To play or not to play? Corporate sponsorship, pop star domination raises questions about SXSW

The Associated Press

Rachael Ray, right, greets CeeLo Green onstage at her Feedback Party during the SXSW Music Festival, Saturday, March 15, 2014, in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP)

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"The truth is without sponsorship, without these companies coming together to help us, we won't have any more artists in Austin, we won't have any festivals because record labels don't have any (expletive) money," she said.

The new, corporate-fueled reality at SXSW has many rethinking the approach. Jim Merlis, a publicist who represents several bands in attendance, counsels managers to skip the conference unless they have something worth paying attention to.

"My advice is what you can't do is start a spark at South By Southwest," he said. "You better have the spark already there, and if you pour a little gasoline on it the spark will make a fire. If you have nothing going on, if you're between albums, if you're about to release an album and you're a brand new band and you've never really been written up anywhere, then don't go."

Even with something to pitch it can be risky: "You could be playing against some really big stars and you're just not going to be heard. It's always a risk, there's very few absolute slam dunks."

Aloe Blacc, who sings the hit "The Man," had one of those slam-dunk experiences this year, but he's been on the other side of the equation, too.

"South By Southwest is boom or bust, and you can be on either side of the moon, seriously," Blacc said. "I've seen it and I don't envy the bands who spend their last dollar to get here and play for no one.

"At the same time, everybody's got to take a chance to get exposure and if you come to South By, come with a plan about how you're going to be noticed. Otherwise you can be noticed at home."

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