Laura Skelding looks through Samsung Virtual Reality headset during the SXSW interactive festival in downtown Austin. Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon /KUT News.
By Jeff McCord
In any normal March, we’d all be lining up excuses to miss work. Our free moments would be spent scouring showcase, speaker, and party schedules to determine when and where we absolutely had to be, while planning routes skirting the inevitable downtown gridlock. Tens of thousands of out-of-towners would have long ago lined up their hotel rooms, air b&b’s, and friend’s couches. Everything with four walls for miles around would be booked, as the airport braced for the thundering herd. Retailers, restaurants, and club owners would be fully stocked and over-staffed. Police would be putting up barricades, closing streets. And virtually every shuttle bus and pedicab in the state would have found their way here. As for the few who did not plan to take part in some way, their escape routes would be firmly in place.
I suppose if you never attended South by Southwest, or arrived here sometime after April of 2019, once the rabble retreated and the banners had mostly fallen down, it’s conceivable you might have no idea what I’m talking about. But that’s unlikely. SXSW has grown to be one of the largest gatherings of industry professionals in the world, and there’s not an aspect of life here it doesn’t touch in some way.
In any normal March.
Because of the timing of the event, 2020 found the organizers acting as a canary in a coal mine. The last-minute cancelation forced them to abandon a year’s work and proved to be a bellwether of the coming storm. By fall, it became pretty clear a March 2021 all-clear was not going to be a reality. So a newly-streamlined staff (disclosure: my part-time position there was among those eliminated last year) began to pivot towards SXSW Online.
Running March 16-20, in some ways the online edition adheres to what we’ve come to expect: a wide array of speakers, bands, and films, big-name keynotes like Willie and Stacy Abrams. And SXSW is back in their annual spring break nest. But in every other respect, this is a completely different event. Dubbed “Couch by Couchwest” by the Austin Chronicle, will you really get the same SXSW experience at home on a screen?
Yes, there are no lines or traffic to negotiate, and the online nature of events allows you to club-hop like in the early days of SXSW, greatly reducing FOMO. Plus, the price of admission is a fraction of what it usually is. Better still, one badge fits all, allowing everyone to experience all interactive, film and music have to offer.
But the chance encounters, the conquest of making it into a sold-out event, the visceral anything-can-happen thrills that come with negotiating such a massive event – they just won’t be there.
To compensate, and to take advantage of the ability to pre-record (the majority of events are in the can, though the Abrams and Pete Buttigieg keynotes will be live), the 70 some-odd showcases and other events come to you from a global variety of settings.
James Minor, SXSW Head of Music Fest, told me, “Our showcase presenters have been creative beyond our expectations, giving attendees a trip to unique locations around the globe, including a Taoist temple in Taiwan, a cable car in Northern Norway, a helicopter pad in Monterrey, a greenhouse in Brazil, and a Los Angeles highway overpass, as well as Austin staples such as Hotel Vegas, The Continental Club, and Empire Garage.”
KUTX’s Confucius and Fresh will be presenting a Breaks showcase featuring The Teeta, J Soulja, Mama Duke, Deezie Brown & JaRon Marshall, on March 16th at 5pm. Austin acts are also well represented elsewhere, including showcases sponsored by Black Fret, Nine Mile Records, and Hotel Free TV.
A personal highlight of the last few years, the Jazz Re:Freshed Outernational showcase returns, moving from its bare-bones former Emo’s home to London’s Abbey Road studios.
There’s the usual mix of developing artists and indie rock stalwarts: Hachiku, Iceage, Kinky, Black Country New Road, No Joy, among many others. And as usual, the breadth of international talent is impressive (probably more so this year, since they didn’t actually have to figure out a way to get here). Music speakers include Timbaland, Lenzo Yoon (Big Hit), Wyclef Jean, Chance The Rapper, Mick Fleetwood, Mary J. Blige, Steve Aoki, and Mark Mothersbaugh among their ranks. And of course, there’s Willie Nelson, the keynote prize that has long eluded SXSW.
Add to that the usual amount of music overlap from all the interactive and film events, including the ‘Tom Petty, Guy Clark, and the William Basinski Disintegration Loops docs, and your schedule card looks very full.
If you take part, will you emerge from the other side spent, exhausted, and bursting at the seams to tell everyone about all the excitement they missed? Maybe not. But SXSW Online puts a lot at your fingertips. Virtual excitement sure beats no excitement at all, particularly when we’re facing another spring break stuck at home.