Lessons From SXSW 2013

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Nine days of total SXSW madness have come and gone, and all we are left with are sores in our feet, trash in our streets, and a deep yearning for more good times with our friends and free booze. I can hardly believe last week was real, but there is enough evidence to remind me that it indeed happened. Hopefully I’ll be able to figure out how to function again though. There was so much to do at SXSW that I developed some severe FOMO, particularly during the Interactive portion of the festival. I mean how am I supposed to decide between a session that teaches you “How to Raise Your Own Startup Capital” and a session about “The Future of the Porn Industry?” And how could I possibly make it to the iheartcomix party at Emo’s on Riverside when the rest of the events centered around the Convention Center on Cesar Chavez and downtown? Hermione Granger’s time turner could have come in handy, or even her broom. Why can’t we just become superhumans during festivals? Although I’ve “experienced” SXSW many times in the past, I’ve never done it as an “adult with purpose” who kind of had a job and things to actually do. This is what I learned from all the Interactive conferences, music showcases and panels I attended:

Too Much of Something is Bad Enough

And who could have said it better than the Spice Girls? One of the themes at SXSW this year was the idea that there is just too much of everything out there – Too many apps, too much music, too many options for entertainment, too many formats, too many gadgets, too many guys in your Grindr feed, too many platforms to keep up with (and not enough time), too many distractions, too many expenses, etc, etc, etc. “But this is America! The land of plenty. Why is too much a bad thing?” said a capitalist. I’m not really sure the problem is actually the amount of things out there. The “problem” is that our human brains are not really wired to process so much information at once. But is that really true? Us millennials get a bad reputation because we are constantly checking our phones, tablets, laptops, et al, during conversations and class and whatever else happens to be in front of us. But does that really mean that we are not paying attention? Are we simply training ourselves to process multiple sources of information at once? Considering that old people (X-Gens and Boomers) were running these conferences and discussions… could it be that they are just now finally starting to realize the potential in our generation? I happened to sit through a few startup pitch competitions and noticed that the next big thing will be the company that can consolidate all the sources of external information into one, easy to navigate, personalized, user-friendly, sort of integrated software/gadget/tool.

Techie talk aside though, this theme was present throughout the entire festival. There were too many tourists being totally rude to our city, too many people standing in line, too many free bags of Doritos (DAMN YOU DORITOS), too many drunk people as a consequence of there being too much free liquor, too many wannabe artists giving out CDs and papers on the streets, too many wannabe photographers and bloggers taking unauthorized pictures and shooting videos without a release form, and ultimately, there were too many events to even feel like you made the “right” choice standing in one particular line as opposed to another, which leads me to my next point…

Free Stuff Has a Price

Free Entry and Free Drinks with RSVP sounds like a pretty good deal until you actually find yourself standing in line waiting for entry and then again for your first drink. You’ve already spent all this time and effort RSVPing to all these amazing parties, spreading the word to your friends and finding the time and patience to make sure everyone gets the memo, so you have no choice but to stand in that damn line and get a damn buzz. The lines to get into a free party could take anywhere from 30 minutes to sometimes more than 2 hours. If you didn’t have a badge or wristband… forget about the fact that you even RSVPed, or at least get ready to test the limit of your patience. The thing is, these party promoters take more RSVPs than the venue can hold so that there will be a huge line outside so that the media can say “OMG this party is out of control! Look at these lines!” And then the magazine, or blog, or whatever was hosting it could gain more notoriety and more buzz and more corporate money. But whatever. It’s free, right? Are we allowed to complain?

Oh, so you made it to the front of the line! HOORAY! Now get in line for a drink. Some places would give the illusion of being generous with the alcohol by letting you order two drinks at a time, but the ratio of alcohol to mixer was kind of sad. All it made me do was pee a lot more than normal. And the lines for the porter potties were really long too. By the time I got to pee, my mini buzz was gone and it was time to get in line for another drink again. Conspiracy? I think so.

Lesson of the day: order beer. Beer has the same percentage of alcohol every time.

SXSW Sold It’s Soul to the Devil

So where is the catch with all these awesome parties with corporate sponsorship? It’s simple. By the time the free day parties are over, you have already consumed two days worth of calories in high fructose corn syrup, Doritos and beer. You will also be very very drunk by Happy Hour, which will prompt you to buy trailer food and go home really early. Now that you’re full, fat, drunk and at home, the people that actually paid for badges and wristbands can go out and attend the official SXSW showcases without having to worry about all the others. These people are actually willing to spend money on drinks, food and entry, and that is the kind of attendee that SXSW wants. Towards the end of the festival one of my friends told me “I am definitely getting a badge next year. I’m so over these lines.” And there you have it! The trick worked! Yeah, free day parties sound amazing, but when you have to make it through an entire week of events, go to work in the evening, and somehow manage to maintain your weight, all this awesome free stuff suddenly becomes part of the struggle. Is it because it’s too much? Is it because there is no such thing as free? Or is it because we are doomed to always be part of this conspiracy of senseless consumerism? But it was SO awesome, wasn’t it?

Let’s watch the Spice Girls music video to clear our minds for a second:

All T and shade aside though, SXSW 2013 was a wonderful experience for me this year. I can see how much the festival has grown in the past couple of years, and I’m excited to see what else comes from it. I guess this year’s experience taught me how to approach the festival as a professional and working adult as opposed to just a music enthusiast, and I’m totally okay with that. But to be honest, I believe that the biggest lesson from SXSW would have to be:

Focus On What You Want

There is enough SXSW for everyone. It’s one thing to go out into the unknown and make an adventure out of your day and see if you’ll be able to get in somewhere and somehow score a free drink. But do you really want to do that all the time? Planning your SXSW experience really makes everything better. You can’t be physically present everywhere, so pick and choose where you want to focus your time and energy. I know there are too many options out there for fun and professional opportunity, but don’t let it get to you. You want to remember all the positive things about the festival instead of the long lines, your sore feet or your dead phone.

Now are you ready for SXSW 2014?

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