A personal and intimate SXSW diary

I will go straight to the point, it is f****** awesome! SXSW is celebrating its 30th year and I have been late catching-up on it, but I am so glad I was able to make it through for the first time.

SXSW has been on my radar for a few years

Because it’s not an easy journey, and it’s a pretty decent investment, there is this feeling that you need to deserve it to get there:

  • Entrance tickets are expensive, like $1295 for just the INTERACTIVE Badge
  • It’s a long trip: no direct flight, minimum 11 hours flight from Paris, although there are direct flights from London
  • Good accommodation is scarce and expensive: it can cost as much as $200 to sleep on a couch, at a 15mn Lyft ride from the Austin Convention Center

You really need to define both what you expect from this festival and what is your personal/company ROI.

My first and foremost reason for attending SXSW was to live THE experience — which consists at city totally transforming its shape for 10 days with the arrival of more than 200,000 participants. As soon as you get to Austin, you feel the special atmosphere of all those creatives getting together. There is a constant flow of innovators and people day and night walking from one venue to another, from one conference to another…, and it never stops. To some extent, this feeling can be overwhelming. Be prepared for it.

Connecting with the right people

In that respect, I have been very lucky as I didn’t prepare myself much for this event. For instance, just 4 days before my arrival, I didn’t have accommodations. As I was trying to find the right « AirB&B », and complaining about the surge in prices , fortunately, I see popping out “French Tech House” that is announcing having a last minute cancellation, and an available room at a decent price. This has revealed being a great choice as Germain & Felix, the two French hosts, did everything to offer us an unforgettable and meaningful experience. Germain picked me up on Sunday at the Austin Bergstrom airport at midnight. We went straight to the “White Horse”, a famous live music bar, where I could met the other “French crew”: a delegate from French Tech, founders from two different start-ups in the tech/media space, and other folks.

The next day, Germain & Felix were hosting a BBQ at the house with more than 50 (mostly French) attendees where I met passionate entrepreneurs, VC partners, and other peeps from the adverting industry.

French Tech House Backyard — Credits: NP

The pace continued for 2 days, where literally every hour I was meeting new people all the time, exchanging business cards, and talking about business and the future of our industry. The magic operates, as you don’t actually feel you’re networking. Everyone for the most part is really laid back, and less formal than they would usually be, while still maintaining a high level of quality of people.

Networking comes from where you won’t expect

The concentration of interesting people and the ability to connect in a non traditional way is extremely impressive. It happens everywhere, and in places you would never expect…

I had quite a personal experience here surprisingly with… taxi drivers!

My first ride was with a professional singer from Russia who started singing her own tunes in the car, and telling us how she was trying to break into the music industry. The second drive was even more interesting as I had the chance to meet a lecturer from Yale, Suzanne Omalley, who was researching a new project and had written books, scripts for movies,…I stayed in the car for an hour, talking about the media industry as she used to be also a magazine editor and a Huffington Post contributor, till the point we decided to meet again the next day. We now continue exchanging and this was definitely an extraordinary experience. And my 3rd ride was with an Intel employee.

“The content”

In terms of the conferences, I could only enjoy two days of the INTERACTIVE track on the overall 5 days (that started Friday with the Obama speech, 1st American President to ever attend SXSW). It was challenging to keep up with all the content. In a nutshell, I was able to listen to Biz Stone (Twitter co-founder, CEO AskJelly), Ryan Hoover (Co-founder/CEO ProductHunt), but also Co-founder/CCO of Movie Pilot, CEO of Pulse Films, Head of Social Media 20th Century Fox and others.

Credits: NP

If I have to name 1 big trend at this event, it would undoubtedly be Virtual Reality (VR). I was stunned by the number of conferences and events about VR. Based on social media analytics by Sysomos, VR generated 102.4 million impression on Twitter which turned to be the buzziest topic at the conference. Even if it’s still early days, it’s an extremely exciting time for all those content producers, creatives that have the opportunity to get a new playground of creativity and story telling. NASA, SAMSUNG, MC DONALD’S, IBM,…and many other brands were all offering “VR experiences”. I had the chance to visit the moon with the NASA gear, where I was playing with a car to discover the “real” moon captured by the NASA. A 2nd example is SAMSUNG, that was offering and delivering a Gear VR Headset to anyone sending a DM message on their Twitter account.

