South by Southwest (SXSW), the annual music, movie, and technology conference that dominates life in Austin each spring, should be on everyone’s bucket list. This year was my third visit to the excitement and craziness of SouthBy, which was celebrating its 30th anniversary. I came away with some lessons, some new experiences, and some concerns.
Lesson One: Stay downtown if you can. There are many hotels and motels in the Austin area, but most are beyond walking distance to the main SXSW venues. The conference provides an excellent shuttle service among hotels, the convention center, and most of the sites. On previous visits, I used the shuttle, but realized I was probably spending an hour a day waiting and traveling. This year, I stayed at a hotel three blocks from the convention center. It cost me twice as much, but it was worth it.
Not only could I do more, but, as a writer/photographer, I had the option of zipping back to my hotel and reconfiguring my gear, or just reconstituting myself between events. Also, the SXSW nightlife was more accessible. Actually, it was unavoidable, as there was a concert venue outside my hotel and one on the floor above me.
Lesson Two: Stay Flexible. Being somewhat obsessive-compulsive, I once again tried to map out in advance every hour of the 11 days. There is a saying in the Army that a war plan only lasts until the first battle. The same goes for SouthBy plans. I discovered and enjoyed things every day that weren’t in my plan. That’s half the fun.
SXSW bills itself as “Music, Film, Interactive,” but there is much more to it than that.
SXSW Create brings hackers and makers together for a trade show and workshops. Participants included people with new products, community groups emphasizing STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) training, and all sorts of innovation. Highlights for me included a comedy group that did improv with robots, and Andrea Rust who developed a lamp which responds to sound to help people with hearing disabilities.
The SXSW Gaming Expo included a trade show, on-stage game competitions between world famous video gamers, and a cosplay contest. The Music Gear expo featured a lot more than guitars. My favorite discovery was an app which you could hum into that turned your humming into sheet music. It then let you play it back in styles ranging from classical to rap. Hey, I’m a composer now! SXSW Flatstock brought together providers of music and general poster art from around the country. There was no reason for empty walls after attending this.
I did not make it to the Job Market, SXSWedu, SX Health & MedTech Expo, or SXgood. There are also tracks on fashion and sports. Maybe next year.
I was sad to hear that SXSW V2V, a start-up and innovation conference that took place in Las Vegas the past three years, would not be returning there. That city’s efforts to establish itself as a technology center seem to be faltering, so SXSW V2V will be looking for a new home. If you live in a community with a burgeoning tech presence, get in touch with V2V. This part of SX might come to you.
Sixth Street in Austin is the place to hear music for 15 hours per day during SXSW Music. The activity on the street seemed a little rougher this year than I remembered. At first I wrote this off to the possibility I was becoming a crotchety old guy. But my observation was confirmed by a young local woman who told me she wouldn’t be going there because of “all the outsiders without festival badges.” She said she did not feel safe. If SXSW Music becomes Spring Break for high school dropouts, this will be an issue that the city and the festival will need to deal with.
Take it Home
If you weren’t at SXSW, but would like to share in the experience, there are options.
SXSW On is an online channel that provides programming all year “embracing the spirit, look, and feel of SXSW.” SXSWfm is a music channel and app that provides music from the festival. SXSWorld is a magazine mailed to registrants, but it’s also available online. Of course, there is still good old email, and SXSW provides newsletters for different interests. At the bottom of the newsletter page, you’ll find links to SXSW on almost all social media.
A video of some of the SXSW craziness can be viewed below. See you next year at SouthBy.