AUSTIN – Most years at South by Southwest, there are “secret” shows you’ve got to sniff out. Some are more secret than others – everyone knew two years ago Metallica was launching its version of Guitar Hero by playing a gig. But others, like an afternoon performance by the Beastie Boys a few years back, are kept more tightly under wraps.
This year, it wasn’t so much an issue of who, but where and when. Tuesday night was the world premiere of Foo Fighters: Back and Forth, and when a band comes to town to attend a screening, you can be pretty sure they’re playing. As badge holders lined up at the Paramount Theater for the movie, SXSW staff members walked through distributing yellow wristbands with “FF” printed on them, telling everyone to head over to Stubbs after the screening but being cutely hush hush as to why.
South by Southwest is perhaps best known for its music conference. There’s also a film festival. But the Interactive conference drew the biggest attendance last year. About 14,000 people networked and learn about the latest and greatest in their field. But as KERA’s Stephen Becker reports many also came to Austin this year to cut loose and celebrate being a geek.
KERA radio story:
Expanded online story:
By day, South by Southwest Interactive is a standard technology conference. People go to panel discussions with titles like “Unbelievable E-commerce” and “Web Designer’s Guide to OS Apps.” They network. Visit a giant trade show. And they hear plenty of high-tech pitches.
PITCH ONE: “It’s an open, OS platform. It can sit on top of android, it can sit on top of windows mobile, it can sit on top of simbian…”
PITCH TWO: “It uses drag and drop functionality and a complex behavior system in order for people to create games without having to deal with thousands of lines of code…”
But after 5, the laptops go back in their cases and the real interaction begins.
“Congratulations, Your Brand Is About To Become Obsolete.”
Or maybe it already has, and you don’t even know it. After all, look at once-proud brands like Kodak who still can’t figure out what happened.
What was their tipping point? Massive, mind-boggling success.
So sayeth some of the minds at creative agency R/GA, who led a SXSW panel discussion (with the quote that started this post as its title) on how to avoid a similar fate. R/GA has made their name doing out-of-the-box work in the digital world, and the agency’s William Charnock and Andrea Ring said that too many companies (and marketing people) still can’t fully grasp the major reality shift in our culture when it comes to advertising and consumers.
“People now make up their minds about brands using external information, rather than relying on a brand’s own message,” Charnock said. “Brands can no longer rely on a positive perception or history. It’s now all about what we do, and how we provide value.”
It could be argued that history is still somewhat important – invoking a sentimental memory or feeling in a viewer that will help reel them in – but especially among 20- and 30-somethings, getting that value and utility out of a product is much more vital.
AUSTIN – Early on in the documentary Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, O’Brien is sitting at the dining room table in his Los Angeles home. The subject is broached about how he feels being just a few months removed from having The Tonight Show taken away from him by NBC.
“Sometimes I’m so angry I can’t breathe,” is how he quantifies it.
Pretty strong stuff from a person we’ve come to know so well over the last 20 years as one of televisions’ goofy funnymen.
For O’Brien, performing was life. And the only way he could get rid of his anger and get back to breathing was to get back to performing. Since the terms of his settlement with NBC forbade him from being on TV for six months, he hit the road on a 44 date cross country tour. (You might have seen the stop at SMU.) That tour is the subject of the film, which made its world premiere on Sunday.
Take a moment and think about the worst website you’ve ever seen.
Confusing layout. Jarring colors. Disorganized content. Broken links. A place you never want to visit again.
Now, think about your favorite piece of music.
Beautiful melody. Rich harmony. Substantive lyrical content, if it has words. Room in between the notes to give you a sense of context, spaces to breathe and reflect.
Remember the two examples you’ve visualized above. They’re actually more related than you think.
In their insightful SXSW presentation “The Music of Interaction Design,” user-experience designers Cennydd Bowles and James Box stressed the point that creation of great user experiences on the web and in other interactive applications can be inspired by musical theory. Bowles and Box have used these principles in their UK interactive design firm Clearleft Ltd. to build an impressive portfolio of clients including Universal TV Networks, Mozilla and the WWF (formerly World Wildlife Fund). Their sites are clean, straightforward and occasionally edgy – a balance they say is crucial for success in this area of design.
As South by Southwest has grown into a beast that stretches far beyond the confines of the Austin Convention Center, so has the level of corporate interest. This year’s Interactive conference doesn’t present marketing to you so much as beats you over the head with it. Adrants summed it up well this week:
“From Sony to Samsung, to Chevrolet to Pepsi and many, many more, the ACC and surrounding areas have been plastered with some of the most elaborate brand statements we’ve ever seen. Yes. SXSW is no longer the geekfest it once was. And as we’ve said, it’s been heading away from that cute little anachronism for some time now but this year, well, this year the brands have taken over every last square inch of Austin.”
