Host (jonl) Mon 28 Mar 11 16:06
Ed Ward is a writer who sometimes does radio. His specialties include food, music, travel, and art. He's lived in Montpellier, France since November, 2008. Jon Lebkowsky is a web developer, writer, editor, and activist, and is well known as a forward-looking pioneer of the Internet and technoculture. Ed and Jon (both active cohosts of Inkwell) have attended the South by Southwest (SXSW) Music, Film, and Media festivals for many years - Ed has been more focused on Music, and Jon on Interactive. For the next week, the two will discuss their experience of the event, focusing on SXSW 2011, which was this March 11-20.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 28 Mar 11 16:08
Ed, you get around more than I do. Do you know of anything else that compares, in size and scope, with SXSW?
Ed Ward (captward) Mon 28 Mar 11 16:27
I'm sure there is something, but I tend to avoid festivals. For instance, the Montreux Jazz Festival, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and certainly Denmark's Roskilde Festival are, I believe, bigger in terms of attendance, if not number of acts presented. None of them, however, have the panels program attached. For that you'd have to look at MIDEM (the grandaddy of music biz conferences). But nobody goes to see the live music at MIDEM, which I remember as a good thing (got in to see Jordi Savall with no problem) and a bad thing (the big deal Texas party was...empty the year the State of Texas and SXSW went in together on one). There are *comparable* events -- WOMEX for world music, Folk Alliance for folkies -- but none come close in size and scope, thanks to the Film and Interactive modules.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 29 Mar 11 07:13
I should speak about the Interactive conference... when it started, it was called Multimedia, focusing on CD-ROMs and software. We had to push for Internet content, which they added in the mid-90s. For years it was a small gathering, and by 2000 it was a leading conference for bloggers, for people thinking about social technology. That was still a fairly intimate group. Bruce Sterling could invite everybody in his closing talk to a party at his house, and the party was manageable. That started changing in 2004: http://www.boingboing.net/2004/03/17/aftermath_of_bruce_s.html I was aware of a turning point in 2006, the year I curated a track on digital convergence. As digital media emerged and evolved, Interactive grew into the massive presence it's become. Twitter famously caught on during SXSW 2007 and spread like wildfire thereafter, because so many influential Internet mavens found it useful and spread the word. Every year since 2007, Interactive has grown exponentially, and this year it outgrew the Convention Center, they had to add the AT&T Center and a couple of hotels. I talked to several people who felt overwhelmed - though they were still happy to be there. (A year or so ago, Clay Shirky told me he'd heard of people in New York who were pretending to be at SXSW in their tweets - nobody wanted to admit they were missing the boat). I found the scaling issue pretty interesting, and was wishing I could take more time to think about it - but I was on the run all week, jamming with the crowds.
Ed Ward (captward) Tue 29 Mar 11 07:27
What's happened here, whether through shrewd and insightful management or plain dumb luck, is that Interactive provided the bridge between Music and Film, in that both are beoming more digital as time goes on. I mean, what's the percentage of physical film deliveries to theaters these days as opposed to digital? (I actually don't know the answer to this, if anyone wants to chime in). That's the reason I always try to get there a day before Interactive starts: it's got way more useful info for me these days than Music does, although since it outdrew Music this year by a couple of thousands attendees, it's also attracted a lot of fringe activities which caused traffic and other problems.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 29 Mar 11 20:01
You can't park downtown readily, unless you want to pay $10-$15 - many of the lots inflate their prices during SXSW because of the demand. Peddycab drivers tear through downtown, and many of this year's attendees rented bicycles to get around. Buses were often full and couldn't take more passengers at stops on the edges of downtown. Amazing crowd, unbridled energy. The film festival is well-produced by Janet Pierson, but the crowds are huge, you have to wait in line an hour or two to see the more popular films. This year they realized that people were holding places in line for their friends - they were counting; the line for "Source Code" gained over a hundred people in an hour. The next night and thereafter they stationed volunteers along the lines to make sure nobody was cutting. My head goes to logistics; I was trying to think how they could mitigate the problem of success. It's a tough problem - only so many venues in town, what do you do when you've filled 'em all? Are they going to have to cap attendance?
