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All indie events are swallowed by mainstream monster

Courtesy of MCT

It’s tough to keep things sacred in America. Things are coolest when they are smallest, but we insist on blowing everything out of the water.

I say this about South by Southwest, arguably the largest music festival in the world, which started on Friday. You can disagree on whether it’s a music festival or not, but that doesn’t nullify that more than 2,000 bands will be playing in Austin, Texas, during the next week.

It’s not the number of bands that bothers me. The idea behind SXSW when it debuted in 1987 was that it would give smaller bands a place to showcase their wares and possibly earn a deal with record label execs in attendance. About 1,885 of the bands in 2011 are in Austin looking to break out.

But why is TV on The Radio playing three shows at SXSW? It is far from the most popular band on the planet, but it’s found its niche already. 2008’s “Dear Science” was one of that year’s most critically acclaimed albums. They won’t pick up a contract because label heads are already salivating to work with them.

At least TVoTR is a legitimately artistic band. Last year’s guests at the festival were shameless. The perpetually burned-out Courtney Love and her band Hole, and the possibly even more floozy Scott Weiland with Stone Temple Pilots, both made appearances 20 years into their careers.

I heard on the Sirius station Alt Nation that fans have been in line more than a week for The Strokes, who play on Thursday at 8 p.m. I can guarantee a packed house. Shows like that pull in all of the fans, so what happens to the other bands slotted for 8 p.m. shows at other venues? They lose out. Capybara, I’ve never heard of you (I see you’re named after a large South American rodent), but I’m going to check out your Myspace just because I feel bad that you have to compete with The Strokes.

South by Southwest is hardly the biggest offender. Take for example the legendary San Diego Comic-Con International.

Shel Dorf, a comic strip artist and founder of the event, said there were about 150 people at the first event held in 1970. In 2010, there were more than 130,000 attendees, according to Comic-Con’s website. In 1970, Comic-Con was just that: a convention for comic book fans and collectors. Organizers still only invite those directly involved in the comic book business, such as legendary artist Stan Lee, but that doesn’t stop Hollywood from buying up booths and exhibits.

“The Green Hornet” table: OK, fair enough. It’s based on a comic book. “TRON: Legacy” table: not really comic related, but still pretty geek-heavy stuff. “The Expendables” table: Let’s be serious. Sylvester Stallone and 40 other action stars might make for a good protein bar advertisement, but it ain’t comic-related, that’s for sure.

The film industry has also lowered the credibility of the Sundance Film Festival, a fact that “South Park” lampooned in 1998. The show was accurate in its portrayal of how corporate festivals like Sundance have become, but it was unfair to aim the blame at the festival’s figurehead, Robert Redford. Redford and Sundance officials have been working to keep big filmmakers out, by introducing the “NEXT” category in 2010 for entries with minimal budgets. Funny, I thought that was what the regular Sundance films were in the ‘80s.

Outside companies are largely to blame for the corporatism at Sundance, however. Companies and publications like Entertainment Weekly rent space to create “lounges” and hangouts for celebrity guests. These guests are open to a free trip to Park City, Utah, a ski-resort town. The paparazzi follow and before long you’ve got a full-on media mess.

I don’t think anyone plans for these things to happen, but it’s the inevitable consequence of celebrity culture. South by Southwest is still a worthwhile event. I’d love to go down and check out as many of those 1,800 or so unsigned bands as I could. But if I want to see The Strokes, I’ll go to an event like Lollapalooza in Chicago.

It’s great to be in on something that only a small crowd can relate to. One of my favorites: The Mothman statue and museum in Point Pleasant, W.Va. It’s a one-room tribute to the crypto-zoological creature with an admission of about $3. If the Richard Gere movie had become a blockbuster hit, and the museum went up to 10 rooms, I doubt I’d be nearly as interested.


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