A First-Timer’s Impression of SXSW

Last week I attended my first ever South by Southwest festival. That seems an appropriate opening line for this blog post, because one only uses a phrase like “first ever” when describing an incredibly noteworthy event. I would never say that last week I chewed my first ever stick of double mint gum. Chewing gum is not particularly noteworthy. Someone out there probably disagrees, but I maintain otherwise. South by Southwest, aka South by, aka SXSW, however, is kind of a big deal, as they say. I quickly found out why.

I arrived Monday night and trekked over to the Austin Convention Center on Tuesday morning to see what the rage was all about. I’ll pause for a second and explain the layout of the festival. SXSW as an event breaks down into three separate conferences: film, interactive, and music, in that order. The film portion lasts the entire duration of the festival, beginning simultaneously with the interactive conference and ending at the same time as the music conference.

Film and music are primarily about content – screened works and live performances – whereas interactive focuses on technology products and services that enhance multimedia engagement and experience. As Tuesday was the closing day of interactive, I caught the tail end of that trade show and attended a few panels focused on the convergence of technology and music. I also stopped into the SoundCloud open house, of course, as well as Rdio headquarters several blocks down the street.

Tuesday was the best day in terms of networking and socializing, and the day during which I met almost all of my new (and old) contacts. I unexpectedly ran into my new boss at an Rdio happy hour! Wednesday I was committed the entire day, helping out at a music day party and later fulfilling my first SXSW volunteer shift on the special venues crew that night.

Thursday I attended two much-anticipated music panels, the first on analytics and the second on advertising. Well, they were much anticipated in my book. The analytics panel devolved into a business pitch session, as the three panelists failed to engage each other or the audience while spouting the superiority of their respective services. I hardly exaggerate. To be fair, the later panel, “advertising is the new radio,” was well attended and ultimately was the best panel of the event, combining great presenters and great content for discussion.

Friday I attended one more panel, a promising talk on music licensing and distribution with two of the biggest executives in that industry. Unfortunately, only a handful of people were in attendance, which brings me to one of my conclusions about SXSW (at least from a music conference perspective): nobody goes to attend the official panels. Instead, everyone is in Austin to hear good music, which abounds. This realization would have been more acceptable if not for the following circumstances.
I signed up to volunteer for SXSW, as I mentioned, with the special venues crew. In exchange for working three 8-hour shifts, I was rewarded with a “music badge.” A music badge holder gains the privilege of attending conference panels as well as priority access to all of the concert venues throughout the week. This seemed a fair exchange of labor and goods at the time, but the arrangement was in fact quite skewed.

The panels lacked the preeminence I expected, but more importantly, my volunteer shifts required that I work at nights, missing the majority of the music concerts. Out of the five major concert nights, I was unavailable three, and thus could not put my music badge to good use. Let me sum it up plainly: I volunteered to get the badge but I could not even use the badge because I had to volunteer. If you want a flat out purchase a badge, it costs anywhere from $600-700 dollars. If you go to SXSW and forgo a badge entirely, you probably will not get in to the shows you want to see. In other words, you need a badge but the cost-benefit ratio leaves something to be desired.

Another gripe of mine about SXSW was the absence of an all music badge/all music conference happy hour or networking event, because although people were primarily in Austin to enjoy themselves, it was a shame to not harness the business klout of the countless industry leaders present. SXSW did coordinate “meet ups” during the week, tailored to specific music subgroups like entertainment lawyers, publishing folks, music streaming aficionados, and bands, labels, and managers. Three of those took place on Wednesday, when I was unavailable, so for all I know they might have been very well attended. But there were only two new meet ups on Thursday – one oddly geared towards “music & fashion” – and none Friday or Saturday.

Continuing on the topic of fashion, the music trade show at the convention center spanned just two days, only to give way to a fashion trade show. Why this inexplicably took place during the same weekend as SXSW, I have no idea. It was both confusing and frustrating, at least for me.

SXSW did redeem itself in one regard: the festival hosted tons of great music. I think there must have been a thousand artist performances over the course of the week, from some of the best emerging talent across all genres of music. The mega stars came as well, from Springsteen to Jay-Z to Skrillex. In the end, music reigned. I can’t be unhappy about that.

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