Ed Ward (captward) Wed 30 Mar 11 13:59
Good question: cap attendance, or reduce outside events. I'm not aware of Film at all, and that sounds like they need to cut down on the offerings or perhaps do that unit at a different time of year so as *not* to engage the Interactive and Music attendees -- but then, the synergy which the event encourages gets diminished. There are solutions to some of the non-sanctioned events which cause crowding, but they're largely during Music.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 30 Mar 11 14:47
Someone, maybe Bruce Sterling, said that events are becoming the magazines of our era. People are drawing intellectual and social energy from gatherings like SXSW, so they're growing in stature and there's so many more of 'em. I find myself wondering if this will hold as transportation and infrastructure costs accelerate, but for the moment, events are a Big Deal, and SXSW is one of the Biggest. The non-sanctioned events have started popping up all over the place. During Interactive, more and more attendees want to take advantage of proximity to folks they seldom see to organize gatherings that scale from very small workshoppy meetings to larger unconferences and for-pay events. I think this started with BarCamp, which was uninspiring last year and completely missing this year. What I've seen during the Music Festival is different - there's a large crowd of people who are not attendees, but who have come to Austin (or come downtown from within Austin) to soak up the vibe. There's more and more peripheral free, unofficial music events. I hear those are creating challenges - not always produced by people who know what they're doing.
Ed Ward (captward) Wed 30 Mar 11 16:14
Exactly. My friend Ms Zoom lives in a condo across from the power plant there downtown, the one that's been decommissioned, and there was an event starring sometime Austin resident Kanye West there, for whom the non-SXSW branding company confirmed 7500 RSVPs for a venue which holds 2500. Some of these kids camped out for three days in the heat with no food, no water, no sanitation, no nothing, only to be turned away. The brand data-mined 7500 people. SXSW got nothing. The City of Austin got a nightmare crowd-control and cleanup job. Nor was the only over-subscribed, non-SXSW event that did this. These branding setups, people who rent buildings and give away swag to people who leave their e-mail address and maybe fill out a form, are becoming very big, and that's part of the spring break problem. It's clear the city isn't working in its own best interests here, and SXSW can't do much about it: they're already perceived as the Great Satan by a lot of Austinites, and this would be a bad PR move. It makes me wonder what the city, by allowing these things to happen, is getting out of it.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 30 Mar 11 21:37
What did you think of the panel discussions? I found it hard to make those that I wanted to see, partly because I had several meetings during the conference (including our breakfast at Curra's), and partly because they were so spread out. John Morthland mentioned a good panel about Captain Beefheart's life and music, did you make that one?
Ed Ward (captward) Thu 31 Mar 11 06:47
Sure. The only problem with panels I had was during Interactive when, as you've noted, there were meetings in a number of hotels, some, like the Sheraton, where the Future of Journalism track was held, far from downtown. There was a shuttle, but it had an eccentric route (not published) and there was all the goddam traffic. I felt this hindered any interdisciplinary/ecumenical impulses I might have had. But then, there were about as many panels listed for Interactive as there were performers for Music. As someone who knew Beefheart -- and knew a lot of the people on the panel -- of course I went to that one. I'm one of the few people I know who still goes to Music panels, mostly because there are ones on historical topics like this one that often aid in my doing what I do. But then, I'm also a former panels director for SXSW, so I have a certain affection for the whole process. I was also on one that a lot of people liked: "I'm Not Old; Your Music Really Does Suck." It attempted to come to terms with the flood of mediocre music and lack of filters to help whack through the jungle of new releases. Chris Morris, an ex-Billboard journalist, had a statistic about how many records are released each year and how many sell over 100 copies. It was discouraging, if you were going to put out your own record. But the panel itself managed to avoid the geezer "things were better back in my day" trope, and one of the most realistically cynical of the panelists was the 33-year-old woman from the Austinist website -- her take on things was refreshing. I also saw some of the Gamble & Huff presentation, which was woefully empty (but then: black people, never big with your "rock" audience), and some of the Nicky Hopkins panel. Julian Dawson, who wrote the Nicky Hopkins book, should be showing up in Inkwell here in a couple of weeks, I think.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 31 Mar 11 07:35
I was lucky in that many of the performances I saw were very good (and a couple were amazing - Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Yoko Ono), but I could hear music blasting out every nook and cranny where there were clubs and bars, and much of it sounded pretty pedestrian. Why do you think there's so much mediocre music? What were the panelists saying?
Ed Ward (captward) Thu 31 Mar 11 07:57
I used to joke that one of the purposes of SXSW back in the old days was to show that anyone could make a record, and that, unfortunately, anyone did. Lots of anyones. One of the reasons there's so much crap out there is not the performers, but, rather, the consumers: people spend their whole day plugged into music. If you do that, you either desensitize yourself to what you're listening to or else you consume music which is crafted not to be terribly interesting so that lots of it can be consumed. You can't engage with an artist telling a terrible truth, or a performance with deep emotional resonance while you're walking down the street, and I think a lot of performers these days realize that and go for the middle. This also goes to the heart of why kids today can't understand why their parents got so wrapped up in the music of their era. We don't understand that their relationship to music is utterly different and that it's far less emotionally central to their cultural world-view, no matter how passionately they seem to follow this or that band or scene. So what's the big deal about the Beatles? They were just a band. That young woman on our panel called Austin the "lite listening captital of the world," because so much of what's created there is so ignorable -- and it is ignored, since people go to clubs and treat the performers like so many cocktail pianists, talking over them and ignoring them. SXSW Music is largely a celebration of that, with enough quality stuff to keep the connoisseurs coming back.
