Ever since 2007, when an unassuming service called Twitter propelled itself into the pockets of early adopters and beyond at SXSW, a narrative has emerged around the festival that if you can “win” SXSW, you too can enjoy massive success and eventually a $ 30 billion market cap. The success of Foursquare at SXSW kept the narrative alive. And while Dennis Crowley’s app is slowly drifting further into obscurity each day, it’s clear that SXSW put the startup into a position to succeed, even if it never fully capitalized on it.
But despite the lack of clear SXSW “winners” beyond these two startups, this narrative has been hard to shake. Hell, Erin Griffith wrote at Pando way back in 2012 that the “trend” had run dry. And yet that didn’t stop pontificators from proclaiming Meerkat the “breakout app” of SXSW even before the festival began.
But if the video broadcasting app does achieve massive success in the coming months and years, it will likely be because of sustained, concerted efforts by its founders to reach consumers through iterative design improvements and utility that can be proven over and over again, not because it rode a hype cycle for a few weeks — not even if those few weeks did happen to coincide with SXSW.
To be sure, Meerkat’s presence here is nothing to scoff at — it’s even attracted celebrity users like Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Jimmy Fallon. But if you walk around SXSW the most visible brands are not the sneaky upstarts. Most of them, like Pepsi and Esurance, aren’t even traditional tech companies. As for tech companies, the most visible brands here are already well-established players like Spotify, Pandora, and Lyft. These companies aren’t here to spread viral growth among customers who never knew they existed. Rather they are reaching people who perhaps already use their services, but who have never interacted with these companies’ corporate identities in a meaningful way.
The Spotify House, for example, has wrapped the company’s new, flashier branding around a host of anticipated performers, like Run the Jewels and Passion Pit. They even have a pop-up SoulCycle studio — as an unlikely SoulCycle enthusiast, I’ll report back about how that goes after my Thursday ride. In this sense, South by Southwest is perhaps a far more advantageous place for larger companies to retool their brand identities than for a tiny upstart to unveil its new needless app on the world.
There’s a similar narrative taking place for bands, too. The New York Times has a feature on an act called the Prettiots, described as “a largely unknown, ukulele-led trio of young women.” After gas, hotels, and Airbnb costs, the band will shell out nearly $ 10,000 for the pleasure of playing SXSW. And as the writer notes, they’ll be competing for attention against mega-stars like Snoop Dogg and John Legend, not to mention acts like Viet Cong that, while perhaps as unfamiliar to mainstream audiences as the Prettiots, are already bringing with them a huge amount of hype, thanks in no small part to a much-desired “Best New Music” distinction by Pitchfork.
So does the festival still produce “breakout” acts as in the past? An awesome performance at SXSW can certainly help. And I’d like to think anyone with a modicum of taste at Run the Jewels’ raucous Spotify House show yesterday became instant fans of the group if they weren’t already. But for Run the Jewels, SXSW was just another notch on its festival belt that included searing performances at last year’s Governor’s Ball and Outside Lands (oh and they also released the best album of 2014 which never hurts). Meanwhile, thanks to social media, an artist doesn’t need to drop 10 grand on an Austin trip to “breakout.” All rapper OG Maco needed was a clever Vine gag to propel his track “U Guessed It” into the cultural consciousness.
But for all this hype to mean something, whether you’re a startup or a musical act, it requires sustained efforts over time — let’s not forget that Run the Jewels’ Killer Mike and El-P are aged 39 and 40, respectively, and have been at this game since the 90s. And if a band does “breakout” for the next few days here, whatever that may entail, it should, like Meerkat, not rest on its laurels. Hype is as fickle a beast for bands as it is for startups.