SXSW Redux 2

Interactive Content

Folks often forget that South by Southwest is more than a music orgy. SXSW is really five events divided into three categories. The three categories are Film, Music, and Interactive. Film and Music are pretty self explanatory — there’s a music conference and a film conference along with a film and music festival spread out over several days. The festivals are almost entriely indie content — indie movies and indie music. The film and music conferences have speeches and panels with the latest newsmakers about the important issues in those spaces with a heavy slant towards independent producers.

The Interactive conference is a whole other beast. As far as I know, it’s the only conference of its kind — a cross of academia, technology, and business all discussing the latest trends, gizmos, web sites, and so on. Judd was curious what the crowds are like. Here’s my breakdown of some of the stereotypes wandering the halls.  In short, they’re people who can afford to be there (or people who can get someone else to pay for them to be there):

  • Academics
  • New media producers (bloggers/vloggers/podcasters/mobloggers/etc)
  • Recruiters and headhunters
  • Venture capitol and angel investors
  • People looking for money/work/business
  • Product and web designers
  • Authors
  • Programmers and tech creators

It’s a strange mix, but then this is a strange conference. Panels topics included how to use AJAX, the future of radio, all things blogging and podcasting, ways to make your users love your products, how AT&T is the Dark Side (complete with AT&T logo-Death Star morph — done by Burnie Burns of Rooster Teeth (the Red vs Blue folks). mp3 here, videos here and here — lots of visual gags but none of his slides are in the videos. What the hell kind of video of a presentation doesn’t record the slides? Ugh. I guess you’ll never see the AT&T logo-Death Star morph unless you were there. His opening slide was best:

This is the title to the keynote!

This is the smaller, italicized subtitle to the keynote!

Maybe you just had to be there.)… you know, the usual technology conference stuffs but all in one place.

They should use this as a promo:

"If you pick any conference to go to this year, make yours SXSW Interactive. Why pay thousands of dollars to go to dozens of conferences in cities that suck? Going to SXSWi is like going to every technology conference all at once in the kick-ass city of Austin, Texas!"

There were some highlights, including Kathy Sierra, author of some of the Head First books which do an amazing job teching a very boring subject (programming). She gave a kick ass presentation about how to create passionate users, drawing from topics in cognative psychology, UI design, etc. She better be in the midst of writing a book on the subject.

And there were some lowlights, like the talk about Darknets. A darknet is a private virtual network for sharing information, like when you dragged your computer over to your friend’s place and plugged into his network to swap porn or when you downloaded a file from a peer-to-peer server that required a password.

The panel was moderated by J.D. Lasica, author of the darknet book. He assembled a very interesting panel including someone from a company that monitors online copyright infringement, someone from Flickr, the founder of FreeNet (hyper-secure P2P), and even a PR person from the MPAA — the body responsible for film ratings and vilifying P2P file sharing. Did I mention that the audience was primarily bloggers, filmmakers, podcasters, and other new media folks? And that there was an MPAA person on the panel?

I think you see where this is headed.

It took maybe two minutes for the first person to interrupt a speaker with a comment. And when the "audience question" portion of the conversation began, the discussion quickly devolved into berating the poor MPAA woman (who was very brave to be on that panel IMO). Less "question" and more "fuck you MPAA." And I was hoping that the bloggers and podcasters would be able to sustain a civilized discussion…

Here’s my transcript of the panel:

  • Blogger: What are you doing to ensure I can do whatever I want with any kind of digital content?
  • MPAA: (does that trick where it looks like you’re pulling your thumb in half) You see, my thumb looks like it’s in two pieces, but in fact it’s really ok.
  • Blogger: I hate DRM!
  • MPAA: That’s not a question. And you’re not watching my thumb.
  • Blogger: We’re taking over everything! You’re in the stone ages! You wait and see!
  • MPAA: (holds hand above head and snaps finger in the air) You see that?
  • Blogger: Wha?
  • MPAA: Next question.

Don’t believe me? Listen to the panel, but only if you’re a glutton for punishment. I’d point you to the video but it’s only five minutes long and is missing JD’s great mashup that he showed before the panel spoke because SXSW didn’t want to spend $20,000 to clear the rights for the media that he used.

thumb off
thumb off
Thumb on
Thumb on

Where was I? Got mesmerized by that thumb… Oh yeah. If you ever moderate a panel, ask a question, give an interview, or give a speech at SXSW, let me offer you some advice:

  1. Remind people that when you give time for the audience to ask questions, you really should ask a question.
  2. If you’re going to offer a comment, don’t unless it’s a question and relevant to the panel.
  3. Berating the panelists is not nice and will not engender their kindness in return.
  4. If you’re giving an interview or moderating a discussion and have never done so before, please take the time to practice. Inexperience shows.
  5. If you’re the moderator, your job is to moderate and get the panel to talk. Don’t answer all the questions yourself.
  6. If moderating a panel, do not invite only your friends to be on the panel.