Ari Davidow (ari) Thu 31 Mar 11 11:19
Ed, you make an interesting point. I was in Austin a few months ago and wandered down Sixth St (right street?) a couple of evenings without ever encountering anything that =had= to be heard. In fact, the closest to good I got was a remarkable blues singer who was doing nothing new, but doing some old blues wonderfully well--and her audience clearly wasn't interested in old blues; they wanted whatever passes for music today. But I would have assumed that people still get something out of their favorite entertainers beyond the avoidance of silence. What is it that makes a great entertainer, or great entertainment today? What will the people who like that sort of thing be listening/viewing/experiencing 40 or 50 years from now that is their Beatles or Ed Sullivan Show or whatever?
Ed Ward (captward) Thu 31 Mar 11 14:56
Well, my reflexive answer to that is nobody and nothing. The consensus that made such events possible died with (your choice here) the Beatles or Elvis or Michael Jackson. I honestly don't know what people who go to musical events and spend their time talking and taking cell-phone photos get out of the experience, except that it seems to me that they're avoiding *having* an experience and just having the sound put their horror vacuui in abeyance for a while. On the other hand, 6th St. isn't the prime Austin entertainment experience at any time of year. There are individual clubs providing venues for acts whose audiences actually do enjoy them.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 31 Mar 11 16:10
The word in this week's Austin Chronicle is that SXSW is moving to a 9-story geodesic dome to be built in the Bastrop area: http://www.austinchronicle.com/music/2011-04-01/dome-sweet-dome/ I'm taking a moment for this to sink in...
Ed Ward (captward) Thu 31 Mar 11 16:26
And what would be the date of that issue, Jon? And what does experience with publisher Nick Barbaro tell us about that date?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 31 Mar 11 17:19
I was wondering who was gonna pick up on that. <grin>
Ed Ward (captward) Thu 31 Mar 11 19:39
It's a tradition.
Ed Ward (captward) Thu 31 Mar 11 19:44
They've posted the audio of the "I'm Not Old; Your Music Really Does Suck" panel for those who are interested and have an hour to kill. No video, so no need to be scared: <http://schedule.sxsw.com/events/event_MP6159>
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Thu 31 Mar 11 21:45
Just for historical purposes, what was the year of the first SXSW and how many people were in attendance?
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Thu 31 Mar 11 21:46
I think the answer to the earlier question about how many movie theaters use digital for their movies is "all"....at least AMC and Harkins both use only digital now.
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Thu 31 Mar 11 21:48
You quoted Bruce Sterling as possibly saying that the SXSW are becoming the magazines of our era.....not salons? Does SXSW have ongoing forums for discussion on their website during the year between festivals? It should, if it doesn't; then you could really pick up on the magazine/salon idea.
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Thu 31 Mar 11 21:49
What was the response to Plutopia Productions this year? Any reflections on the experience?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 1 Apr 11 04:58
It's hard for me to be objective about Plutopia, since I was involved in putting it together, and I was working it rather than observing. All the feedback we've heard has been very positive, people who attended had a great experience. Here's something Derek Woodgate wrote about it: "Plutopia 2011 consisted of four areas that made up the whole and which loosel y followed four aspects of the Future of Play theme, nam ely sound play; social play, active play and emotional play.&n bsp; One of the critical elements of this years event is that many of the sponsors, such as Sphero (Or botix), Sifteo Cubes, Intellitoys, the Xchox 3D Music Project (with Music Comp uting and Glaze Studios), Interactive Entertainment Systems, Switched On, etc. were all part of the content of the event, as well as being sponsors. They we re all showing new products or technologies by means of interactive installati ons or displays. Some of these are included in Pop 17 and Veronica Belmonts r eport from the event at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2OoZ8cQR60."
Ed Ward (captward) Fri 1 Apr 11 06:32
I'm packing up to return to France at the moment, but the first SXSW was in 1987, had 177 showcasing artists in 15 venues, had 15 panels and workshops, had 700 registrants at between $35 and $55 each. As for ongoing discussions, I'm not sure how that would work, nor how the organization would supervise and/or handle it. I would say that specific areas of interest can be discussed among interested parties, and since this Panel Picker thing is more or less crowdsourced, they can pick up the topic in another panel next year.
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