Another Pepsi display in the convention center.
Just southeast of the convention center lies the HP Trailer Park, a grouping of vintage Airstreams around a stretch of Astroturf on which visitors can play lawn games, sip free booze and “experience” the company’s products. To the west, the CNN SXSW Grill and Pepsi MAX parking lot (yes, that’s right) prominently sit, hosting events all week. Even the charging stations for laptops – nothing more than cheap power strips – are all sponsored.
So, does this omnipresent blanket of branding detract from the original spirit of the conference? Perhaps. It does, however, offer some interesting interactive experiences for attendees, or at minimum, free swag. It also makes it possible – particularly through sponsored showcases at the film and music conferences – for artists to be seen and heard who might not otherwise be able to get direct public exposure. Think of it as 21st-century patronage – albeit with patrons who desperately want to sell you something.
AUSTIN – The first day of SXSW always finds tons of wide-eyed newbies trying to figure out how to navigate the convention center, where to pick up their badge, etc. To that end, the festival has always been good about scheduling some newcomer sessions on Day 1. What makes these discussions interesting is that by now they are as much about teaching people how to interact with each other online as in person. Some of the tips seemed relevant for any social situation:
Don’t go badge surfing – Basically, a lot of the people here are looking for other like-minded people who might be able to help them in some sort of business venture. If you want to actually connect with people, try and at least disguise the fact that you’re really trying to check out who they work for.
Don’t check other people in – The check-in function of applications like Foresquare and Facebook are hugely popular with this crowd. But some people may not want everyone in their social network to know where they are. Especially if you are checking someone in at a bar who just called his wife to let her know he was back at the hotel going to bed.
Twitter rules – I heard over and over again yesterday how the tech crowd loathes business cards. So how are you supposed to connect? Mentioning your new friend on Twitter seems to be the method of choice. Which is kind of interesting for another reason: At this point, the in-person interaction isn’t actually real unless it also happens virtually.
Back off on posting – If you’re on Facebook, Twitter, Foresquare and every other social site out there, just pick one to update instead of doing them all. Chances are your followers are following you across multiple platforms and they don’t really need to see what you’re up to across each of them.
Charlie out – And finally, any and all references to “tiger’s blood,” “Adonis DNA” and especially “winning” are right out. The tech community moves quickly, and it’s way over Charlie Sheen at this point.
Over the past few days, downtown Austin has been transformed into the overstuffed bouillabaisse of discussion, promotion and networking that is South by Southwest – SXSW – for another year. Day 1 of the interactive conference on Friday brought conversations about making the internet even more ubiquitous in America – and what tools could help make that happen. KERA’s Director of Interactive Alan Melson is blogging from various sessions throughout the conference.
Texas native Matt Mullenweg has become something of a legend in Internet circles. Mullenweg, 27, created the blogging platform WordPress in 2004 while still a student at the University of Houston, and has dedicated his work since then to constant expansions and upgrades to improve the platform. Usage of WordPress has exploded, thanks in large part to its being free to use in its most basic form; many first-time bloggers have been able to establish an online presence simply and quickly on the platform, yet it is also used by organizations as large as The New York Times and CNN (as well as Art&Seek).
Matt Mullenweg (left) and John Battelle at SXSW Interactive. (clussman on Flickr)
In his well-attended Q&A on the first day of SXSW Interactive 2011, Mullenweg offered the surprising statistic that 12 percent of Internet sites are now powered by WordPress. Speaking to interviewer John Battelle, the affable, optimistic Mullenweg said he wants to see WordPress’ growth continue – not just as a blogging tool but as a way for people to manage content on larger or more traditional websites. He also reaffirmed his commitment to keeping his basic product readily accessible at no cost.
South by Southwest starts today in Austin. And the intrepid Stephen Becker is on his way down to Austin as I type this. So’s KERA interactive director Alan Melson. And next week, they’ll be joined by KXT’s April Kinser and Dane Walters. Listen for Stephen’s radio pieces on the interactive conference and the music conference on KERA FM. If you miss them, we’ll have em all here – as well as blogging and some great music videos.
One of our favorite unsung parts of South By Southwest is Flatstock, an annual concert poster show. Before he took off, Stephen talked to some North Texans who will be flaunting their work there: Nevada Hill in Denton and the duo Connor Hill and Matt Brinker, who call themselves Magnificent Beard. Fortunately, Dane and April went along to make these two new installments to our Artist Studio Tour.
Check back later next week to see more about how they all fare at Flatstock.
First up: Matt and Connor – and WuTang.
Next, enjoy Nevada walking you through the process of making a poster.