Last week, as the technorati returned home from their working spring breaks in Austin for SXSW Interactive, the backlash began almost immediately. It started with Jolie O’Dell’s post, smartly entitled “Why SXSW Sucks.” It quickly followed with the predictable back and forth, and many reporters and attendees said that this year’s SXSWi was too big, too crowded, and too overtly sponsored.
These objections aren’t necessarily unwarranted. The interactive portion of SXSW this year was the largest it has ever been, swarmed with reporters, companies, and yes, even sponsors and Ashton Kutcher. Perhaps the festival has in some ways jumped the shark, and we can all begin to reminisce of the good ol’ days when we knew everyone in attendance. After all, remembering how good things used to be is one of our favorite pasttimes in Austin.
While Carla Thompson’s concern that there were simply too many panels happening simultaneously is well founded and should be addressed by organizers in the future, other objections simply strike as silly.
If you are a reporter for a major tech or business publication, you are probably used to companies and wannabe influencers attempting to accost you for an elevator pitch or quick conversation. It comes with the territory. This certainly doesn’t give them the right to be annoying or “douchebags,” but there is also a certain amount of grace with which the writers can handle these encounters, as well.
I say all of this from my own experience, both personal and observed, in covering the music portion of SXSW for the Austin Chronicle. SXSW Music is a week of madness, pure chaos that bewilders me every year with how smoothly the festival is able to pull off their official events – not to mention how the city handles the flood of parties and shows on every corner and alley that can fit a singer-songwriter.
While I acknowledge that there are, of course, very unique and important differences in the interactive and music portions of SXSW, both in how they operate and how they are professionally covered, there are a number of helpful approaches to managing and getting the most from the maelstrom of SXSWm for those attending SXSWi. Especially as the latter becomes more of an event that finds a greater measure of its quality through quantity, serendipity becomes somewhat diluted by choice, and body shots may not be the most effective way to get a story.
As Mark Hopkins noted on Silicon Angle, perhaps the most important element to effectively managing the SXSW experience is to simply research and come with a game plan. Don’t worry, that game plan will get blown to hell in a matter of hours. For the music portion of the fest, there are nearly 2,000 official bands playing showcases and countless others in town to play day shows or just try to get attention. If you begin the Wednesday of the music festival without having researched who is going to be here, you’ve already lost. You will bounce from club to club and party to party and rarely see a band that you are actually interested in, much less discover something new that you might like. This is common sense for those attending the music fest, and yet more and more during SXSWi, I heard attendees discussing they had no idea such and such company was here, or so and so influencer, CEO, or analyst was in town.
Because of the high number of panels, there were a number of leading industry figures in town that may not have been here in an official capacity for their company. You can easily find these folks listed, and reach out to talk with them if even in an informal capacity. Likewise, even those attending SXSW in an unannounced fashion are available to be reached. If you hear that someone is in town that you would like to speak to, reach out to them. The chances of your running into them at a party have become significantly less likely, but if your reporting is reliant on serendipity, you probably wouldn’t have made it as far as being in a position to complain about the lack of SXSW value.
The bottom line here is to spend a significant amount of time planning beforehand. Know those companies or people with whom you want to meet, reach out to them and set it up, and be flexible with it happening. You have five days to get together, just like you often have numerous chances to catch a band during the week of SXSW music. Decide those meetings/shows that are most important, make them happen, and work the other pieces out as you can.
A second major complaint at this year’s SXSW was the barrage of unrelated sponsorships. Apparently many participants were insulted by being showered by brands like Pepsi or Sobe that really have nothing to do with tech. I’ll admit that this objection baffles me. Unless it’s a question of SXSW “selling out” (ah, the familiar indie band belittlement!), why were the presence of these sponsors so obnoxious? Yes, SXSW music is like a carnival of product placement (most music festivals these days are, in fact), but it surprises me that so many people accustomed to ignoring internet ads can’t ignore them in physical space. And though the nutrition bars that were being handed out tasted like crap, I was thankful to eat more than a few of them during the week.
Perhaps the most important complaint of SXSW this year, however, was the reported level of being accosted by unsolicited pitches. Granted, those offenders who have no tact or decorum should rightfully be ashamed, and maybe even called out for it. Unwanted aggressiveness in promoting yourself or company is rarely flattering, and those folks will likely realize that the hard way.
If you are covering SXSWi, though, part of the job implies a certain amount of openness to the serendipity of discovering something new. This year’s problem of serendipity seems to have been that those encounters were rarely productive, and often annoying. However, if your complaint is that you couldn’t seclude yourself off enough to get away from the masses, then SXSW may, in fact, not be the festival for you at all.
My favorite example of how to gracefully handle the unsolicited pitch is this guy. David Fricke, senior music editor for Rolling Stone, literally wears this perma-smile the entire festival. It’s an amazing feat of patience, especially as he cannot attend a show without someone telling him about a band he needs to see, or walk down the street without having CDs thrust into his hands. I am not exaggerating. And yet he nods and smiles in a way that is accepting, and yet when need be, clearly signals that he really doesn’t give a crap. I have also, however, seen him engage in very productive conversations from these encounters, and even check out bands based on them that he will actually later write up. That is a small minority, to be sure, but nearly without fail every year at SXSW, one of the favorite acts that I will see will come from word of mouth.
Tech conferences and festivals, like music festivals, all have their distinct personalities. Some are specifically geared to being exclusive, intimate gatherings at the expense of variety and serendipity. Some are meant to be sprawling in scope with both companies and those covering the event, often at the expense of deeply meaningful interactions and conversations.
SXSW music’s value comes from the convergence of the entire industry – bands, critics, businesses, and promoters – in one place for a week. The sheer quantity of both acts and interactions is something that simply doesn’t happen anywhere else. And if a more intimate conversation is warranted, it’s easy to break off somewhere less hectic. Or, in another parallel, I may only catch 20 minutes of a band, but be sufficiently intrigued enough to follow up by either getting their album or catching them at the next opportunity.
If SXSW Interactive is moving towards being an encompassing equivalent for the tech industry, it of course comes at the expense of some of the “easy” discoveries that will happen at a smaller event. However, for those willing to sufficiently plan ahead, keep themselves open to new finds, and that want more out of the event than simply checking in to the hot party to say that you were there, I still contend that SXSWi can offer amazing dividends.
I find it difficult to believe that so many of the top tech reporters in the world had trouble navigating SXSWi and finding value, especially from the perspective of a music critic who has been doing SXSW for years. Perhaps the problem is the continued perception of SXSWi as “Spring Break for Nerds,” and attendees and those covering the event are taking the “break” a bit too literally. (I should also note that I saw many writers working tirelessly this year in their coverage). Reporting during the music portion of the festival is constant and stressful, with reviews actually being written on the spot in clubs as music is blaring. The Fest is spread across the city, and you are rushing from venue to venue, trying to make deadlines. And yet we still manage to have fun, while never losing sight of the fact that we are here to work as well.
Full Disclaimer: Jones-Dilworth did PR this year for the SXSW Accelerator event