Last week I had the good fortune to be sent to sxsw for work, which is really the only way to enjoy all three portions of the festival–interactive, film, and music–unless you’re independently wealthy or live in the Austin, TX area. I read a satirical online article that mentioned that the word “amazing” was barred from descriptions of sxsw after the fourth day. That being said, it was an amazing experience. There were multiple components that I enjoyed: the sheer number of people in the city and corresponding energy, the always surreal tradeshow experience, the ability to spend four days drinking beer and listening to music, and last but not least, the quirkiness of Austin and its residents.
The first night I spent wandering around the city, floored by the number of bars on 6th St. and the number of people within them, but altogether feeling left out because I did not have my badge, the golden ticket which intermediates all of those awkward lines and entryways. During sxsw, Austin is a city of opportunity, but also a city of thresholds–venue lines, club doors, upstairs access, panel entry. And it’s a lot more difficult–if not impossible–to move through the various thresholds without a badge. So I was extremely grateful that I got the badge with the highest powers, and I tried not to let it go to my head.
The next day, once I received my golden ticket, I attended a few sessions, the most interesting being Mobile App Development in Africa. I was impressed by Nairobi’s iHub, the tech center focused on supporting Kenya’s coders, designers, and entrepreneurs. The main points from the session were that SMS data can be leveraged with apps to help local communities and support businesses, and of course that Africa is a huge emerging mobile market. If you travel to an African country you are immediately aware of this, because everyone has a cell phone, even if they don’t have adequate access to water.
Later that evening I happened to meet some of the guys behind the Opera browser at a local bar called The Jackalope. It connected to the Africa panel because while Opera takes a beating in the U.S. in terms of market share, it has a lot of headway in Africa, as well as most of Eastern Europe. They also seem to have developed a great mobile product with Opera Mini, which I agree will take on greater importance in places like Africa and other parts of the developing world.
Hanging out at The Jackalope was also cool in the sense that it gave us a break from the throngs of conference attendees. There were lots of locals in the bar, hip folks that looked like they were members of bands, pedicab drivers, or roller derby athletes, or maybe all three. They were also playing a film so terrible that it seemed to transend its premeditated campiness and obscurity. It involved 80s wrestlers and some demonic death match ending–it’s a shame I can’t remember the title.
The tradeshow started the following morning, which was difficult because I had been playing soccer, inebriated, in the middle of 6th Street the night before. It was great to have complete strangers come up to the booth saying how much they love our books. When you work behind the scenes in a world of metadata, sales numbers, and corporate politics it can be very refreshing to meet your customers face-to-face and have the experience be very positive. There was also a large number of people, both individuals and represntatives of large companies, asking about ways to access our content via subscription. This is the next investment that my company–and other publishers–need to make: a xml database that fully searchable and can be accessed through an array of subscription models.
There are of course the surreal parts of tradeshows that seemed especially pronounced at sxsw. We were across from a company selling software/hardware that allowed local news and cable shows appear like ESPN SportCenter. A representative who was handsome in a informercial kind of way would stand in front of a green screen and recite the same pitch over and over again, which multiplied by 7 hours x 4 days, became almost demonic. And to top it off, when the foot traffic died down on the last day, he would do the pitch with no one there–thus the surreal element. There were also “booth babes” dressed as nerds floating around, a man wearing skin-colored underwear and covered in stickers, women with mustaches, as well as Matthew Lesko, who I later learned is somewhat of a celebrity, offering ways for any American to get free money (or more rightly written FREE $$$) from the Government.
The nights of the tradeshow before the music portion began were spent exploring various bars and tex mex restaurants in Austin, and meeting some interesting locals. “Keep Austin Weird” has become a marketing slogan, but the locals I met definitely gave it credence. One such individual appeared mild-mannered when she sat down next to us, but proceeded to down 4 beers like it was nothing, and turn into a serious but entertaining liability. She was able to convince us to head to a karaoke bar names Ego’s–she treated karaoke “very seriously,” which seemed odd, and I was up for an adventure. But it all came crashing down when she grabbed a stranger’s breasts on the way out of the bar because she “liked her shiny shirt.” We parted ways, but not before she seemed to look into my soul, stating that “I pretended to be good and laid back with my glasses on but really I am mischevious.” I also managed to take an accidental photo that reveals her drunken aura.
The music started on Wednesday, and I kicked it off by going to visit an old friend from Berkeley who runs the L.A. label Anticon. His show was good, although I missed an act I think I would have enjoyed–Gold Panda–and caught Baths instead. After that I found myself bobbing my head to a solid set by rapper Curren$y, followed by Big KRIT. Return of 4eva!
