Neal Pollack is a bestselling author whose ninth book, a time-traveling romantic comedy called Repeat, was published in March. He can afford to live in Austin with his wife and son because he bought a house with money he won on Jeopardy!
Now SXSW has rolled through town, he weighs in on the cons of Austin’s premier festival.
In general, what do you think about SXSW?
I’m not one of those Austinites who tries to avoid the festival at all costs; I’m usually involved in some way, although very peripherally. It’s fun to have all those bands from six continents come to town, and there are always cool movies to screen and panels to attend. At the same time, SXSW is way too big, and way, way too corporate. It overwhelms the city and makes it an unpleasant place to be overall.
What would you say is the biggest negative regarding the festival?
Even worse than SXSW’s massive size, the corporate influence, particularly during the Interactive half, is just insane. It robs Austin of all personality and you feel like you’re being colonized by the world’s worst people. There’s a kind of smugness that infiltrates, and it’s not fun.
Do you think the festival hinders the city in any way, and if so, how?
Well, it certainly hinders traffic, as though Austin needed any help in that regard. Worse than that, though, I feel like the immense corporatization of SXSW has changed the city’s self-image, making it less warm and less open and inviting, the qualities that made it a nice place to live in the first place. It is a massive engine of growth, and massive growth, unchecked, is the city’s greatest enemy. Austin is more concerned about building large luxury hotels than it is about supporting the arts in any real way, and that’s disheartening.
The festival has gotten much bigger over the years—do you think bigger is better?
Absolutely not. While I like Hugh Forrest and really admired what he and his team did in the early years of SXSWi, I feel like the transformation of SXSW from a music showcase into a 10-day corporate clusterbomb has really hurt the festival and really diminished the overall experience of attending. I would like the festival to be about half the size, and wouldn’t mind if SXSWi went away altogether at this point. The film festival also doesn’t have to be concurrent.
Some people are sick of SXSW and wish it would head out of town already. Are you in agreement?
I wouldn’t mind seeing SXSWi go to Vegas or Phoenix or some place that could accommodate it without too much anxiety. Every year, it just feels like an army invades, and that’s no fun. But no city on Earth could accommodate SXSW music like Austin does. We will keep that for better or worse.
What could SXSW do to make the experience better for everyone involved and those that stay away?
Better and more public transportation would be nice, but the voters ignorantly let the city know how they feel about a rail system. Also, deep discounted passes for local residents, and maybe even locals-only shows and events.
Do you think SXSW has changed the city? If so, in what negative ways?
It’s hard to say if SXSW changed Austin or if Austin changed anyway or if the world changed and SXSW is just a mirror of that. I like the fact that the economy is booming… there’s a lot of work here that wasn’t here before. Still, I’m going to be one of those Austinites who moans that the city used to be better before the boom. It was better. It just was. The food wasn’t quite as good, but people were nicer, rent was cheaper, and everyone didn’t walk around all full of themselves. I long to return to that kindly backwater full of goofy, guitar-playing stoners.
Originally published March 15th, 2015 in The Austinite Magazine.