SXSW 2018:

CROWDS, CRANKINESS — AND MAYBE A LESSER ROLE FOR MU­SIC

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Omar L. Gal­laga ogal­laga@states­man.com

In 2012, An­gelique LaRue, a Los Angeles-based dig­i­tal and so­cial media man­ager for a restau­rant chain, came to Austin for South by South­west for the first time.

“I’d been with the com­pany for only a year. I’d never been to this type of con­fer­ence be­fore,” she said.

She plot­ted out her sched­ule based on SXSW’s list of pan­els, but, when she ac­tu­ally got here, re­al­ized how much more goes on than watch­ing speak­ers dis­cuss tech­nol­ogy, mu­sic, film and other top­ics on stage.

“It re­ally kind of opened my eyes. I thought, ‘Oh, wow; I am not pre­pared at all.’ I didn’t know that such a big con­fer­ence was not nec­es­sar­ily at the Con­ven­tion Cen­ter,” LaRue said. “I was pretty over­whelmed in 2012.”

But she came back the next year, with a bet­ter plan and more of an idea of what to ex­pect. Then she came back the year af­ter that. And the next. “Be­ing able to talk to my peers and get some in­sights I might not get at my com­pany was cru­cial and valu­able,” she said by phone from Cal­i­for­nia.

When she ar­rives for SXSW 2018, it will be her sev­enth con­sec­u­tive visit. Not only does she have a bet­ter grasp of what events she wants to go to, she’s help­ing oth­ers nav­i­gate the event now. What started as a chat thread with friends a few years ago is now a closed Face­book group called “SXSW In­ter­ac­tive 2018 Party In­vites,” with about 1,387 mem­bers who post links to un­of­fi­cial par­ties and events along with her.

LaRue is one of the tens of thou­sands of peo­ple who will come to Austin for the March 9-18 con­fer­ence, which in 2017 had about 70,696 at­ten­dees. In to­tal, South by South­west last year had 421,900 di­rect par­tic­i­pants, SXSW says. Its eco­nomic im­pact in Austin last year to­taled $348.6 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to an eco­nomic im­pact re­port.

For 2018, its speaker list

in­cludes for­mer pres­i­den­tial can­di­date U.S. Sen. Bernie San­ders; Os­car-cal­iber film­mak­ers Barry Jenk­ins (“Moon­light”) and Dar­ren Aronof­sky (“Black Swan”); phi­lan­thropist Melinda Gates; Lon­don Mayor Sadiq Khan; singer Keith Ur­ban; the cast and creators of HBO’s “West­world” and NBC’s “This Is Us”; re­tired New York Yan­kees base­ball player Alex Ro­driguez; writer Ta-Ne­hisi Coates; “Star Wars” ac­tor Mark Hamill; TV jour­nal­ist Katie Couric; and for­mer Cal­i­for­nia Gov. Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger, among many oth­ers.

But as with a lot of years, the con­ver­sa­tion lead­ing up to the launch of South by South­west’s mul­ti­ple March legs — Mu­sic, Film, In­ter­ac­tive, but also Com­edy, Gam­ing Style, Sports, Well­ness and other topic ar­eas added over the years — is less about who’ll be speak­ing and more about whether the event is still rel­e­vant to in­dus­try lead­ers in each area and whether big brands are still throw­ing their money to­ward Austin as much as in the past.

One ar­ti­cle that has proved di­vi­sive in the past few weeks on­line among the so-called “dig­i­tal cre­atives” that SXSW courts as at­ten­dees across dif­fer­ent in­dus­tries came from a media and mar­ket­ing web­site Digi­day. Head­lined “Why agen­cies are skip­ping SXSW this year,” the ar­ti­cle sug­gests SXSW has be­come over­crowded, ex­pen­sive in­clud­ing with ris­ing ho­tel costs and, per­haps most dam­ag­ing to Austin’s rep­u­ta­tion, “SXSW also be­came less cool.”

