The most grandiose, circus-like event in the South by Southwest Music Conference’s 25-year history took place early Sunday morning in Austin, Texas, and guess who was behind it? Everything about the fest-ending VIP party headed up by Kanye West at an abandoned Austin power plant was massive on a scale befitting Kanye, and maybe no one else.
For starters, the site of the event (the Seaholm Power Plant) was massive and stunning enough visually to serve as a battle scene in the next “Transformers” movie. The roster of guest performers -- performing under the banner of Kanye's company G.O.O.D. Music -- was also very Megatron-like, starting with Jay-Z, who showed up at the end of Kanye’s 90-minute set (almost 4 a.m.) to perform “H.A.M.” John Legend came on in the middle for a little “Ordinary People,” and Mos Def served as the opening act, plus a small army of B-list singers and rappers, including Pusha-T, Mr. Hudson and Big Shine. Eau Claire’s own Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver fame) also did some backup singing. Oh, and an entire marching band was brought on stage during “All the Lights,” in case we didn’t already get the idea that Kanye is king almighty.
The event – which was sponsored and filmed by online music-video site Vevo -- was a major spectacle outside the fences, too. There was a line on a scale SXSW has never seen, and that’s after the Foo Fighters arguably broke that record at the start of the conference Tuesday. There was mass disorder at the entrance of the power plant, with some of rock’s most esteemed journalists and music-biz bigwigs holding up VIP passes to security guards amid a crush of people that weirdly resembled the American Embassy exodus out of Vietnam.
Entertainment value aside – yes, the concert itself was a blast – Kanye’s power-play may have also been the worst thing to ever happen in South by Southwest’s 25-year history. SXSW is famous for celebrating the indie spirit of music, but for several years now it has been taken over by corporate sponsorship and red-velvet events. Up-and-comer Vevo wanted to make a splash in a big way with this party. It was big, all right, but the name it made wasn’t exactly a good one. Vevo and Kanye were hardly alone, though. Snoop Dogg also played this year’s SXSW for PepsiMax, and LL Cool J was there courtesy of Red Bull. I caught a set by OutKast master-rapper Big Boi on Saturday afternoon sponsored by MOG. I’m still not quite sure what exactly MOG is.
I’m a major hip-hop fan, but when rappers start showing up in droves and in black-tinted Escalades (that’s how party guest Diddy arrived, anyway) -- and they’re only there seeking corporate pay-days -- clearly they're threatening the spirit and livelihood of an event famous for celebrating indie music and new talent. Kanye and Vevo totally hijacked the final three hours or so of SXSW, stealing away attention that would have otherwise been spent on baby bands and aspiring rappers. Which is to say nothing of the relative danger they created for the crush of people outside the party.