she’d still work just as hard for that indescribable high of making art. I believe her, but it doesn’t change the fact that she’s being funded and promoted by giant corporations.
Is that a crime? No. But Gaga defended it with a statement of “Don’t sell out, sell in.” So she’s saying to play into a system that clearly doesn’t work for 99% of the music industry, but make the maneuvers to create your art within that system. It doesn’t make sense. Gaga doesn’t need the sponsorship of Doritos to have a girl vomit on her, but she needs Doritos to have that act carry any kind of meaning. The shock is not the act of vomiting (countless musicians and performers regularly engage in body horror / self mutilation), the shock is that a pop star is having it done to her under a corporate sign.
Gaga continues on, and what she seems so oblivious to is that the corporations that fund her and her charity do so not to support her art, they are simply profiting off her image. This where she is wrong about ‘selling in.’
But what does that even mean, to ‘sell in’ or more importantly, to sell out? In the larger sense it is when you give up your voice, your integrity, for a dollar. Has Gaga lost her voice? No. In fact it’s probably stronger than ever. She has every right to make as much money as she can. But she cannot profess to fight the battle of the independent artist - telling them to sell in, to find the Doritos and KIA’s of the world, who will somehow magically support unfettered expression - and maintain any sense of integrity in doing so. Doritos and KIA will latch on to anything that is popular to shill their products. They didn’t seek Lady Gaga because they believe in her art and want it to thrive, they did it because she’s popular, and they’ll drop her the minute she’s unpopular.
When I see films rife with product placement and blockbusters castrated to appeal to the masses, I don’t view that as a singular, unique voice. That’s allowing outside forces to dictate your art, and there’s little to no integrity in that. One might argue that this is a way to finance a film, and this is true, but we have to ask ourselves at what cost. When the revenue source begins to dictate the voice and perspective of the art, the choices made by the artist, then we are selling out. This can be a tough thing to swallow because it’s difficult to imagine popular art without product placement or sponsorships.
Why then, is it such a bad thing to sell out? Because selling out means you are putting your perspective, your voice, and your worldview aside for the benefit of someone who has no interest in making the world a better place. Sure Doritos might contribute to Gaga’s charity, but they do it also as a tax write-off, as a way to curry favor with the public. Can it be that advertising and corporates can be that cruel and heartless? A resounding yes. We wonder how we got into the shape we are today, where corporate greed has become uncontrollable, and by way of people selling out, permissible.
Lady Gaga telling artists to ‘sell in’ simply allows a system that doesn’t support the artist to thrive. She’s supported and justified the wrong guy. If she truly were the artist / entrepreneur deserved of a keynote address at the most influential media conference in the world, then she would have made a statement for companies like Doritos to support musicians on the fringe, to give them just as big a stage as they give her. She would form a record label, like Dave Grohl, to support new artists and have her corporate backers back those artists. This has nothing to do with her advocacy and activism in the LGBT communities, this is about the business of art, which is what she was invited to SXSW to talk about. She failed miserably.
Gaga’s in a rarefied air that so few musicians can even relate to, and while she can parlay stories of her struggles to get signed and noticed, that is a universal story that all artists experience. It’s what she’s doing now that matters, and she’s having her image cashed in upon, and the saddest thing is that she seems oblivious to it.
Ultimately I blame the organizers of SXSW for inviting a corporate popstar to talk about the future of music. She didn’t even bother to write a speech. SXSW, like Sundance, has slowly embraced celebrity worship, when in fact they really didn’t need to. Ten years ago the festival was sold out, and the biggest celebrity to show up was Elijah Wood. It was always about the artist, and now it’s about sponsors and selling tickets, and they’re believing the idea that the more revenue the festival gets, the more independent artists they can help. It’s trickle down economics for the indie set, and it’s going to self-destruct.
I just watched a documentary about Pearl Jam, PJ20, directed by Cameron Crowe. I saw the story of a band, at the height of their powers, take on Ticketmaster because they felt the company was making music undemocratic, that the power of profit overrode the responsibility to bring music to the masses. They fought the company, stayed to their ideals, and never sold out. They continue to tour and make the art they wish to make, on their own terms, and they make a living from it. Those times when they ‘sold in,’ they were smart enough to know what it was doing to them, their art, and their fans. They stayed true. Filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and John Sayles do the same. They are in control of their art, are in service of their art, and enter agreements with corporate distributors with the sole understanding that the art is to remain undisturbed and unfettered. All of these artists never sold in, and therefore they will never sell out. Integrity and truth to the self is the single most important quality of the artist.