SX isn't SW, interactive isn't interactive, and FREE! isn't free
EVENTS/MUSIC South by Southwest is a mega-clusterfuck. Even its name is too crowded. Neither Austin's locals nor the festival's veterans have the time or patience to mouth the four syllables; they simply call it "South by" — dropping the more descriptive region designator of the two altogether. Given the rumor that Austin's population doubles from 1 million to 2 million during the 10-day event, this abstraction is befitting. Despite the few interactions I had with some of the locals — venue staff, college partiers, pedicab drivers, homo-projecting cowboys, and homeless beer can recyclers — I can't say I've seen Austin, only the spectacle they call SX.
The festival is sectioned into three categories: interactive, film, and music. Interactive and music never blend (not officially, at least), just as geeks and rock stars are like oil and vinegar. But film overlaps both. Each camp is roughly five days long, and each is jack-in-the-box-packed with all-day events ranging from industry-celebrity keynotes, to trade shows, to corporate-sponsored tent parties, to "Come as You Are Yoga" and other "stress-relieving" seminars. Having unfettered access to all three, including any unofficial events and parties I caught wind of, was equivalent to being handed a golden ticket to the Wonka Factory and told, "Eat up. Whatever you find, it's yours."
The problem, as with most sprawling, supersized festivals, is that there is too much to consume. Too many things are happening simultaneously, and too many sound enticing, so you end up spending the majority of your mornings trying to navigate the best-patterned routes by RSVPing to and marking down upwards of 20 events a day on three different schedules (there's a printed, online, and iPhone app schedule, each with varying levels of accuracy and event details). After you've lined up all your top-tier choices and fallbacks for the day and mapped out their requisite times and locations, you have to go do it, to experience everything the tech, film, and music world has to offer.
Herein lies the other problem. Hordes of other festival fanatics have this same golden ticket. They, too, are running around with intricately-woven agendas and too much on their plate. But due to logistical hangups — feeding and relieving the body, small talk with recognized faces, getting lost on Austin's manic Sixth Street or on the labyrinthine trade show floor of the Convention Center — these itineraries disintegrate like dominoes made of dust. You make it to a few events you planned for, if they aren't over capacity, and then you catch glimpses — shards, really — of several others throughout the day as you hopscotch around downtown Austin.
This isn't so bad. I got to see and hear a lot in 10 days. Approximately 30 panels, 10 films, and 40 music acts. For someone who eats his food too fast, this should feel normal — or at least somewhat familiar. But it doesn't. Not being able to digest any of the fragmented sensory input because there's always something beckoning around the corner, I now empathize with poor Violet Beauregarde. Revealingly, the majority of the discourse and conversation surrounding SxSW took place through Twitter feeds, thumbs up/down responses, and the words "awesome" or "lame" yelled or whispered in a neighbor's ears. The Q&A sessions for the festival's panels and films were cut short or canceled entirely due to rigid time constraints, and interviews or thoughtful debate were ransacked by over-stimulation that collectively crippled attention spans. Engagement, as it turned out, seemed to be hiding elsewhere.
"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.