Posted by Neil Bennett 11 March 2014
Has SXSW sold out?
Has the influx of mainstream brands, films and music acts meant that SXSW has gone the way of Sundance and stopped being the place to discover the next big thing?
There is no way you could describe the SXSW 2014 festival in Austin, Texas as underground anymore.
The South By South West film, music and technology festival – written as SXSW and called “South By” by all but the greenest attendee – made the home page of most newspaper sites with an appearance via Google Hangouts of the world’s most famous whistleblower Edward Snowden. There was a gig by Kanye and Jay-Z that you could only get into if you were spotted on the street with a Samsung Galaxy phone. And dotted around the city were places to hangout sponsored by everyone from Dell and Nvidia to Adobe and Hackney Council (yes really).
Hackney House may seem like an odd concept – a place of restrained British design like something out of Wallpaper* magazine in the middle of a city-wide festival where everything is already branded or is about to have a branded sticker stuck on it – but it’s a pure business venture to get American ad agencies to set up shop in Shoreditch. It was co-sponsored by British Airways, who coincidentally have just started flying direct from Heathrow to Austin – so you don’t have the change planes in Dallas (where we found a single bar filled entirely with Brits when our flight was delayed by the plane having a flat tyre) or Chicago (the world’s largest airport where most people are changing flights – so it has all the bored, miserable charm of a doctor’s waiting room, and similar decor).
This is a long way from SXSW’s humble beginnings 20 years ago, when it emerged as part of the film conference. In 1995, it broke out on its own. In 1996, there was an event called So You Want to Make a CD-Rom. This year there was an event where a billionaire spoke to an audience exclusively of millionaires (below, photo by Susie Ochs).
In some ways this is the natural trajectory of all things hip. They become cool to a growing audience, which means big brands who want to appear cool get involved to try to siphon some of that onto themselves by association. But then they feel they need to bring in mainstream elements to 'maximise worldwide PR opportunities' or something – hello Samsung, Jay-Z and Kanye – and any true underground hipness gets pushed aside.
Look at the progenitor of indie cool festivals, Sundance, which barely even counts as an independent film festival these days – with all its major studio screenings and film-star appearances, it’s nearer to the London Film Festival or Cannes than a place to discover new talent.
On the technology side however, it also reflects how much ‘digital’ firms from Google – whose Eric Schmidt (below, photo by Caitlin McGarry) was the big draw on SXSW's first day – and Twitter to TripAdvisor and PayPal have become the mainstream. In the early days of SXSW, they were the scrappy upstarts (if they existed at all).
What might strike you as odd is that in some ways, SXSW is the better for it. Friends and colleagues who’ve been going for years recall that ‘back in the day’, any chat you get into with people in bars would very quickly turn into a pitch. I’ve got that a total of once. There first people we got chatting to, sharing a bench for sublime sausages next to the canal at Easy Tiger, were from Amazon and US-wide skate shop chain Zumiez. They didn’t need to pitch us, they were already a success. The same goes for two very gregarious guys from biggest-British-game-developer-you’ve-never-heard-of Jagex we ended up having drinks with later.
Most of the newcomers we met took their tone from the rest and toned it down. Ideas were shown not told, or hinted at, or not mentioned until the possessor of the concept was sure that you were worth talking to (or not to be told once they found out you were a journalist in case you wrote a story about it before their PR strategy was ready).
Despite the noise made by the tech industry’s big names – including Grumpy Cat – it was still possible to find up-and-coming ideas, it was just nestled in with the mainstream stuff. Hot wearables for teenagers Ringblingz – essentially jewellery that connects to your phone and lets you know through different lights whether it's your bestie (or whatever kids are calling them these days) or your mum is calling so you can decide whether to bother pulling your phone out of your oversized hoodie or not – were shown off in a venue created by big New York ad agency R/GA.
Secret – a mix of Snapchat and PostSecret – has got a lot of buzz around Silicon Valley, and SXSW is its coming out party. As always with these apps, it’s almost impossible to tell whether the tool for anonymously sharing secrets with friends or just people nearby will take off or not. Apps based on networks of users grow as people realise that those around them are using it, try it out and then stick with it for as long as there are a good number of others on there to engage with – or the app doesn’t grow and dies.
You can't predict this the success of this viral spread with any accuracy. Even having a press buzz can sometimes be against an app like this, as it can lead to people trying an app before there’s a network around them to engage with – imagine if you’d tried Facebook in the early days and found none of your friends were on it, how long would it have been before you’d try it again.
So instead of being the place of the 24-hour pitch where 9 in 10 startups who get it your face pitching won’t make it to the next Superbowl, SXSW has become an event where you can find great examples of new tech (and more than a few crap ones too, to be fair) and learn from those who’ve a track record of creating successful apps of some practical usefulness – which can only be an improvement if you want to spend a week doing something useful rather than just hanging out with wannabes.