I’m calling it: SXSW Interactive is not a tech conference anymore

Here’s what changed.

This post was featured on the New York Times, who asked me for a quote about the 2014 festival.

Call the morgue.

I just got back from Austin, where I got to check the pulse of SXSW and see how it’s doing. If you want the TL;DR for the next 1300 words, this is it: SXSW Interactive is DOA. Other tech conferences are quietly moving on, and the tech industry is doing the same.

Last year, I was an Austinite, and a local member of the startup community. I commuted in from my apartment to attend, and it was my city that was being invaded by the tech scene’s Spring Breakers. This year, I attended SXSW as a tourist, having moved to SF close to 6 months ago.

This year, I wasn’t one of the locals faking (or not faking) their distaste for the crowds of fewer nerds, but 10 times that many marketing people from San Francisco, and all over the world, to the ordinarily small town of Austin.

As an import, I looked at SXSW with very different eyes than last year. As I walked and Uber Pedi-cabbed around Austin from party to party, event to event, the crowds felt awfully thin. In comparison, once Music kicked off, 6th Street came alive like everyone expects it to. Interactive didn’t generate the same raw energy it had in years past.

There has been a lot of talk that South-By is “over,” and the proof I noticed was compelling. A number of the “influential” folks had opted not to attend. Lots of people were talking about XOXO in Portland being the new “under the radar” influencer conference that the cool people will attend instead. And as I wrote this, I saw Tweets from YxYY popping up in my feed as further evidence that the innovators and creative folks who make SXSW amazing may be abandoning the festival.

I didn’t quite understand how SXSW Interactive could possibly wane until I started thinking about the roots of what SXSW Interactive really must have been like a decade ago. Picture a small nucleus of entrepreneurs and technologists taking refuge in the slower pace of Austin for a big palaver about the amazing things they were trying to build, to share new ideas, and get drunk together one weekend every year.

Now, picture that not happening. Instead of taking advantage of Austin’s slow pace to draw out the ideas over a weekend of badass panels and intimate parties, large company interests have done their very best to turn downtown Austin into the Vegas strip, replete with free booze and meaningless parties sponsored by Coke-a-Cola, Doritos, and Target.

SXSW Interactive from a decade ago didn’t need Vegas Edition anymore than CSI needed a Miami edition. If that is what SXSW has become, the organizers should own that and move to Vegas.

What the hell happened?

SXSW’s heyday would have been before smartphones, when it was still wasn’t cool to know how to spin up your own dev server, and startups hadn’t become so mainstream that Bravo TV, home of America’s Next Top Model, decided to try a startup reality show.

The conference has gotten bloated. Attendance will easily exceed 30,000 this year. You can’t make a genuine connection in that crowd. There’s simply too many people to navigate Austin and find the people you’re looking for. It’s totally out of control as a marketing fest.

The masses have taken over the festival, which means the early adopters are moving on to the next event. That’s the way of things. Conference Darwinism.

But really, there’s no shame in the SXSW organizers capitalizing on the profitability of the festival, feeding off of the reputation of innovation that has been spurred there in the past. But the fact that everyone universally agrees that SXSW is a terrible place to launch is telling. And it means that SXSW should probably stop marketing itself the same way it did in 2005.

When Target is partnering with FastCompany to throw a giant party at SXSW, you know that the target market is no longer the startup community.

Yep, there’s tons of money to be made at SXSW, and more power to them for cashing in. It’s an incredibly profitable market to cater to and I don’t fault the organizers for chasing the money. After all, based on what I can see, there are plenty of conferences in plenty of awesome cities for the tech set to migrate their time and attention to.

Of course, the conference organizers love the growth. It means more money. What’s better than selling 3,400 SXSW badges? Selling ten times that many.

Does innovation require small, intimate groups to happen?

The fertile conversations of years past aren’t happening as much. Unless you’re already in the same GroupMe with Robert Scoble and Brian Solis, you’re probably at a party that an agency spent a gazillion bucks planning, but ends up being a glorious spectacle that everyone attended, but nobody remembers.

Finding *the* hot event is a game where people stay buried in their phones, hunting on various apps, hoping to locate the epicenter of “cool” before it vanishes into the night, or behind a velvet rope.

Everyone who attended this year spent a lot of time either trying to catch a good gathering, or waiting in line, and not nearly enough time engaged with the people SXSW is supposed to be about.

For balance, I did meet some amazing people this year, and had a handful of *amazing* conversations. There were a number of small, intimate events that I was really proud to attend. But those intimate interactions were an edge case, not the norm.

In 2005, fewer than 3,400 attended SXSW. With 30,000 plus attendees this year, no wonder it felt so hard to find an intimate gathering. You might as well be hoping people would notice your brand new iPhone app out of 750,000,000 in the App Store.

Maybe influencer conferences like SXSW simply have a shelf life. Clayton Christensen might even have a comment about the edge of innovation and Tech Conferences.

What it comes down to

The people who live on the cutting edge of innovation and new ideas are the men and women who make a conference like SXSW. When a group of those folks gather together and share ideas for a week, everyone comes away talking and blogging about the AWESOME of simply being together. People reveal (launch) their new products, key relationships are formed, and companies get funded precisely because of the influential nature of the attendees and the access they get at an intimate conference.

Of course, when they come back the next year, a few folks who aren’t quite on the cutting edge will join them, and a few years later, Doritos and Target will catch on, and send their agencies, and that transforms what was a pretty badass gathering of folks into a big frat party, which is a lot like what SXSW felt like this year.

There were pockets of greatness where I looked around and found myself surrounded by people I knew from the pages of PandoDaily, VC firms, and various startups all talking in one big extended group. Under the right circumstances, a small group of creative people, famous or not, who hang out together for a weekend will invariably share amazing ideas and come away saying, “Holy shit, that was magical. I can’t wait for next year.”

That was what SXSW was like in its first few years.

I don’t believe that the spirit of innovation at SXSW has disappeared from us. It’s just moved on. I’m guessing that every great conference will have a shelf life before the masses “catch on.” I also don’t think that’s inherently a bad thing. With every declining institution, there is a new opportunity for creative people to create something new. Andrew Warner calls them “the ambitious upstart.”

Find which other conferences they’re going to this year, and you’ll find the same magic that SXSW used to be.

Here’s to finding that magic again and again and again.

Hope this Helps.

Austin W. Gunter