People ask me two questions about SXSW. What is it like for someone trying to pitch their “X” and is it worth going? And what is the experience for someone who is basically outside the normal “network/pitch/sell” frenzy that Interactive is for most people? I’ll start with the first answer here and come back with the next one as we get closer to SXSW 2016.
SXSW, if you don’t know, is the Comic Con, Coachella, CES, Sundance, and PAX of the south combined into one ever-growing, ever-more-convoluted chimera. SXSW’s organizers’ goal literally seems to be “to be everything for everyone.” Broadly, it’s a 4 day long technology exhibition followed by a 5 day long music festival with a week-long film festival wedged in between. Specifically, somewhere inside that 9 days there’s also a video game industry trade show, a comedy festival, a job fair, art exhibitions, dozens of meet ups and these are only the officially sponsored events.
Just to give you a sense of scale, there are over 2300 bands officially booked to play shows within the 5 day span of the music festival. That is 575 bands officially booked to play full sets somewhere downtown each day, and that doesn’t count the hundreds (if not thousands) of unofficial shows, some of which have more attendees than the official ones.
At some point the question isn’t “what can I do at SXSW,” but rather “what can’t I do in 10 days in Austin?”
Some people think that with 10 days and enough gumption, they can launch their own startup. SXSW likes to remind everyone that Twitter did that in 2007, Foursquare did in 2009, and this year in 2015, I saw Meerkat attempting to replicate that.
Every band that plays surely thinks that they could be the breakout band/comedian to watch of SXSW. Enough ink has been spilled on why that may be a pipe dream in 2015, so it’s not worth debating here.
As a CB reader, you may have thought that SXSW would be a great place to promote your art… The fantastic poster artists at from the American Poster Institute who organized Flatstock clearly thought it would be a great place to sell rad-looking Cibo Matto posters to concert-going bro-tank brahs and flower-headband girls who’ve never seen or heard of Cibo Matto before. Based on everyone I talked to exhibiting there, it seemed like it was an idea that worked.
This is the feeling that SXSW wants to instill into aspiring anyones: this is a place where you can get face-to-face with the people who will make your dreams come true. A $1300+ SXSW Platinum Badge is the genie that grants you 10 days in paradise… What you do there after that is up to you. Of course, genies often have a habit of neglecting to tell you about all the dark, unintended consequences that come from your positive, innocent wishes.
SXSW exists in dualities…
The event is an impressive struggle between art and commerce.
Bringing tons of artists into town seems like a great way to “Keep Austin Weird“. But it’s balanced by the fact that some of the 70,000+ people who attend SXSW events are the most un-weird people you can get: traditional media outlets, executives of large corporations, ad buyers, venture capitalists. These are the stuffy suits who “buy weird” and send it off to places so rich and comfortable they’ve forgotten how to make homegrown weird on their own anymore.
There’s the DIY spirit of 2000+ bands coming into town to put on a good show (they’re not doing it for money because there is none). But it’s balanced by the fact that most of the attendees would rather see one of the tent-pole touring bands at one of the unofficial sponsored stages who probably would’ve come to their towns anyway which leaves many of smaller shows marginally attended.
McDonalds gets flack for trying to hire bands without paying them but also funds a rad little art gallery/lounge where they give away free food for an entire week.
“SXSW Interactive” the technology/startup centered first-half of the conference is filled with impressive displays of ingenuity and creativity. You can meet humble people debuting and promoting new products and technology that genuinely seem like they will make people’s lives easier, better or more fun. But it’s balanced by the charlatans wearing their own startup’s t-shirts, promoting dubious products that will make no-one’s life better except for venture capitalists who invested in the company anyone who currently owns founder’s stock.
And then there is also the company that exhibited at SXSW in 2014 that used “fighter jet technology” to build a rifle that allowed even an amateur could hit targets 1,000 yards away with 100% accuracy. Forbes billed it the “Scariest Rifle On Earth.” As both an impressive feat of engineering and a product that can make untrained marksmen into killing machines, it epitomizes both the wow and ugh factor you can feel at the tradeshows and parties.
In fact, what you feel about the event and how successful you will or won’t be promoting whatever it is you went there to promote (whether it’s something or just yourself) has little to do with the event itself and everything to do with who you are as a person. SXSW’s incredibly broad scope provides a blank canvas for you to write your story on. The fact that it takes over much of downtown Austin makes the whole event less like a conference and more like moving to a new city.
…so your SXSW experience is really just a mirror for your own personality
There’s a type of person who says, “that’s amazing!” when they see a pool table with felt animated to look like an actual “pool” complete with swimming fish, turtles, and balls that leave water trails . And there’s the type of person who thinks, “who’d spend so much time and money on something so stupid.” You may know what type of person you are. If you don’t, SXSW may be the best place to figure that out.
If you’re someone who feels alone in a crowd during your regular life, all of easy-to-use connecting tools that SXSW provides won’t help you feel any less lonely. SXSW actually makes it so easy for you to connect with strangers (with the ability to easily message and even track other attendees using their app) that you might feel even more lonely as you watch everyone so easily making friends (or at least whatever the networking-event equivalent of friends is).
Do you find networking “fun” or do you think it’s the unnatural opposite of normal interaction?
Are you energized by crowds or do they suck your energy away?
Are you more excited to watch a concert or live tweet a concert?
Does the idea of talking to strangers excite you or terrify you?
Is an open bar a reason to go to a party, or is it the reason?
Is being nearly knocked down by a grown man — drunk and weeping into his cell phone — asking his girlfriend for forgiveness a good story to tell people when you get home or a frightening look into a dark side of human experience that you wanted no part of?
Is there a good chance you’re the type of person who would’ve made your project successful even if you stayed home? Well then, there’s a good chance that you’ll do the legwork to meet a lot of people who can help you with it at SXSW.
Regardless of how well you do, you’ll come away learning a lot about who you are, what drives you, what repels you, and what you care about enough to spend your time doing in the face of 1000s of different options for entertainment and personal development.
Shaun Spalding is the head of International Megadigital and the former Assistant Director of New Media Rights: an awesome non-profit that provides free legal help to independent creators who can’t afford it like indie comic book creators and game developers.