The Changing Landscape of SXSW
And What This Means For the Mega-Tech Events of the Future
The two week-long whirlwind of music, tech, film, and overpriced (but generally fantastic) bbq that sweeps through Austin, Texas every year like some sort of trendy, venture-backed tornado.
Of course, when it all began in 1987 the festival, now arguably known most for its “Interactive” portion, looked a lot different.
SXSW’s transformation from a music showcase into the international juggernaut it is today began way back when a group of media and entertainment enthusiasts met secretly — for some reason — to discuss how they could create a gathering that would put the talented but underexposed musicians of Austin on the map.
What they came up with was an event that promoted inclusiveness and new ideas, but which, in its debut, saw just 700 registrants. However, a few (hundred thousand) more people have shown up since then, and as SXSW has grown, its identity has matured as well.
Today, the festival — or rather — its attendees, now face questions about how to continue to receive an ROI from what can often be an overwhelming, if not chaotic experience.
So how did we get here? The incredibly abridged version is this:
When SXSW first began it quickly attracted techies who largely attended for the music. Quickly however, as so many in the industry were in the same place at one time, it became an event where you could gain unrivaled exposure for your new product or software. Promptly, the modern day SXSW was born.
As the years went on, social media fanned the flames and the festival grew exponentially on the backs of tweets about the amazing new startups and contacts people were encountering at the event. Today SXSW is more than a conference as it takes over all of Austin. Going to Austin for SXSW is a complete experience that encompasses the conference venue as well as the entire city.
Yet, in recent years the same social media that made it possible for the organizers to charge $1000 and upwards for an entrance badge, has now given many a valuable workaround for procuring value from the festival without having — necessarily — to worry about booking a hotel room.
Case and point: everything exists online now.
Conferences are recorded. Presentations: tweeted into oblivion. Exclusive parties? You probably weren’t on the guest list anyways.
Therefore, while surely there is still both tangible and intangible value to be gained by physically showing off your startup and/or rubbing shoulders with some titans of industry, a lot of this can be accomplished without incurring the steep entry fee associated with SXSW or similar congregations.
Take the opportunities at Capital Factory — a co-working space in downtown Austin — for example. During SXSW, the firm lines their offices with VIP’s and puts on countless networking events as well as presentations, all which do not require the normal festival entrance badge. They even serve free lunch every day catered by a local restaurant, coincidentally I had all my meetings there around lunchtime.
In many ways this gives attendees the same opportunities and benefits of SXSW, only at a fraction of the price. And since the festival itself is at their fingertips anyways, it’s hard to argue against the efficacy of spending their time at these satellite events, instead of within the auditoriums themselves.
Where this leaves us is perhaps at an interesting hypothesis:
Could this be the future of these sorts of conferences? Attendees flocking to the city to spend their time at third-party events while viewing news from the actual proceedings online?
If entry fees continue to rise, it seems likely this is the direction we are headed.
Why This Might Not Happen
Networking and influence.
SXSW, maybe now more than ever, attracts some of the biggest names in the industry, and many, if not all of them actually attend the event.
Now again, while it’s truly possible to glean the main points of what these influencers might say in their presentations from viewing their speeches online, it is one thing to consume this info and entirely another to put yourself and your startup in front of these men and women after you’ve heard them speak.
Additionally, while there might be more to wade through than in years past, the event itself plays host to some of the greatest, most exciting new business ventures the world has to offer — all you have to worry about is picking them out of the crowd. (Which seems an apt analogy for the venture industry anyway)
Therefore it seems that going through the motions, attending the events, and promoting your brand — be it your personal one or your business itself — still remains, for the time being, something many feel gains them a tremendous amount of value.
Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how SXSW and other iconic festivals navigate these new trends going forward.