Some have taken the piece with a grain of salt; it con­cludes with a demon­stra­bly false and in­flam­ma­tory quote — “Break­fast tacos are so 2009” — but the ar­ti­cle has cre­ated con­ver­sa­tions around how South by South­west has changed since its huge growth spurt from 2007 to 2012, when the rise of so­cial media and mo­bile phones drove new waves of tech at­ten­dees to Austin ev­ery March.

One per­son po­si­tioned to weigh in on what 2018’s SXSW might bring is Jen­nifer Sin­ski. As vice pres­i­dent at Austin pub­lic­ity firm Gi­ant Noise, she han­dles events for such clients as Fox Sports, which is com­ing to SXSW for the first time, as well as CNN and The New York Times, which will each throw down­town par­ties and host pan­els for at­ten­dees as well as par­tic­i­pat­ing in of­fi­cial pan­els. Big brands rou­tinely spend an av­er­age of about $500,000 for SXSW events that in­volve food, drinks, pan­els and tak­ing over a down­town space, she said, and it’s not un­usual for some to spend much more. This year, HBO is host­ing a re-cre­ation of the fic­tional town of Sweet­wa­ter from its sci-fi show “West­world,” which could be the most ex­pen­sive un­der­tak­ing at SXSW 2018. Mean­while, the up­com­ing Steven Spiel­berg film “Ready Player One” will take over Bra­zos Hall down­town with a mul­ti­day in­ter­ac­tive ex­pe­ri­ence to pro­mote the film, co-writ­ten by Austin writer Ernest Cline.

But Sin­ski is also co-founder of RSVPster, a ser­vice launched in 2011 that auto-RSVPs peo­ple to hun­dreds of nonof­fi­cial par­ties and per­for­mances around the fest and con­fer­ence.

She says that RSVP events have de­clined since 2015, and, for this year so far, she has about 250 events listed, com­pared with about 400 at this time last year with about 10-20 more added each day. But, she says, the num­ber of event per­mits is­sued by the city of Austin went up from 146 last year to 160 this year, and she ex­pects a surge of ad­di­tional par­ties will be an­nounced be­fore Fri­day and be­lieves that some brands are chang­ing their strat­egy about what to of­fer at SXSW.

“We don’t see brands turning away from SXSW,” Sin­ski said, “We see a shift of what’s hap­pen­ing in a big­ger pic­ture in mar­ket­ing. Are peo­ple shy­ing away from larger par­ties? Some­times that hap­pens.”

In­stead, she says, some com­pa­nies are host­ing all-day, un­of­fi­cial pan­els so guests feel they get some­thing more than free food and drinks. And she cred­its SXSW for keep­ing up with top­ics peo­ple want to hear about, such as equal­ity in the work­place, well­ness and politics.

“The Digi­day ar­ti­cle re­ally both­ered me,” she said, “Ev­ery year is slightly dif­fer­ent, but I think South By is still in­cred­i­bly rel­e­vant. I def­i­nitely don’t think it’s over.”

What’s new, dif­fer­ent

As far as what at­ten­dees can ex­pect when down­town trans­forms for SXSW, the con­tin­ued “con­ver­gence” of South by South­west will con­tinue as or­ga­niz­ers and In­ter­ac­tive, Mu­sic and Film at­ten­dees con­tinue to gain ac­cess to cross­over con­tent with their re­spec­tive badges.

Last year was the first time, for in­stance, that In­ter­ac­tive badge­hold­ers could at­tend more film screen­ings and mu­sic show­cases. But the change cre­ated some con­fu­sion and line prob­lems as the con­fer­ence and at­ten­dees ad­just to the change and less avail­abil­ity of tick­ets for peo­ple seek­ing walk-up passes for some events.

SXSW chief pro­gram­ming of­fi­cer Hugh For­rest said the con­fer­ence is con­tin­u­ing to work to help at­ten­dees fig­ure out what they have ac­cess to and what their op­tions are on the fly, whether it’s for a mu­sic show­case, film screen­ing or panel. To that end, SXSW is rolling out a tool that shows how much space is avail­able at a given venue on a Red/Yel­low/ Green sys­tem.