Was SXSWi worthwhile? Sure was. Just make sure to put your bullshit filter on high before you go. And bring a bathing suit. And a spare liver. Photos and stories are next.

SXSW Redux 1

In case you’re thinking of going next year

If you’re not from Austin and think you’re going to the South by Southwest music festival, think again. 1300 bands in 5 days is a music lovers dream. Bands covering every music style from all around the world play fill nearly every bar in downtown Austin. To see any shows, you need either a badge or a wristband. People who pay the music conference fees (about $500) get in to any show they want by using their conference badge as admission.

Music fans can pay $125/$150/$175 to get a wristband, and that wristband will get you into the music shows as well. The price depends on when you buy your wristband; this year the first 2000 were $125, the next 2000 were $150, and any remaining ones were $175 (up from $110/$130/$150 last year). 4600 total wristbands were sold this year; the first 4000 sold in one day, two max per person. The remaining 600 were $175, cash only, and had to be worn immediately after purchase "to prevent scalping."

If you didn’t get a wristband through the normal channels, plenty of people were selling theirs online. There were at least 260 SXSW eBay wristband auctions and 300 Craigslist wristband sales listings, most of which sold for over face value. If you’re not from Austin or have a friend who’s willing to brave hours in line, then you can always get gouged by the scalpers since Texas has no anti-scalping laws.

I emailed the SXSW music people about this. They said that the wristbands are sold as a "courtesy" to Austinites in exchange for having their town invaded. Anyone not from Austin who can’t be at Waterloo Records on the magic day when wristbands go on sale is SOL. A coworker of mine got a less cordial letter — that SXSW is about the conference and not the fans. If you can’t get a wristband, then please pay the full music conference fees or shut the fuck up. Or words like that.

But that’s not the full extent of SXSW’s indifference to music fans. Buying a wristband does not guarantee you admission to the shows. People with badges always get in first, even if there’s 200 wristband wearing fans who have been waiting in line for the last three hours. In short, if you have a wristband, you’re probably going to spend a night wandering up and down 6th Street instead of listening to the music you paid for.

I don’t know about you, but paying a scalper $250 for a wristband because you couldn’t buy one in person isn’t very courteous; at least ten percent of all SXSW wristbands were sold online. Courteous is not selling only 4600 wristbands and then giving priority to the music execs who have badges paid for by their companies. SXSW is Austin’s premier music festival. It’s the party that put Austin on the map. And it’s fuckin crazy that they would treat music as such a commodity when it should really be about the fans.

One example will clear this up. I saw Sleater-Kinney play a kick ass show on Tuesday night. Admission was an SXSW badge — that is, only people who paid the conference fees could get in. When S-K asked the audience how many people are from Austin, maybe 10% cheered. And that doesn’t count the remaining 2/3 of the people who were busy having conversations and weren’t watching the show (read as: business people). If real S-K fans were in attendance, you wouldn’t be able to have a conversation over the music, dancing, and noise.

Every person who goes to Austin for SXSW should know that if you’re buying a wristband, you’re gambling with your money. In my opinion, you’re better off spending that money on 4 days of great meals and drinking. That’s what I did with the money I saved by not getting a wristband. And let me tell you — I had a better time than I would have if I had gone to those shows. And I didn’t even have to deal with the crazy SXSW traffic and parking.

There’s one last thing that’s been bothering me. It’s "South by Southwest, Inc." They’re a business. How much money are they making of everyone? Let’s go through this:

  • Speakers don’t get paid to speak at the conference (though they do get a free badge)
  • Bands don’t get paid to play at the festival (but they get free wristbands)
  • People shell out hundreds of dollars for wristbands and badges
  • Companies pay tens of thousands of dollars for SXSW sponsorships

Other than paying rent for Austin Convention Center, SXSW Inc must be making tons of money off this. Yeah, if you’re from SXSW Inc and are reading this, go ahead and refute this all you want. But all of us who know you’ve raised wristband and conference fees by 5-10% each year for the last few years know better. We’re getting screwed.

I loved the years I went to SXSW, but there’s no way I’ll ever go to the music festival unless someone else pays for it. Or if they have some kind of lottery system for purchasing wristbands along with online purchasing. And give wristbands the same priority as badges. And make sure that wristbands can’t be sold for more than face value.

Of course, a free platinum badge for next year would get me there as well… More on my SXSW and Austin experiences later.