SXSW 2013: setting the scene in Austin, Texas
Obsverations from the first few days at SXSW 2013 including encounters with Elon Musk, Solange, Danny Boyle, Spring Breakers and The Worst Stage In The World Ever
It’s difficult to know when, why and how SXSW became so darn big. Maybe it was the whole Twitter thing (the social media service bursting out of the blocks here in 2007), but that alone doesn’t explain why this 10 day springtime event in the heart of Lone Star state has become such a huge draw for so many. There are 5,000 events listed in the official schedule and there’s probably as many again fringe and unofficial events, ranging from gigs in people’s backyards out in the wilds of east Austin to huge corporate wham’bams (they’re currently in the process of putting up The Worst Stage In the World Ever, the stage which resembles a vending machine, across the road from my hotel).
Because of all these ancillary activities, SXSW is now all things to all men and women. While once SXSW was a draw for new music fans, film festival habitués and tech nerds and geeks, it’s now an event which has room in the rigging for space explored, the creator and cast of Arrested Development and the man who choreographed the opening ceremony of last year’s Olympic Games. In Austin, they rub shoulders with a galaxy of hucksters, charlatans, brand ambassadors, chancers, talking heads, Irish government ministers, snakeoil salesmen, minor pop acs, major league megastars, marketing gurus, app developers, baristas, pop handlers, hangers-on, cowboys, Indians, dreamers, speculators, Tipperary hurling fans, timewasters, RSVPers and every other sideshow in the circus.
We’re all here because SXSW is the biggest circus of this sort in the world. The three component parts – film, music and interactive – form a Venn diagram into which you can fit a lot. And while there is undoubtedly a lot of duds, there are also times when you hear someone talking who blows your tiny little mind into pieces.
That was Elon Musk, the man behind the SpaceX rockets, the Tesla cars, the SolarCity solar power company, PayPal and the inspiration for Robert Downey Jr’s protrayal of Tony Stark in Iron Man. Talking to Chris Anderson about his career to date, Musk was quite inspirational about what he has created so far, why he is driven to do all this big-brain stuff and what he still wants to do.
Elon Musk making it all sound easy
Danny Boyle, on the other hand, is someone you’d expect to see at SXSW. He was here to talk to David Carr about his new film Trance, show some clips from the flick and talk about his career to date. Before Boyle started speaking, they showed a Greatest Hits montage of his work and you quickly realised that here’s a director with a singular vision.
Inbetween all of that, you simply just walk around, keep your eyes and ears open and take it all in. It’s impossible to get to everything you want to get to – SXSW is the only time of the year when my FOMO kicks in – so it’s a case of taking a deep breath and plunging in. You could spend all day going from panel to panel about data (a big preoccupation here this year) or you could jump from a panel about pop-up shops to one about social media’s effect on the post-Arab Spring world to a return visit from Al Gore to SXSW. If you wanted to go to a darkened room to get away from it all, you could always take in films like Downloaded (Alex Winter’s excellent documentary on Napster), Good Ol’ Freda (about Dublin woman Freda Kelly and her life as the Beatles’ secretary) or Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine directs Selma Golez and pals as they rob a shop to fund a Spring Break trip to Florida).
The music part of this 10 day event gets underway tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean that the music hasn’t already started. When OTR pal Leagues O’Toole refers to SXSW Interactive as “geeks on the piss”, he’s not joking. And those big brands throwing parties for those geeks need acts to play at those bashes hence why you have massive acts playing gigs in small rooms for probably very large fees (remember that acts playing SXSW don’t get paid so they need to make the cash from somewhere).
Which probably explains why you’d Solange and her band playing last night to about 50 people in Arlyn Studios in south Austin and, in this case, it was Nokia Music and Verizon Wireless who were picking up the tab. The good news is that the new songs from Solange are every jot as giddy, purple, funky and infectious as “Losing You”. She’s a star too, a performer who knows that her time has come and is happy to pirouette in the spotlight. Naturally, “Losing You” is the killer track, a tune which never gets old no matter how many times you hear it. The joint starts jumping and hopping and it’s quite a sight. Afterwards, walking back into town over the Congress Bridge and talking in the stunning sight of Austin’s downtown, you realise that the fun is just starting. More special, extraordinary a-star-is-born gigs like this are surely ahead in the next few days and nights. That’s why we’re here.