SXSW, Not Just For Music Geeks

by | Mar 30, 2009 | MUSIC



For years you’ve probably heard about SXSW, the massive music party in Austin where every hot band from the past 16 months descends on the hundreds of bars, parking lots, and art spaces throughout the city. The music and free beer flow like, the Colorado River that passes through Austin. Well, it may surprise you to learn that before the musicians and fans invade the town, the web and film geeks first descend and truly get the party started.

The Film and Interactive portions of the SXSW conference began on Friday March 13th and brought arguably more people to town combined than the music conference (I hear more badges were given for this half, but since so many of the music events are free, it’s impossible to count those who without badges.) I’ll break down the conferences and explain the differences because while both may enjoy the parties, they have fundamental differences.

While the panels and keynotes were a large part of the Interactive conference, the sponsored parties and random meet-ups were the critical other half. SXSWi as it’s called is like a geek summer camp. Sure you can go to all the “classes” but the fun is in meeting people in what happens outside of class. Thousands of attendees from around the world converge looking to make valuable connections and friendships. Yes, networking may seem like a dirty word to most, but at “South-By” it’s part of the game. Attendees are come looking to strengthen relationships that they’ve already made through the Internet or in prior years and to make new connections. Having a pocketful of business cards (or a account) at all times is imperative because you never know if who you’re talking to could be the key to your next job, or next party.

Since Twitter was launched at SXSW two years ago, so it should be no surprise that the highest percentage of twitterers in the country were located in Austin, SXSW was the #1 trending topic for the first few days, and both Twitter and AT&T’s networks crashed a number of times. Not just a toy or casual chatting experience, the interactive geeks use Twitter religiously. Every conference panel and keynote was Twittered furiously by hundreds of attendees. Lunches and dinners were also planned and meet-ups and parties were scheduled.

The unique thing about SXSW is that most people genuinely want to interact with each other and meet new people. Whether they be famous stars, powerful CEOs, e-celebs or entrepreneurs, in most situations you could introduce yourself or talk about how great the weather or BBQ is and you’ll get a genuine response. Whether it’s because the people who go there recognize that you just may just have the next great film or website, or they just want to share the SXSW experience, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of on such a large scale.

There are many fewer sponsored party opportunities on the Film side of things, which in my mind made the filmmakers a little bit less open to meeting new people. At the parties I did attend, half the time people seemed surprised when approached to strike up a conversation. At the Interactive parties I could have walked up to anyone and started a conversation (assuming I wasn’t interfering with a courtship*). The best place to meet people during the Film Fest is when you’re waiting for movies, which you do a lot of. Whether in line or in the theater, you spend a lot time just waiting, and it’s a great time to start a conversation with your neighbor. You’ll meet some interesting people with nothing better to do than talk about their film or distribution company.

Things had begun to slow down on Monday, so on Tuesday afternoon I snuck out for a break and to meet some old Richmond friends, Jules Buck Jones, Drew Liverman, Scott Eastwood and Mike Phalan. They had become involved with an artist’s compound in Austin which offered a number of individual studios in addition to a building that houses a record label, and two houses. A large open barn in the center of the compound is a central shared space, which yearly is converted into a giant cardboard sculpture for SXSW music. This year it was a dragon called the Narglewyrm, whose jaw opened and blew smoke from it’s nostrils. Spending the afternoon and evening with old Richmond friends allowed me to decompress a bit, and so by 10pm I was ready to close out my trip by saying my goodbyes at the closing parties. Although St. Patrick’s Day may be a huge event that attracts (non-SXSW) crappy partiers in large numbers, I’ll blame 6th Street’s resemblance to New Orleans’ Bourbon Street on the scourge of musicians who began descending on the city for the start of the music fest. When I awoke on Wednesday I was disappointed that so many of my friends had just begun arriving and telling me what I’d miss, but actually looked forward to going home, knowing all that they had missed.


Wanna see what I actually did? Check it out here:

Here’s some advice for anyone looking to attend the Film and Interactive Fests:

* Eat Breakfast – You never know how long it will be until your next meal, and it’s worth it to take the time when you have it to start the day with a decent meal.

* Get a hotel downtown- I stayed with friends and saved a ton of money, but having a hotel downtown next year would be worth the cost. Being able to come and go as you please, easily change your clothes, or take midday power naps would totally make the cost justifiable.

* Drink tons of water – Goes without saying. Although it may not seem like it, this is Texas. Long days walking around the city and between bars causes dehydration. Drink up.

* Use any opportunity you have to meet someone new – Whether standing in line for the bathroom or looking for breakfast you can strike up a conversation with someone new who may turn out to be a fun person to spend more time with or could use your help professionally (or vice versa).

* Use any opportunity to do something in a group – This pertains predominately to the Interactive folks, but use any opportunity as a chance to strengthen your relationship (ok, bathroom breaks and sleeping may still be off limits). You need to eat breakfast? Scan twitter for others in the area looking to do the same. Need a coffee break and to charge your electronics? Mention the S word to any group you see and soon enough you’ll have a posse ready to join you.

* Remember at the Interactive conference we’re all geeks. Take the chance to start the conversation, chances are you’ll get a friendly response from someone glad they didn’t have to break the ice.

* BRING BUSINESS CARDS – Whether you’re representing yourself or your company, have plenty of business cards. The more unique they are the better, someone might just save it for the design and then call you months later when they need your help. Exchanging business cards is a standard part of any new SXSW conversation, and you don’t want to be the one with nothing to trade.

* I’m sure you can imagine that if you throw this many “single” people in a fun city like Austin, romantic connections will ensue. The social network application Foursquare, which launched at SXSWi even had a “badge” for “Slut” or someone who checked in to more than 3 hotels using their application.


R. Anthony Harris

R. Anthony Harris

I created Richmond, Virginia’s culture publication RVA Magazine and brought the first Richmond Mural Project to town. Designed the first brand for the Richmond’s First Fridays Artwalk and promoted the citywide “RVA” brand before the city adopted it as the official moniker. I threw a bunch of parties. Printed a lot of magazines. Met so many fantastic people in the process. Professional work:

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