Three things I learned at SxSW - Page 2

SX isn't SW, interactive isn't interactive, and FREE! isn't free

Austin country blues outfit Down Home Texans play the streets


"Nothing is free," said media critic Douglas Rushkoff in a keynote that kicked off this year's SxSW. This was the first event I attended, as well as the one I retained the most from due to the week's subsequent madness. Unfortunately, Rushkoff never got a chance to explain what he meant by this because he was pressed for time and needed to finish rattling off the rest of his "commands" — in a talk titled "Program or be Programmed: 10 Commands for A Digital Age" — lest the fest rep at the back of the auditorium threaten him again by tracing her thumb across her throat. As the week wore on, I realized what he meant by this — or at least what he meant in the context of SxSW.

Pepsi, Red Bull, Sobe, Monster Energy drinks, 42 Degree Vodka, Miller Light, Zone energy bars, Camel cigarettes, Harley Davidson motorcycle rides — all free. ChapStick, T-shirts, backpacks, sunglasses, Levi's, hand-towels pressed into hockey pucks replete with complimentary guitar picks, contests to win iPhones and automobiles, you name it: free. Everywhere I went during SxSW (yes, even the bathrooms had shwag) some recent college grad was hocking some product with some company's logo on it at me like celebratory confetti.

It was like communism meets Disneyland for a few days, until I realized I was spending most of my time standing in lines and staring into the expanses of yet another sponsorship spectacle. It's like being in a live commercial. Sure, commercials are fun and zany, but when a lady scolded me for having a Red Bull in a Monster-sponsored area, all of a sudden I realized the fences, registration cards, and other trappings of "free."

But SxSW is all about the unofficial, word-of-mouth, other-side-of-the-tracks, free stuff. Or at least this is what everyone tells you. At least what all the die-hard, seasoned SxSWers swear by — those who refuse to buy badges or pay for a single event. This is how my SXSW fantasy originally formed when a friend who went a few years previous raved about seeing Gang of Four in a parking garage.

Unfortunately, I saw nothing of the sort. I did glean some tired trends in tech, like the limitations of copyright and the potentials of crowd-sourcing and community; see a few fine foreign films, including The Red Chapel, which paradoxically and intimately reveals North Korean ideology via Danish comedians; catatonically experience Black Rebel Motorcycle Club slow down time; feed a nostalgia for stage-diving during 7 Seconds' youth-crew anthem "Young 'Till I Die"; and develop a newfound music crush on local psych-rock band the Fresh & Onlys. But with 2,000 bands and 2,000 sponsors clamoring for your attention, it's difficult to separate the good from the bad and, more important, the great from the good.

There really is no way to do SxSW "right." You either do extensive research, include yourself in a network of like-minded people, and only pick the best available options, or you experience as much as possible and digest — or vomit, depending on your pace — all of it the following week, when the toxins have finally run their course and the buzzing in your ears returns to a low, numb hum.

Also from this author

  • Free art school

    Steal this art education with the Pickpocket Almanack

  • Streets of San Francisco: City talk

  • Color forms

    Three artists use copyedit, counterfeit, and tech to tease art out of context