Just shy of midnight on a recent Wednesday, I sat in Maggie Mae’s, one of the many bars along Austin, TX’s raucous East 6th street. All around me were hard rockers in their 20s who seemed plucked from the past – long hair, handlebar moustaches, and wiry, inked-up arms.
They were gathered to hear Banquet, a San Francisco-based band whose bio promised “dual ripping lead guitars, howling vocals and a rhythm section that can make a pregnant woman’s water break.”
While I can’t verify that final claim, I can confirm that Banquet ripped pretty hard and spurred the small crowd to bob their heads in that intense-yet-appreciative way that diehard rock fans do so well.
It was an ordinary moment for SXSW, but it struck me as downright surreal. Just a day before, I watched a robot create a beautiful piece of pottery; and a day before that, I listened to a panel about Gastro-Diplomacy – an illuminating, if somewhat precious, chat about how food can bring different groups of people together.
While they’re wildly different, the robot, the gastro-academics, and the San Fran shredders were all in Austin under the umbrella of SXSW. As a first-time attendee, I knew the event had a wide scope, I just didn’t realize how wide.
When an event covers such sprawling ground, what’s it really about?
If I had to encapsulate it in a sentence, I’d go with the following monstrosity: SXSW is a collection of techies, creatives, entrepreneurs, and party people (sometimes in the form of one individual) who – despite recognizing the banality of shuffling between conference rooms, and despite knowing that sipping a Lone Star at the Twitter House doesn’t constitute authentic Austin culture – gather each year to learn a couple of things, make a connection or two, and put a few nice dinners on the company card.
Let’s look at it from a more practical standpoint. For big-name actors, it’s a chance to launch a new flick; for would-be tech titans, it’s a chance to wax philosophical about a topic du jour while peppering in strategic mentions of their own brand’s prowess; and for music fans, it’s a chance to be in the room when the next big thing makes his or herself known.
It dawned on me, after a week on the ground, that the hodge podge is the thing itself. It’s not a straight line from touching down at AUS to reaching professional and cultural enlightenment. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure full of misguided scooter riders zipping past graffiti displays erected by Fortune 500 companies.
Another fun hallmark of SXSW are the understated – perhaps unconscious – displays of status. All attendees wear badges to enter conference events, and, as a badge wearer myself, I can attest that there was a feeling of superiority that came with hustling around downtown Austin, badge flapping as I ducked into the next upscale hotel.
For the record, I understand the absurdity of feeling like a hot shot for wearing a placard that tens of thousands of my temporary neighbors were also wearing. That said, rocking the badge and being among the crush made me feel – at least for a few days – like I was part of the big leagues.
It was a subtle thrill to stride down the sidewalk alongside high level doers and innovators (potentially important people) from around the globe, all part of the same well curated collection.
Unlike the camaraderie one feels when stepping onto their college campus for the first time, however, there was no underlying feeling of shared purpose at SXSW. The sheer range of offerings means that the crew that flocks down each year is extremely varied when it comes to interests, skills, and experience.
Regardless, badge owners donned their credentials with pride, whether they were hunched over their laptop during a session, or surveying a venue from the back of the room with a self assured grin, free beer in hand.
At its core, SXSW is not the transgressive, borderline socialist summit that skeptics think it is. If anything, it’s an unapologetic celebration of capitalism!
Brands of all stripes pour untold amounts of money into immersive installations and sponsorships around town. Young bands with a few hundred listens on Spotify play stages that are flanked by banners covered in logos from noted indie patrons Bud Light and Capital One.
On the event floor, when interesting companies from around the world tout their innovative products, they’re not just trying to share their vision of the future. They’re trying to sell stuff.
So, if you’re at SXSW and your friend texts you to call you a hipster in a derisive way (I speak from experience here), just tell them that you’re actually at the epicenter of consumption, even if it’s cloaked in a layer of manufactured hip-ness.
Despite (and to a certain extent, because of) the over-the-topness of it all, I left SXSW vowing to return next year. A few of the sessions offered powerful, practical steps for being better at my job. And beyond that, I got to see a ton of bands – some up-and-comers, some well established – play fiery sets across town.
In 2020 I’ll get to be a jaded veteran, been-there-done-that type. I’ll moan about the crowds and corporate-ization of the whole thing, while I simultaneously flip through the program guide and excitedly rush around to different panels and shows.
And most importantly, assuming the world’s collective music taste changes drastically overnight and Banquet hits it huge, I’ll be able to say that I saw them way back when.
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