Another huge trend is the presence of AI & Robots in our life and how robots may or will replace some of our daily tasks at our jobs, our home,…which opens up obvious ethical questions about how we use them. The release of Jibot, the first robot for the home, has been announced for this fall. Jibot, as a robot, could help you to select the ingredients when you cook, take pictures of your guest at a party only when they’re smiling for instance, educate your children with academic content, replace your phone…and much more.

Of course, the self-driving car topic was “hot”, amplified by the acquisition just a few days before the event of Cruise for 1 billion dollars by General Motors which proves an acceleration in that domain.

I strongly recommend this review of SXSW by Eric Sherer (in French) that has done an amazing job in summarizing and extracting the main trends of SXSW.

In addition to the official conference and events, there are also limitless of satellite events at SXSW from private parties organized by VC’s, to companies like Mashable, Pandora, Spotify that have their own venue with full line-ups of concerts and DJ’s, and also international delegation from Japan, Germany, France, Brazil who are all celebrating in different venues.

MovieSwap Launch - Credits: NP

On a quite amusing note, the start-up “Movie Swap” organized a fake demonstration during the “French Tech Day” to announce their launch. The concept is super innovative as, on top of being a new video streaming service, they allow DVD collectors to digitalize their properties. Users can then lend, swap, or offer DVDs to a friend legally. More information on their successful and closed Kickstarter campaign here.

When the INTERACTIVE track finished on Tuesday, the MUSIC track started the same day. The intersection of both worlds is really interesting and a completely different world opens-up.

Sunset Austin #nofilter — Credits: NP
“The capital of live music”

The fact that SXSW takes place in Austin, one of the greatest tech hubs in the US, a “liberal city” in a conservative state, whose official moto is « Keep Austin Weird » that is on everything.

SXSW started as a music festival and you can deeply feel the passion for music spreading everywhere in the city. It attracts a different crowd, less interested in the digital/tech business obviously, but deeply passionate, and committed to the quality of the music and artists.

In terms of numbers, there are 2000 official bands, playing 2, 3 times each during the week, plus the non official concerts and the ones in the street. If you aggregate those numbers, you get an idea of how HUUGE is the music part at SXSW. There are more than 8,000 concerts/acts in less than a week. You just have to walk in the city at anytime to hear the music everywhere. Having been to many festivals, I have never seen this EVER, where unlike a traditional music festival where everything happens on a single stage, the entire city breathes music and where every bar, shop transforms itself into a venue. The other official moto of Austin “The Live Music Capital is truly deserved.

Iggy Pop playing at Moody — Credits : NP

I have been really impressed by the Moody Colliseum venue where I had the chance to listen to Iggy Pop (here great review in French from Les Inrocks about the concert).

Located right in the center of the city, Moody Colliseum is a huge, perfectly well equipped, venue with an amazing sound that would make every music fan happy.

My other favorite venue was Flamingo Cantina, more intimate, where I had the chance to listen to A-WA (my favorite), SYSTEMA SOLAR, and KALASCIMA

A-WA @ Flamingo Cantina / Credits: NP
The integration of artists and B2C in the festival

It’s really interesting to understand the mix of B2C and B2B crowd at SXSW. Moreover, I had the privilege to have a friend who came with his band from Chile (Boraj) to understand how the organization was targeting artists and allowing non-business people integration at SXSW.

  1. Each artist has access to all the conferences (the MUSIC track also has a conference about the music business), all official concerts that are not opened to the public for free
  2. Each artist has the ability to invite 2 friends who will pay less than $100 to get a MUSIC badge (instead of $790)
  3. For any Austin resident, if they “free” their room or apartment to an artist during the event, they get a “free pass”

I thought this was a clear and precise route to integrate not only business people but also citizens and music passionates to generate more attendees still committed and aligned with what SXSW is.

Finally, the feeling of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) can quickly rise there as there’s so much going on. To me, it’s true that as a 1st edition, I’ve missed some of the important bits of the event: the first 3 days of the INTERACTIVE part for instance, and no time at all for the major film festival which actually gives me another excuse to come back next year :) So why not coming back and joining forces with the French Tech and other entrepreneurs in an even greater house to make SXSW an unforgettable and unique experience? Word.

Like what you read? Give Nathaniel Philippe a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.