Thursday night’s musical escapades began with a free St. Patty’s day show, complete with a Gn’R wannabe band fronted by a practically prepubescent Tejano youth with long hair and a lot of attitude. The frontman was actually pretty inspiring, he was clearly out to rock that night and hopefully take home the best looking high school senior in the crowd. After downing a Guiness much too quickly, I split from the non-badgeholder group and hustled across town to catch Spank Rock. The DJ peforming between sets was solid and refreshingly Euro, and the crowd responded accordingly. Spank Rock laid out some good rhymes, and came off as a genuine character, if not a little lazy. I tried to stick around to see Boys Noize, the Berlin artist who’s monicker was displayed prominently above the stage, but ended up ditching out once the interim DJ’s tracks became stale.
I wandered over to a different venue to see Surfer Blood. I don’t know if it was the transition from hip-hop to hyped indie rock, but I really was turned off when they took the stage. The sound at the outside venue was bad and it seemed a little too precious. I realized there was another venue behind the outdoor stage, so I wandered inside. Thankfully, there I discovered Zoobombs, who played a rousing (and loud) set, ending with a moving personal statement about the recent earthquake in Japan.
First in the lineup for Friday night was Times New Viking, who were moderately impressive. The were followed by Apex Manor, a band from the city where both of my parents were born, who inleashed some solid melodic guitar riffs and Budweiser-in-the-air anthems. I went to see MNDR and the Cool Kids soon thereafter, but was not allowed into the venue with my d-slr camera, because the entire evening was “copyrighted.” I laughed in a passive agressive way when I heard this, but they really won in the end, as I dashed back to the hotel to drop of my camera (watch quality of shots decline below) and avoid being thwarted in the future.
At that this point I was growing increasingly pessimistic about indie rock shows. Fortunately I hooked up with some folks that I met at the tradeshow and went up to the inconspicuous 18th floor of the Hilton Garden Inn. I maintained my dubious mindset, as the person I met up with referred to band we were seeing as “the best band ever”—right after she went to see someone who toured in support of John Mayer and OAR. Furthermore, I was a bit confused when I walked in: everyone was sitting down and looking serious, and I began to wonder if I had wandered into a late night music industry panel hosted by No Depression. But a Oh Ruin! started to tune up soon enough, and we when they started playing I was really impressed. It was a very quiet show, everyone sitting, no dancing, yet thoroughly enjoyable. The sincere folk rooted in Irish ballads was spiced with some slide guitar, which made it feel especially at home in the warm Texas night, as well as some riffs that I’ll call “post-punk,” because if I could describe it better I might be writing for money right now and not blogging.
Less classy and ambiguous was the theme of the rest of the night. After some drinks at the plush Driskill hotel, which soon became less classy as an ambiguous smell that could have been either vomit or pizza filled the bar, I took the group to see Daedelus, the dapper electronic beat maker. That show was very, very loud and danceable, an atmosphere which, like the Driskill, became more sketchy as a young man desperate for a dub latched on to one of the females I was with and didn’t let go. I chose not to interfere, as the girl gave off that ambiguous help me/but I’m having fun vibe, but it all ended peacefully, and the guy ended up being a decent person once the beats gave way.
Saturday night started off with some more rock: a good but very early performance by In Tall Buildings, followed by a local Austin band whose blend of stoner rock and electonica sounded much more interesting on the website than next to the speaker. Nate Dogg had passed away a few days prior, and I noticed that Vibe had put together a party in his honor. I decided to stop in and pay my respects, watching Casey Veggies from Odd Future perform. He was solid, but now that I am searching his name on Google Images, I’m realizing that I don’t think that it was Casey Veggies. Warren G was reported to be appearing later in the night, but I decided to head out, which may or may not have been a mistake. Having Regulate…G Funk Era be corrupted by a lackluster performance would have potentially damaged fond childhood memories.
After wandering through an overcrowded Billboard showcase with a less inspired Curren$y, I began to hit the wall after 5 days of drinking and standing. Exhaustion and solo-wandering awkwardness were bringing me down, and I almost gave in to the idea of returning to the hotel to try and figure out what the hell was going on in Libya. I’m a person who likes to finish the night out, so I fought this trajectory, and obtained a pulled-pork sandwich. With calories and fatty meat in my body, I walked to the Mad Decent party. Heavy dubstep was filling the rather small club, the crowd was jumping, I was offered a beer out of a tub, and a smile filled my face: the night’s energy had changed for the better. I ended up dancing for another three hours, with a sprightly and elfin Portuguese girl on one side and a rather large but much endearing Texan girl on the other. Diplo never even showed up, which was anticlimactic for some, but really hilarious in the end.
SXSW, I will miss thee.