by Marc Furi
Since its inception as a small music festival promoting up and coming indie bands in the 80s, South by Southwest (SXSW) has expanded into a massive multi-tiered Interactive/Music/Film Conference, expanding its offerings light years beyond music. Tens of thousands of registered participants converge annually in Austin, Texas to gain knowledge on the future of interactive technology, witness some of the greatest film debuts with star studded Q&As, and discover the latest waves in music trends. With March 2016 marking three decades in existence, SXSW included President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle, who each delivered keynote addresses to kick off two different phases of the conference (an historical first): POTUS for the Interactive division and FLOTUS for the Music portion. The plethora of engaging panel discussions ran the gamut of topics from talks on the future of virtual reality as a medium to ways live streaming can benefit bands and engage fan audiences. Aside from all the learning, networking, and exposure to new trends, the eclectic assortment of faces who appeared in Austin were an attraction on their own.
The SXSW keynote addresses are the stuff of legends, and 2016 was no exception. President Obama appealed to the tech world to galvanize and use expertise to come up with solutions for a better government. He brought up the example of how the Affordable Healthcare Act website was dysfunctional upon launch, but the tech industry helped save it to full functionality. The SXSW Music portion’s keynote kick off featured First Lady Michelle Obama, who along with moderator Queen Latifah, musical artist/producer Missy Elliot, and others, discussed the Let Girls Learn initiative to educate 62 million girls worldwide with no access to schools. All keynotes were streamed live during the conference, and many can be viewed via the SXSW YouTube page.
One of the biggest takeaways from SXSW was the massive assortment of compelling panels where industry heads shared insider tips, the future of the industries, and the peaks and valleys of personal experience. Topics ranged from the future of virtual reality to strategies for engagement of fan bases via live streaming, to how to create more diversity in the worlds of technology and interactive media. There were new ideas and perspectives for everyone to take away.
The film festival portion of SXSW is one of the premiere places to see the next wave of big films before they hit the theatre circuit. Offering a Hollywood who’s who of celebrity appearances this year one could find Don Cheadle promoting his new break out film ‘Miles Ahead’ based on innovative music legend Miles Davis. During a post film Q&A, Cheadle expressed how researching Davis opened up his own creativity. Miles was constantly improvising to stay on the cusp of innovation and in turn demanded his musicians do the same. Cheadle applied the same philosophy to his portrayal of Miles thus allowing him to give a stellar performance in the film at standing room only screenings.
Tradeshows are a big deal at SXSW. Flatstock is the music poster art show, which takes place in an exhibit hall at the base of the Austin Convention Center. Here, one can see some of the most beautiful poster graphics created by some of the best artists in the game. In the same hall was the gear expo where musicians, recording artists, and music producers check out booths by companies showcasing the latest music technology including, instruments, microphones, beat machines, software, and even virtual reality demonstrations. In a separate hall, the gaming expo was a place where panel speakers, developers, coders, business people, and game enthusiasts converged to experience and engage with all aspects of gaming.
Since music is the foundation of SXSW there is a constant ubiquity of energetic live performances at every turn usually grouped via showcases presented at separate venues. Getting into the venues is often a process due to the massive crowds. However, don’t believe the hype of those who say the Music Fest wristbands aren’t worth it. They allowed bearers VIP and expedited entry when general admission lines wrapped around buildings. Without special access, its best to remain at a venue and see the whole list of performances. A great strategy SXSW utilizes for these circumstances is the diversifying of music genres being played at each showcase. For example an eclectic R&B singer may be followed by an electronic music artist, who is then proceeded by a folk singer or even a rock band. This allows for spontaneous discoverability by viewers unfamiliar with the individual artist or not originally a fan of the genre to be pleasantly surprised. Single genre showcases happened as well. One of the big showcases, Mass Appeal, featured rap artists including Nas, Yo Gotti, Bun B, DJ Mannie Fresh and DJ Khaled.
Some peripheral showcases not affiliated, yet coexisting with SXSW, also take advantage of the massive audiences the conference attracts. Most noteworthy is Fader Fort, which happens annually and stems from the popular music magazine, The Fader. It features up and coming bands and performers. Rachel Ray’s Feedback is also a music showcase which featured Anderson .Paak and Naughty By Nature. This year Solange Knowles was present in Austin to put on her latest St. Heron party marking the launch of her fashion website BigCommerce.com. Along with the beautiful fashion forward people in attendance, the main attraction was a live performance by the legendary Sun Ra Arkestra, which still includes original members, one of whom is 92 years of age.
Beyond the stages and panels, one of the other great SXSW spectacles is the draw of diverse populations wearing fashions ranging from street to hipster to trendy, every hairstyle/color, and even costumes. Branded clothing was donned by music artists with goals to be discovered and/or promote their bands and brands to press photographers, music business execs and a sea of future music enthusiasts open to discovering the next cool trend. All one has to do is walk the streets of Austin during the conference and the parade of looks is a buffet of sight seeing. The Music portion of SXSW is still the meat and potatoes of the festival, but there are endless courses and side dishes to accompany it now. There truly is something for everyone.
To keep abreast of future SXSW happenings go to their website, SXSW.com, or better yet, attend in person next year. Advance registration usually begins around September when discount rates are offered, and rates gradually increase to full price closer to the conference dates in March.
For more moments from SXSW 2016 captured by photographer, Marc Furi, visit: SXSW PHOTO ALBUM