Also new for 2018: De­spite some de­lays and re­cent prob­lems, the new Fair­mont Austin ho­tel will pro­vide more than 1,000 new ho­tel rooms and lots of con­fer­ence space for SXSW, mak­ing it one of the top venues for the event. For­rest said con­tent that has typ­i­cally been found at the Hy­att Austin Down­town will move to the Fair­mont.

Last year, at­ten­dees were deal­ing with the ab­sence of ride-hail­ing com­pa­nies Lyft and Uber in Austin. This year, both com­pa­nies are fully op­er­a­tional in town.

SXSW also plans to do much more pod­cast­ing, mak­ing au­dio ver­sions of some ses­sions avail­able as early as the next day, For­rest said. There will also be a pod­cast stage at the con­ven­tion cen­ter for live record­ings.

Some ses­sions will also be sched­uled to re­peat: For­rest said en­core pre­sen­ta­tions of some pan­els will be of­fered and SXSW wants to do a bet­ter job mak­ing sure at­ten­dees are aware of them in ad­vance.

Health and self-care have been in­creas­ingly im­por­tant top­ics at SXSW. For the first time, South by South­west will host a free Well­ness Expo at the Palmer Events Cen­ter March 10-11.

Dis­cus­sion top­ics in tech

Last year, politics dom­i­nated SXSW with ses­sions un­der the ti­tle “Tech Un­der Trump” and key­note speak­ers in­clud­ing for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.

Some re­cent ad­di­tions to the sched­ule in­clude a panel fea­tur­ing Sen. San­ders and CNN’s Jake Tap­per, a ses­sion with Sch­warzeneg­ger and Politico’s Ed­ward-Isaac Do­vere and an open­ing ses­sion with Techfugees ac­tivist Josephine Goube called “Let’s Tech the Bor­ders Down.”

This year, the #metoo move­ment and work­place ha­rass­ment will be much-dis­cussed top­ics through­out SXSW.

Some pan­els on the sub­ject of women’s rights in­clude a key­note from phi­lan­thropist Melinda Gates, a panel on sex­ual mis­con­duct in the mu­sic in­dus­try, an open­ing ses­sion from Goube and a panel on fe­male voices in film who are prom­i­nent on Twit­ter.

A ses­sion fea­tur­ing Chris­tiane Aman­pour and tech jour­nal­ist Kara Swisher is also ex­pected to delve into the sub­ject.

Cryp­tocur­rency will be a ma­jor tech track this year, so much so that SXSW is do­ing a set of pro­gram­ming on blockchain March 14-15 in ad­di­tion to other re­lated pan­els through­out the week.

Ar­ti­fi­cial intelligence and vir­tual re­al­ity are also the sub­ject of many pan­els, de­mos and events at SXSW this year.

On the SXSW Gam­ing side, which runs March 15-17, a ma­jor fo­cus this year will be on esports and com­pet­i­tive gam­ing, with ses­sions fo­cused on the new Over­watch League and more tour­na­ment stream­ing.

JAY JANNER / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

South by South­west draws tens of thou­sands of peo­ple; in 2017 (seen here), about 70,696 at­tended. SXSW says that, in to­tal, South by South­west last year had 421,900 di­rect par­tic­i­pants. This year’s events run March 9-18.

RESHMA KIR­PALANI / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

SXSW In­ter­ac­tive at­ten­dees en­joy an im­mer­sive con­cert called “Cy­ber Tele­por­ta­tion Tokyo” at the Ja­pan Fac­tory at last year’s SXSW. Live video images of artists in Tokyo were ex­tracted in real time and viewed in Austin as holo­grams.

TOM MCCARTHY JR. / FOR AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

In 2017, au­di­ence mem­bers, many dressed for a cos­play com­pe­ti­tion, rock out to mu­sic from the band Pow­er­glove per­form­ing cov­ers of themes from clas­sic video games and an­i­mated shows at the Gam­ing open­ing party at the Down­town Hil­ton.

KEVORK DJANSEZIAN / GETTY IMAGES

The NPR show­case at Stubb’s will fea­ture the new Com­mon/Robert Glasper project Au­gust Greene. Here Com­mon per­forms last month in Los Angeles.

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